The world we live in today is a lot more stressful than it used to be – and that might not change any time soon. The COVID-19 pandemic, political unrest and global tragedies are just some of the things that are weighing heavily on our society. Two in three adults (67%) say they have experienced an increase in stress levels over the course of the pandemic.
In addition to the world’s stressors, individuals face the stress of adjusting to new situations and coping with everyday pressures related to work, relationships, health and more. This chronic stress can have adverse effects on physical, mental and emotional health and, in extreme cases, lead to substance abuse and suicide.
While we cannot control many of the stressors around us, there are steps we can take to increase our resilience to stress and improve the mental well-being of ourselves and those around us. Organizations can play an important role in developing long-term solutions to manage stress and foster an environment of resilience for the people in their organization. Here’s how:
Understanding the science behind stress puts us in a better position to find ways to deal with it. When most people think of stress, they associate it with negative experiences and assume it’s a bad thing. The reality, however, is that stress serves a valuable purpose.
In prehistoric times, early humans relied heavily on their biological responses to survive. When in danger, they had to fight or run away from predators. Scientists refer to this as the fight, flight, or freeze response. This is not in itself a bad thing as it has served to protect our species throughout the centuries.
The problem, however, is when we experience too much stress over a long period of time. Stress will eventually take a toll on your body – physically, mentally and emotionally. Stress can result in physical symptoms such as headaches, upset stomach, high blood pressure, chest pain, and trouble sleeping. It can also lead to depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.
The Power Zone
Neil Shah, Chief De-Stressing Officer of the Stress Management Society and Founder of International Wellbeing Insights and Avetta Fellow, explains that when we find the right level of stress, performance thrives. Too much stress quickly leads to burnout, where we aren’t as effective, don’t think clearly and are more likely to cut corners and make mistakes (which can lead to accidents and injuries). On the other hand, too little stress leads to “rusting out,” which is often accompanied by a plunge into depression. When we find the balance of pressure, it’s called the “power zone,” which is where we feel best.
The bridge analogy
A helpful analogy to understand how we tolerate stress is to think of ourselves as a bridge. A bridge can carry a lot of weight, but when all the weight is concentrated in one point and gets heavier and heavier, there comes a point when the bridge collapses. For a person, this can seem like a breakdown, a heart attack or other serious health problem, substance abuse, or in extreme cases, suicide. Shah suggests that like a bridge at a breaking point, we can reduce stress by either distributing the load or providing additional support.
Change your organization
The first step in changing your organization is to assess where you currently stand. This can be done through interviews, surveys, focus groups and visits. Next, create a clear vision of where you want your organization to be. Then create a roadmap of how to get there. This may include initiatives such as training, workshops and support pathways. The important thing is not just to focus on the initiative, but on the strategy that leads to long-term results and sustainable change.
If you need a starting point, Neil Shah offers some specific ways organizations can likely improve:
1. Connect with people: A crucial aspect of improving mental health in the workplace is genuine connection with people. Especially in an increasingly virtual environment, we’re losing those “water cooler” conversations and really understanding how people are doing and what’s going on in their lives. We ask, “How are you? but never expect anything more than “Fine, thanks. And you?” The Ask Twice campaign aims to address this by encouraging people to always ask a different question, such as “How are you really doing?” “What’s wrong with you in your life?” or “What challenges are you facing?”
2. Be real: If you want honest answers, you have to be authentic too. Be willing to speak openly and share experiences, and others will feel free to do the same.
3. Don’t neglect the simple things: Encourage people to do the simple things that make a big difference in their physical and mental well-being, such as:
4. Offer support: Make sure your organization offers support and resources for managing stress and dealing with mental health challenges and crises. put up signs and send emails; Make sure it is clear where people can get help when they need it.
While a healthy level of stress can be helpful, the stressors in our environment today are high and many people experience negative outcomes in the form of physical, mental and emotional health issues. Organizations can be proactive and help their employees become more stress-resilient by sharing their burden and offering extra support. And by focusing on real connections, we can better understand people’s situations and avoid serious negative consequences before it’s too late. It’s not just about starting “initiatives”: It’s about developing long-term solutions and changes that will change your organization in the long term.
Richard Parke is Senior Vice President, Supplier Services at Avetta.