New data shows workplace stress is at an all-time

high, but managers can take practical steps to

support their employees.


Cesar Carvalho

July 08, 2022
Management Review

In recent years, business leaders have become increasingly aware of the toll that stress takes on employees. In one recent survey, nearly three-quarters (73%) of CEOs said their organizations offer assistance for managing stress.

But even the best intentions don’t always lead to positive results. And a new global analysis conducted by Gallup found that stress levels in the workforce have reached “an all-time high” — topping the previous year’s record levels. Forty-four percent of workers surveyed said that they had experienced a lot of stress during the previous workday. Most (60%) said they felt “emotionally detached” at work, and 19% were downright miserable. “Employee engagement and well-being remain very low, and it’s holding back enormous growth potential,” the survey found. In the United States, workers are among the most stressed in the entire world.

Like many executives, I’ve had to lead my own staff through especially stressful times, particularly during the pandemic. And because of the nature of my work at Gympass, I’m also constantly engaging with all kinds of businesses to help them improve wellness in their ranks. These experiences have shown me what works and what doesn’t. In this article, I offer three ways managers can make a difference when it comes to combating stress and supporting employee well-being.

Take a Holistic View

Offering meditation at work is nice, but this alone won’t do much to alleviate stress levels if the root causes are left unaddressed. For that matter, making sure your insurance includes coverage for mental health is another important part of incremental change, but it’s not enough on its own.

To combat stress, help employees improve their overall wellness. Research shows that physical exercise reduces stress and improves mental health. Giving employees time and opportunities to engage in a wide variety of physical activities is crucial. Only when they find something they love to do will they keep at it. For some, it could be yoga classes; for others, it might be joining an office running club, kayaking team, or softball league. Other employees might find that going for a walk outdoors each day provides the right form of exercise and restoration. (For me, it’s working out every morning at 6 a.m.) Offer resources for people to discover activities they love without pressure or judgment.

Another piece of the puzzle is financial wellness. Money is often a top source of anxiety. People want to feel secure and in control when it comes to unexpected expenses. Making financial planning and assistance a part of what your business offers can go a long way toward reducing employee stress levels.

Synchronize Breaks

Beginning early in the pandemic, my team and I had to make major, fundamental changes to the way we worked in order to be successful amid a new reality. I was demanding a lot from employees, and I recognized that I would need to make special efforts to help them combat stress.

This led me to implement an unusual step: encouraging the entire staff to break from work, and turn off all work communications, for two blocks of 45 minutes each, at the same times each day. This included me and the rest of the executive team.

It’s more traditional for companies to stagger breaks or to encourage people to take breaks whenever it best suits them, but there were big benefits to synchronizing these times. People were less likely to be disturbed by colleagues during their time offline and therefore were more rejuvenated by it. And they were more likely to be able to collaborate while working, because they could largely expect other staffers to be available then.

Of course, flexibility is key. We fully support remote work, and we’re aware that people’s obligations at home might not always align with strict scheduling. But most people were able to take part in these synchronized breaks, and the responses were overwhelmingly positive. While synchronizing breaks is not a hard-and-fast rule at our company, some teams continue to do so to this day. Similarly, some other companies are giving employees the same days or weeks off — and finding that it makes it easier for them to unplug.

Think Like an NGO

When I discuss the state of the company with employees — in town halls, on all-staff calls, via emails, and in other ways — I don’t start with numbers or dive straight into profits or growth. I lead with a focus on the impact of our work as it connects to our company’s purpose. I share stories of people in different markets getting more exercise or better sleep. I share feedback from individuals who have built better routines for their health.

It’s a reflection of how I approach this work in general. In developing the business, I decided to think of it as mission-based, similar to a nongovernmental organization.

Research shows that putting greater focus on purpose helps to relieve stress. The more people connect their work to a sense of purpose, the less likely they are to experience burnout and the negative effects of stress.

Of course, this does not mean that we ignore financial successes and goals. I’m also numbers-driven. We do celebrate achievements, learn from setbacks, and discuss what our next targets are. But our purpose comes first — our impact on people and the planet.

While it’s important for executives like me to take these kinds of steps, it’s ultimately up to managers to make sure their reports are experiencing the benefits. As a manager, you should talk with and listen to employees to understand the causes of their stress and ensure that they know about resources the company offers. Encourage employees to take breaks. And in one-on-one conversations, help employees connect their work to the corporate mission.

To combat worker stress, managers need to have more than the best intentions — they need to have a commitment to supporting employees so they can thrive.

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