Around the world, people are getting sicker and sicker. But COVID isn’t the culprit. Long before COVID-19 introduced the planet to remote working, Canadian health officials were concerned that half a million workers are unable to work during any given week. Long before COVID-19 made “Zoom-fatigue” a household term, Australian officials were estimating a current loss of almost $5 billion per year due to health concerns and UK officials were concerned that sick workers could cost their economy $35 billion dollars a year by 2030. The WHO estimates that the United States is losing $1 trillion in productivity every year. What raging illness could be costing the world so much productivity every single year?

Workplace stress.

The Causes of Workplace Stress

Workplace stress causes a greater loss to the potential productivity of an organization than any other cause. Whether you work in the office or remotely from home, workplace stress is real. Let’s look at both the cause and effect of workplace stress.

The human body experiences stress because of something called the “fight or flight” response. In early humans, the fight or flight response kept humankind alive by both heightening the ability to use energy and protect itself. In other words, when a person is faced with a significant danger, the body produces stress hormones that improve eyesight, overload the muscles with oxygen to make them ready to move quickly, and increase clotting factors in the blood stream in case of injury. The idea was that, if a prehistoric human was faced with imminent danger, they would be able to more effectively escape or fight.

The human body experiences stress in many ways and there’s no one way that we react. However, in the typical workplace, stress is generally caused by unreasonable requests, impossible deadlines, being forced to act outside your values or ethics, or being yelled at or belittled by a coworker, boss, or customer. When a boss sets hard to meet dates or requires you to work late when you know you need to spend time with your family, stress is created and the “fight or flight” response system can be activated.

The problem, of course, is that you can’t fight your boss (it’s not recommended, anyway). Running doesn’t help either.

The Result of Workplace Stress

So, the “fight or flight” response kicks in, but there’s nowhere to run and no one to fight. Now what?

Well, of course, you go back to your desk and get to work. The damage is already done, though. The human body takes a physical toll when the stress response is activated. Imagine, however, a stressful work environment, where that toll is experienced day after day after day. Over and over again and every time you get stressed, more damage is done.

As you read the list of likely damage, consider – how many of these symptoms do you feel regularly or see your colleague suffering from?

  • Exhaustion
  • Digestive issues
  • Lack of focus
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Lowered immune response
  • Overeating
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Hypertension
  • Diabetes
  • Stroke
  • Heart disease
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Lack of motivation
  • Feelings of helplessness and depression

New Rules for Reducing Workplace Stress

We’ll never completely get rid of workplace stress. However, the incredible irony about workplace stress is that stress is almost always the cause of needing to get more done, sooner. Unreasonable demands are made, impossible deadlines are set. But, it’s the stress we cause in the name of productivity that is the biggest reducer of productivity. So, what can we do?

The key to reducing workplace stress is to learn new rules of leadership, to learn new ways to improve productivity through engagement and motivation, not commands and threats. Here are some of those new rules:

Rule #1: Establish a Clear Vision and Connect the Work to the Vision

People like to know that what they are doing will make a difference in the world. They need to know why they are doing what they are doing and who is benefitting from their work. So, if your vision is to provide clean water to your community, start reminding your employees and teams every day who it is they are helping. Connect the vision to the work every person and every team is doing. Tell them how their work makes a difference. Show them by taking them out to the community or bringing members of the community in to talk with them. Also, make certain that any work you ask your employees and teams to do is clearly connected to the vision. Avoid doing anything that doesn’t move the organization closer to realizing its vision.

Rule #2: Create an Organizational Culture and Environment Safe for Disagreement and Innovation

A lot of stress is caused when workers believe they can “get in trouble” if they make a mistake or don’t know how to do something they are supposed to know how to do. Stress can be easily caused in ANY individual when they are either blamed for doing something, or shamed because they did it. Human beings are a very tribal people – we need to know we fit in with our community. “Blaming and shaming” goes right to the very core of that “community fit.” When someone is blamed or shamed for something, they feel separated and dangerous levels of stress can be reached.

As a leader, you must fight this tendency to blame or shame by not allowing it. Don’t do it yourself and stop others from doing it as well. If someone needs help, they should be able to ask. If a mistake is made, it is far more effective to correct the mistake and ensure it doesn’t happen again than it is to figure out who caused the mistake.

Allow people to respectfully disagree. Encourage experimentation when the benefits far outweigh the risks. Allow innovation, doing something in a completely different way, and don’t blame when an experiment or an innovation doesn’t work. See failures as opportunities to learn.

Rule #3: Accomplish More by Attempting Less

One of the biggest problems organizations suffer is the inability to focus on one or two priorities. It’s almost a form of organizational attention deficit disorder. When an organization has ten strategic initiatives, they don’t feel they are doing the job if they aren’t working on all ten at the same time. When a person or a team has too many projects or too many roles or works on too many teams at the same time, those people and teams go through their days unfocused on anything. This is the most unproductive state in which to work.

If you want to get more done, focus on fewer things at the same time. Pick one or two highest priorities and work on them to conclusion. Focus on those one or two items and then, when one is complete, move to the third. You’ll find that, with the improved productivity that comes from better focus, you’ll get more done faster, and reduced workplace stress will result.

More Information

For much, much more information about employee engagement, fighting workplace stress, motivation, and productivity, join us in Artisan Agility’s The Leadership Edge training system, which you can experience as a self-paced online approach or as a live series of eight four-hour workshops beginning in late September 2021.