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What Is Stress at Work and How Can L&D Help Beat It

Stress at work is ubiquitous in the modern world. In fact, 74% of adults report having felt overwhelming stress in the past year! This means it’s almost certain that every adult living and working today will have to deal with stress at some point in their lives. 

Indeed, stress is at a crisis point globally. It costs the world economy one trillion dollars each year! 

Yet, for something so widespread, stress is generally poorly understood by the average person. People know what they mean when they talk about stress. It’s that feeling of the walls closing in. It’s that unerring sense of anxiety when the pressure gets to be too much. Some might describe it as the reason for the grey hairs on their head (or the lack of hair altogether). For others, it may be the reason they left their last job.

But few people have a clear view of what stress is and what causes it.

In this blog, we’ll peel back the mystery surrounding stress. We’ll look at what it is on both a biological and a psychological level. Then we’ll look at the impact that being overstressed can have on your life. Finally, we’ll explore the relationship between work and stress and examine how L&D can battle back against this notoriously tricky psychological adversary.

Defining Stress

When people think of stress, they normally mean something like this: 

“The degree to which you feel overwhelmed and the extent to which you’re struggling to cope with the pressures in your life.”

But why do we feel like this?

The Natural Stress Response

Stress is your body’s response to a perceived threat causing the brain to release two different hormones: adrenaline and cortisol.

These two hormones drive the fight or flight response and can help you overcome the challenges you face. But if left unchecked they can cause you to feel overwhelmed and stressed out.

The Causes of Stress: Cortisol

Cortisol is often called the stress hormone. It is released from the adrenal glands into your bloodstream whenever your body thinks you’re facing a stressful situation. 

In the right circumstances, this is a good thing.

There are many ways that cortisol can help your body to overcome a stressful situation. For instance, cortisol:

  • Increases your blood pressure
  • Increases sugars in your bloodstream and in your brain
  • Suppresses your immune function
  • Increases your inflammatory response

These all help you deal with a ‘fight or flight’ emergency. Then, once the situation has passed, cortisol levels return to normal.

The problem is that for many, modern life means stress is constant. 

What Happens When The Stress Doesn’t Stop?

Imagine you have an important presentation in front of your senior leadership team and it has a tight deadline.

For most people, this is a stressful situation. Your body would release cortisol and adrenaline to help you rise to the challenge. 

Then, once you’ve delivered the presentation, your cortisol and adrenaline levels will go back to normal. Your body then releases other chemicals called endorphins. These help you to calm down and make you feel great. That’s why some people enjoy stress. They like the reward they get afterwards!

But what happens if instead of finishing one presentation and relaxing, you have to immediately shift focus straight onto your next high-pressure task?

Instead of getting a feel-good rush, you get another dose of cortisol. Over time, this high-pressure lifestyle will start to take its toll on you.

It’s important to understand that whilst many people can thrive on a little stress, nobody thrives on unrelenting pressure.

The Symptoms of a High-Stress Lifestyle

If you spend your time constantly stressed then it can severely impact your health and wellbeing. Here are some of the key symptoms of prolonged stress:

It could impact your emotional life:

  • Increased grumpiness, frustration and agitation
  • Relaxation becomes a struggle
  • The sense that you are losing control
  • Depression and anxiety

It could impact your behaviour:

  • Increased procrastination
  • Changes in appetite 
  • Use of stimulants and suppressants to regulate your body (for example coffee to pick you up in the morning and alcohol to relax you in the evening) 

It could affect your mind:

  • Racing thoughts
  • Constant worrying
  • Forgetfulness and disorganisation
  • Constantly jumping from one topic to the next
  • Increased pessimism and shrinking optimism 

It could impact your body:

  • Tiredness and exhaustion
  • More frequent illnesses
  • Aches and pains
  • A clenched jaw and grinding teeth
  • Lack of sleep
  • Hair loss
  • Increased blood pressure and blood sugar
  • Weight gain

What are the Causes of Stress?

People have different skills, passions and experiences. This means we’re all wired slightly differently and this reflects in what makes us feel stressed. 

Here are the top causes of stress according to the American Psychological Association: 

  • Money (76% of people)
  • Work (70% of people)
  • The economy (66% of people)
  • Family (58% of people)
  • Relationships (55% of people)
  • Health (52% of people)
  • Housing (52% of people)
  • Job stability (49% of people)

Why Should Businesses Care About Combatting Stress?

1: Businesses are The Main Cause of Stress and They Don’t Have to Be

70% of Americans suffer from chronic stress because of their work. The number is even higher when you consider that much of the stress associated with money, housing, job stability, health and family is related to our work lives. 

This is a staggering percentage of the population. Yet, it seems to be something we’ve just come to accept as the way things are. But imagine, for a moment, that research found that work causes 70% of the population to suddenly develop diabetes. It’s unlikely that many people would be okay with this. Yet, we shouldn’t treat peoples’ mental health and physical health as wildly different entities.

The truth is your mental health matters and so does the mental health of every person in your company. But our culture has historically treated mental health as secondary to physical health. This has normalised the levels of stress we see in the workplace. 

Even worse, there’s a widespread belief that career success hangs on a person’s willingness to endure stress. Regardless of whether this is true or not, businesses should do what they can to buck the trend. 

2: Stress Hurts Business Goals 

If you are worried that combatting stress in the workplace could be harmful to your business, then prepare to do the mental equivalent of a u-turn. Stress is detrimental to business success. Tolerating stress is costing businesses… productivity, talent and money.

Here are three examples of how that happens:

  • Decline in productivity and employee health: The more overworked and stressed your employees are, the less work they’ll get done. Stress and employee performance have a direct relationship. Too much stress and your employee’s productivity and performance will nosedive.
  • High employee turnover rates: Employees in high-stress roles have a risk of turnover three times greater than their low-stress equivalents. Turnover is incredibly costly for businesses, highly-educated employees can cost up to 200% of their annual salary to replace. 
  • Frequent absenteeism: Did you know that stress is the number one cause of employee absenteeism? Employee absenteeism costs £2,000/$2,650 per employee per year. This means that it will cost a medium-sized business of 1,000 employees over £2m/$2.5m each year if left unchecked. 

What are the Causes of Stress at Work?

If you want to tackle stress then it helps to know where it comes from. Here are the seven biggest causes of workplace stress

Low salaries

Finance is the biggest stress in peoples’ lives. If people don’t have enough money, every aspect of life becomes harder. Making sure each employee has enough money to live is the single biggest difference businesses can make to reduce stress. 

Excessive workloads

There are only so many hours in the workday. Asking people to do more work than they can shoehorn into the time they have available will make them feel stretched, like butter over too much bread.

Few opportunities for growth or advancement

If an employee is ambitious for their future career (as you probably would want them to be!), then feeling like a growing fish in a small pond is like a countdown timer to stagnation. 

Work that isn’t engaging or challenging 

If your job has become so easy that it feels monotonous, then it starts to wear away at your energy. It can cause stress to think about all your untapped potential going to waste!

Lack of social support

Feeling alone is always horrible. But if your job is challenging you and you aren’t getting the support you need, it’s a recipe for both stress and poor performance.

Not having enough control over job-related decisions

A lack of control can be very stressful, but it’s even worse when you have no say in a decision that directly impacts your job role.

Conflicting demands or unclear performance expectations

Conflicting demands are like being caught in the midst of a tug of war. But instead of a rope, it’s your time and resources getting yanked in every direction. This is a sure recipe for stress!

Both Employees and Employers Should Hate Stress

If stress reduces employee happiness and undermines business success… Then clearly stress is public enemy number one!

It is an issue that requires every area of the business to pull together to work towards a new way of doing things. But, given that L&D is the engine of an organisation’s culture, it can play a strategic role in winning the war on stress.

So How Can L&D Help in the War on Workplace Stress?

1: Equipping Learners to Do Their Job Makes Their Work Less Stressful

Not knowing how to do your job properly is incredibly stressful. In fact, according to the UK Government, it’s one of the key drivers of workplace stress. It undermines your confidence and leaves you feeling like you don’t belong. 

This means one of the best solutions to workplace stress is to help learners grow in confidence and ability. Which, when you think about it, is precisely what L&D exists to do. 

So take this as an encouragement: by doing your job and empowering learners, you’re helping rid their lives of stress. We happen to think that makes you a real-life hero!

2: Create a Culture of Knowledge-sharing and Support

One of the most effective stress busters is incredibly simple: share the problem causing you stress. After all, a problem shared is a problem halved. 

When you share a problem with others they can give you advice, share the load or just be there for you. The support of others is an antidote to the poison of stress, even if it sounds suspiciously simplistic.  

In other words, to reduce workplace stress, companies need to enable collaboration and facilitate a community of knowledge-sharing.

Thankfully, L&D professionals already have access to the perfect stress-elimination solution: social learning platforms

Want some tips on building a thriving knowledge-sharing community? Why not check out our insightful 70:20:10 tipsheet?

3: Share Content to Help Your Learners Deal With Stress

56% of managers in business want to do more to support the mental health of their staff but are stymied by a lack of knowledge and training. 

It’s encouraging that the intent to overcome stress is there. People are just waiting for the tools and the know-how to beat it. This is the perfect opportunity for learning professionals to support their organisation. You can do so by sharing stress-related training and working towards a low-stress company culture. 

Final Word

Stress is at crisis point within businesses, within peoples’ lives and across the world. And, being overstressed aides no one. Everyone from the CEO at the very top of your business, to the employees on your frontline are only losing out because of stress. It ruins lives, stymies businesses and it just plain sucks

If you’re ready to rise to the challenge and face stress head-on, then Growth Engineering has your back. We want to do everything we can to help you. In fact, we have decided to give away our stress-related training entirely for free. We have two microunits designed to help your staff better understand stress and provide them with practical strategies to overcome it. 

You can demo the units and share the link with your staff. Alternatively, you can download the SCORM and xAPI files to upload to your LMS. We hope they help you turn the tables on stress in your workplace. Click here to see them for yourself!

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