As the workplace becomes increasingly digital, stress at work is on the rise. The 24/7 always-on and real-time notifications of workplace digital tools are inadvertently increasing employee stress. Back in the days of snail mail, it was perfectly fine to respond in a few weeks, and even the early days of email you could respond within a day, but today’s chat messaging often requires an immediate response.
The 2017 Udemy Workplace Stress Study found that 52% of all respondents were more stressed than they had been in the previous year, and two-thirds of millennials were stressed at work all or most of the time. Researchers from the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland studied stress related to social media at work. They found employees were overloaded by the sheer volume and variety of social media interruptions as well as the invasion of work into their personal life by always-on digital chat tools. If the boss sends a chat message at night, employees feel they must respond right away.
Unfortunately, chronic stress impairs our brain functions in the moment and results in lasting damage long after the event. Even when we’re no longer stressed, our body and brain can still be negatively impacted by stress. This is bad news for companies, both in terms of how employees feel when experiencing acute stress and during its aftereffects. Sustained high stress at work is linked to employee burnout, a state of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion, which Harvard Business Review estimates costs companies $125 billion to $190 billion a year.
The 2017 Willis Towers Watson Global Benefits survey reports that “Employers increasingly recognize mental health and stress among the biggest challenges to health in the workplace, and many are trying to find better ways of reducing work-related stress” and noted that around half of employers have already introduced initiatives to reduce stress or are planning to do so. Stress management is the 8th hottest soft skill trending in 2018 on Udemy, the global online learning marketplace with 80,000 online courses, 24+ million learners, and thousands of businesses.
What exactly is stress? It’s the brain’s reaction to perceived danger. Although our lifestyle has evolved dramatically over time, the brain’s reaction to stress is still located in the primitive part of the brain. Stress is a survival mechanism that developed from responding to real threats, like a bear or lion attacking us. In the early stages of humanity, we only had three choices: to fight, run away, or play dead. You may have heard of this “fight or flight” response.
In the past, this response didn’t last very long—just 15 to 20 minutes (because if you were fighting a wolf or a bear, it generally wouldn’t take longer than that for one of you to win). But after that initial 15–20 minutes, the brain begins to release cortisol. The effects of this are really damaging because cortisol attacks our brain cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that’s in charge of memory and one of the only parts of the brain where new cells are created.
The creation of new cells or “neurogenesis” is linked to optimism, youthful energy, and lust for life. Low neurogenesis is linked to depression and anxiety. Stress lowers neurogenesis directly, so managing stress is critical for maintaining quality of life—and for keeping your employees happy and engaged at work. In my Udemy for Business course Stress Management: 40 Easy Ways to Deal with Stress, I explore how stress affects the brain and offer strategies to help people better manage their stress. Find out more about a subscription for Udemy for Business for your organization to offer courses like mine to your employees on an ongoing basis.
In my course, I provide 40 ways to deal with stress. Here are 4 strategies to help your employees reduce stress and 5 ways to prevent workplace stress in the long run.
The first four strategies are ways that people can reduce stress and eliminate cortisol from their bodies.
By “physical” relief strategies, I am referring to movement or physical activity. When you move, you sweat, and sweating is the best way to get cortisol out of your body. Whether it’s going for a run, playing sports, or taking a heart-pumping class, the key is to do a high-intensity activity that produces sweat. Providing gym membership, yoga classes after work, or even encouraging “walking” meetings outside are ways to integrate movement into your employees’ daily work schedule.
People are very sensitive to their surroundings, and the magnitude of sensory input can affect stress. For example, music can be very soothing when it’s played at a low level, but when it gets to be too loud, it creates stress. With open office seating plans on the rise, imagine what your employees experience as they sit at their desks trying to work with constant conversations around them. This is why it’s important to encourage snoozing social media notifications during important tasks or meetings and non-work hours, listening to soothing music, and providing employee “do not disturb signs.” It’s also important to create quiet alternative workspaces such as couch areas by windows or phone booths away from rows of computers for people that might need a sensory break.
When people are stressed, they activate the primitive part of their brain. One way of overcoming this is to activate the prefrontal brain, which is more logical and reasoned. The prefrontal brain helps us put things in perspective, so one simple way to activate the prefrontal brain is to turn statements into questions. If employees hear themselves saying “This is the end of the world,” they can stop and ask themselves, “Is this really the end of the world?” This gives them the opportunity to activate the prefrontal brain, reflect, and reduce stress in that moment. My Udemy for Business course Stress Management: 40 Easy Ways to Deal with Stress discusses some tactics for employees to activate their prefrontal brain.
On a very simple level, laughing and crying are very effective stress-release strategies. Just as sweating helps get cortisol out of your body, crying has the same effect. Another important strategy is to talk about problems with a sympathetic friend or coworker. Sharing problems with a close friend, family member, or coworker stimulates the release of oxytocin, which combats the negative effects of cortisol. In a work setting, I strongly recommend creating a “stress buddy” system. Every employee is paired up with someone else and they have an agreement that they’ll always make themselves available to talk when the other person needs them. This can be very effective at reducing stress in the workplace. Providing external mentors or coaches for your employees at work can also help achieve this same goal.
The four strategies above have mostly focused on stress relief—how employees can feel better when they’re already experiencing stress. Now let’s look at prevention strategies in the workplace that will keep neurogenesis high. This will help your employees be less susceptible to the negative effects of stress.
A Mediterranean diet is the way to go: lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, olive oil, etc. The brain consists primarily of water. Take out the water, and we end up with fatty acids (fat). There are all kinds of fats. Some are bad for us (like the grease we fry food with), some are good. And the very best fat is Omega 3. Omega 3 is the building block of the brain, but the body does not produce Omega 3 by itself. We need to get it from our diet. We can find Omega 3s in fatty fish like mackerel, salmon, and herring, and nuts like walnuts and seeds such as flax seeds and chia seeds. Things to avoid include things that are fried, processed, microwaved, and burned (such as barbecue), and alcohol. Even mild but regular consumption of alcohol strongly reduces neurogenesis. In the workplace, you can encourage healthy eating by offering snacks and lunches with more fresh fruits and vegetables and less fried foods and dessert.
I know I mentioned movement earlier as a relief strategy, but it also helps to develop resilience against future stress. People who do regular strenuous physical activity build up a defense against stress, so they’ll be more resilient when confronted with stress in the future. If possible, people should strive for high-intensity physical activity for at least 30 minutes a day or an hour every other day.
One of my favorite quotes about brain health is: “The brain awakens in the new.” Having a day-to-day routine can be helpful, but people should break out of it from time to time. Encourage your employees to learn new things, try new things, and live their lives fully. Offering an on-demand online learning platform with a variety of engaging content from work-related courses to fun courses like yoga and photography will help keep your employees stimulated at work. See how a subscription to Udemy for Business can help your employees continuously learn and grow.
Strengthening existing social connections is another important stress-prevention strategy. People release oxytocin when they talk about their feelings, hug a close friend or family member, or pet their dog or cat. However, other people can also be one of the biggest sources of stress. I really encourage managers to think about the way they interact with their direct reports because putting people under a lot of strain will ultimately be counterproductive. Managers must learn to genuinely and authentically care for their people, earn their team’s trust by being part of the group, and empower their team to challenge them. There are numerous courses on Udemy for Business that can help managers and employees improve their emotional intelligence and communication skills such as Developing Emotional Intelligence on Teams and Understanding and Developing Emotional Intelligence. In addition, regularly organizing social bonding activities as a team—such as happy hours or bowling—is a good way to foster social connections.
Eight hours of sleep a night is the ultimate building block of a healthy brain. If there’s only one thing your employees can do, it’s to sleep enough and sleep well. The short-term effects of sleep deprivation include lack of focus, the inability to listen, and a reduction in creativity and work quality. But in the long-term, lack of sleep can lead to cognitive impairment, dementia, and Alzheimer’s. As an employer, encouraging work/life balance and discouraging working long hours into the night will result in more productive and engaged employees in the long run.
Reducing and preventing stress is not easy—especially in a demanding and fast-paced digital workplace. But it can be done, and the impact it will have on your employees’ well-being is worth it. By helping employees with strategies to reduce and prevent stress, you’ll help them transform perceived danger into a positive challenge, change nerves into excitement, and give them the confidence and strength to approach life and work.
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