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Seven creative strategies for reducing employee stress

Americans are stressed, and job anxieties are a major cause. Here's what some employers are doing to make sure their employees are happy -- and not looking for their next gig.

The famous painting popularly known as "The Scream" depicts an androgynous figure howling, hands on either side of the face. It's a vivid depiction of anxiety, a feeling with which most modern Americans are intimately familiar.

Employee stress is particularly problematic. Indeed, "numerous studies show that job stress is far and away the major source of stress for American adults and that it has escalated progressively over the past few decades," according to the American Institute of Stress. Americans are more stressed about work (61%) and money (62%) than violence and crime (51%), the American Psychological Association found in its 2017 "Stress in America" survey. In addition, more than 60% of American workers said they feel stressed three or more workdays per week, on average, according to a 2017 survey from Paychex, a payroll and HR services vendor. There's also such a thing as "secondhand stress," which can affect those who see others in stress, said Oliver Cooke, executive director and head of Selby Jennings North America at Phaidon International, a global recruitment organization serving the banking and financial services industries. Numerous studies have demonstrated this stress contagion effect. In one, researchers found that 26% of subjects experienced elevated cortisol levels just by seeing someone else stressed out, according to a study in the July 2014 issue of Psychoneuroendocrinology.

More than ever, employers have become hyperfocused on alleviating stress among their employees.
Rajiv KumarPresident, Virgin Pulse Institute

On a positive note, many employers are taking action to reduce employee stress. "More than ever, employers have become hyperfocused on alleviating stress among their employees," said Rajiv Kumar, chief medical officer and president of Virgin Pulse Institute, the research arm of employee engagement and well-being platform provider Virgin Pulse. "To become a best place to work, foster a high-performing culture and recruit the best talent, businesses must first identify, manage and reduce workplace stress," he said.

Employee wellness programs that include stress management can offer businesses a significant value on investment. According to data aggregated from Virgin Pulse customers, 49% reported increased employee productivity due to wellness programs with stress management, while 46% said employees are more engaged as a result of those programs. Medical claims are reduced 13.4% on average as well, according to Virgin Pulse's customer data.

To help you think about ways you can help reduce employee stress at your own company, here are six creative strategies some businesses are using.

1. Abolish email and meetings

Email and meetings can be among the biggest interruptions to an otherwise productive day, and all those disruptions can be a major cause of employee stress, said Cristian Rennella, CEO and co-founder of oMelhorTrato.com, a personal finance website based in Argentina with 134 employees.

Rennella's company banned email and meetings beginning in April 2014. Based on the results of internal surveys conducted every four months, the elimination of email and meetings has decreased employee stress by 47.1%, as well as increased productivity by 21.4%, according to Rennella. "Having several hours of uninterrupted work is key to doing a great job with the least possible stress," he added.

In lieu of email and meetings, Rennella's company built a custom project management platform that shows a list of projects that every single individual and team is working on and the status of and hours left on each. In addition, Rennella's employees can communicate via Slack with each other during three designated periods per day: between 8:00 a.m. and 8:30 a.m.; 12:00 p.m. and 12:30 p.m.; and 4:30 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. With this schedule, employees have two complete intervals of uninterrupted work every day, he said.

2. Reduce employee stress for the cash-strapped

Knowing that money challenges can cause stress, oMelhorTrato.com has helped employees who are in arrears with credit card or mortgage payments. The company makes the necessary payment on the employee's behalf and deducts that payment from the employee's salary, without adding interest, Rennella said. "We want to help employees not have external worries so they can be dedicated to their tasks and be happy in what they do," he explained. Rennella said the strategy has helped the company increase retention of employees from 61.4% to 88.2%.

employee health snapshot

3. Take employees on vacation

Once a year, DevFacto, a Canadian software consulting company, invites its 110 employees and their spouses on an all-expenses-paid vacation, said CEO Chris Izquierdo.

The company vacations are designed to alleviate work stress and facilitate team building, Izquierdo said. "We wanted to create shared experiences so that our employees feel like they're working with friends, not just co-workers," he added. The vacations also serve as an employee performance incentive. The better the company does financially, the longer and more elaborate the company vacations can be, he said.

DevFacto has been offering companywide vacations since 2012. The most recent excursion was to the Cancun, Mexico area in October 2017. Employees are encouraged, but not required, to go on these trips and can still take vacation days on their own, in addition to the company retreats, Izquierdo explained. On the recent Mexico trip, about 90% of employees participated.

The company vacations aren't inexpensive, of course. The recent Mexico trip cost an estimated $200,000, Izquierdo said. He believes the expense was well worth it. "We're a consulting company, and our people are our intellectual property," he said. "The vacations make our employees happy and more committed to the company." When you factor in the high cost of replacing employees who quit due to stress, dissatisfaction or other reasons, the investment in company vacations is worth it, he said.

DevFacto uses employee engagement software from TINYpulse to survey employee happiness, among other things. (The survey doesn't ask DevFacto employees specifically about stress.) According to the survey results, the average happiness score before the Mexico trip was 7.5, with 10 being the highest possible score. After the October trip, the average happiness score was 8, Izquierdo said, which he feels is a "significant bump." He expects the happiness score to remain around 8 for several months, based on past experiences.

4. Offer employee stress-busting webinars

Like many employers, San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) offers an employee assistance program (EAP) to its more than 20,000 employees. The EAP includes therapeutic counseling, which employees can access through in-person meetings, by phone or via video chat, said Angela Juarez-Lombardi, PG&E spokesperson.

The EAP is part of PG&E's comprehensive wellness program, which also includes frequent webinars that address stress-related topics. For example, past webinars have tackled fear of public speaking, panic attacks, depression, caring for elderly parents and other stresses of modern life, Juarez-Lombardi said. During 2017, more than 17% of PG&E employees took advantage of these and other wellness program benefits, she said, adding that employees feel more empowered to take an active role in their health and wellness.

5. Create a chill environment

Many companies are following the lead of Silicon Valley trendsetters, like Google, and striving to create more relaxed working environments, Cooke said. "Even the traditionally old-fashioned world of finance has adopted many of the hallmarks of the Silicon Valley workplace," he said, with some firms adding pingpong tables, more relaxed dress codes and more flexible work hours.

Taking that concept a step further, one hedge fund company, Two Sigma, installed a music studio so its "budding musicians could work on their next album in between developing trading strategies," Cooke said. Two Sigma promotes these and other creative stress-busting perks on its website.

Employee mindfulness programs can help reduce stress.
Reducing stress with mindfulness is one way employers are helping workers reduce anxiety.

6. Install virtual reality pods

Two virtual reality pods have been installed at Cisco's headquarters in San Jose, Calif., to help employees "relax, re-energize and reduce stress" through virtual, tranquil settings, according to Ted Kezios, Cisco's senior director of global benefits.

Likewise, health insurer Cigna has a Virtual Relaxation Pod at its on-site health and wellness center, with the goal of giving employees a virtual break.

7. Offer time management schooling

Employee stress is often caused by a lack of structure or control, a sense of "never getting anything done," Cooke said. Offering training to employees in time management and organization, along with clear goal setting, can help mitigate those stress contributors, he said.

"Particularly for millennials, the lines between work and personal life are becoming more and more blurred," Cooke said. Work is often viewed as a part of a personal identity, he added, so it's important for employers to build a culture "where employees perform their best and feel confident."

This was last published in February 2018

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What steps has your company taken to alleviate workplace stress?
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Instead of “alleviating” stress, how about addressing the sources of organisational stress, and eliminating, reducing or mitigating them. This is the obligation every employer has under our health and safety legislation. When our regulators catch up with our regulations and we start to see executives held accountable for the mental anguish they inflict on the workforce, be warned that virtual reality pods, mindfullness training, vacations and time management classes just wont cut it, because they fail the tests of the management standards and hierachy of controls. This is too significant a societal issue to have these uninformed, unprofessional forms of advice being given to businesses struggling to deal with the real and serious issues of workplace stress. If people are looking for advice on managing workplace stress I suggest that they look to the resources available at the Copenhagen National Research Centre for the Working Environment, Canada’s StressAssess program or the Stress Management Institutes Workplace Stress Program, instead of secondary, ameliorative cutesy interventions that do nothing to address the sources of stress. Alan Whitley
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Good points, Alan. Thanks! Jim 
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