With, uh, pretty much everything going on in the world right now — and in Australia — it’s unsurprising that everyone’s a bit stressed. Except now, even while working from home, we’re still experiencing workplace stress.
In fact, according to payroll and HR company ADP’s Global Workforce View 2020 report, more than 60% of Aussie workers are feeling stressed at least once a week. Combine that with the fact that almost a third of people surveyed said they wouldn’t be comfortable talking to anyone at their workplace about their mental health, and it’s not looking too good.
Not only this, but workplace stress also has a significant effect on the employers, not just the employees. Absenteeism (unplanned absences) and presenteeism (when sick workers come in and work at levels that are less than optimal) due to mental health issues cost the Australian economy an estimated $17 billion, annually.
What can be done to lessen this workplace stress epidemic? The Latch spoke to Dr Kate Witteveen, success and empowerment coach, as well as psychologist, coach and author, Dr Rebecca Jackson, to find out just how to navigate the issue of stress — as an employee or an employer.
Why are we so stressed?
We can all acknowledge the pandemic hasn’t exactly been great for the job market – it’s an incredibly uncertain time. In fact, Dr Witteveen says that the “pandemic has highlighted how precarious many of our jobs are”.
Another reason for stress may be due to the rise of maladaptive perfectionism, which Dr Witteveen describes as “placing unrealistic expectations on oneself and feeling terrible when those expectations aren’t met”.
Dr Jackson believes there are many reasons for workers reporting weekly stress, including: “Feeling overloaded with multiple demands both inside and outside of work; not managing schedules, time and work demands productively; unhealthy work cultures with conflict”.
Some other causes she sees in her work are, “interpersonal conflict, inefficient or outdated processes, policy or functional structures, and poor leadership and management”.
In her view, the most problematic issue is the social reinforcement of an Aussie culture of “busyness” as opposed to productivity. “In many facets of our lives, it’s almost socially expected and accepted that we’re all busy and stressed always and therefore people respond with that in mind.”
Why aren’t we talking about our stress?
“Although the stigma around mental health is decreasing,” acknowledges Dr Witteveen, “it still exists.”
At the end of the day “Many [workers] feel replaceable, so don’t want to show any signs of weakness — physical or mental.”
The problem in Dr Jackson’s mind is that the word ‘stressed’ has become a catch-all phrase. “I encourage people to be more specific when they talk about feeling ‘stressed’. Do they feel overwhelmed, tired, a loss of energy or enthusiasm for their work, are they feeling isolated or lonely?”
Encouraging people to talk about something that is more socially normalised, opens up the door for other mental health conversations — like depression, anxiety and more.
How employees can cope with workplace stress
One way that employees can cope with stress in the workplace is by “recognising where/when they’re falling into traps of perfectionism and people-pleasing,” says Dr Witteveen, stating that this is a fast track to burning out.
One thing people can do is to consider: “How can I do this well enough without it being perfect?” That’s not to say to slack off, but “there’s a lot of scope to do something to an excellent standard without it being perfect.”
Dr Jackson recommends getting personal operating systems sorted — as in diary management, to-do lists and emails and correspondence.
More tips for when you’re at work? Take regular stretch and exercise breaks during the day, as well as mindfulness and yoga exercises. Investing in a mentor, coach or peer networking group is also helpful, so “you always have people to talk to about work, problems and challenges”.
Something Dr Witteveen suggested — that The Latch is a firm believer in — is creating clear boundaries between work and home, especially if you’re working from home. May we suggest faking a work commute?
Outside of the workplace? Keep a gratitude journal — they’re proven to benefit your mental health, and every night, note five things you’re grateful for.
Lastly? “Focus on health and wellbeing basics,” says Dr Jackson. Dr Witteveen agrees: “Investing time and energy into making sure you’re feeling good is not a luxury — it’s a necessity.”
Here’s how workplaces can help
According to Dr Witteveen, research shows that many employees value flexibility and autonomy at least as much as — if not more than — money. “Finding ways to allow employees to have control over their work and allowing flexibility is a great way of reducing stress.”
Showing interest in employees as people, and not just employees, is another essential move workplaces can make. “Creating a culture of connection and caring is highly effective in ensuring people feel safe and valued at work,” says Dr Witteveen, which then offsets workplace stressors. “We can put up with a lot if we feel as though we are part of a team.”
When Dr Jackson coaches leaders and managers, she has nine focus areas for them to make their workplaces healthy. These include: making mental health and wellbeing a priority; build and fostering a trusting, fair, and respectful culture; providing open, honest, and authentic leadership.
Another important area? Providing employees access to mental health resources such as the Employee Assistance Program and RUOK.
How people can be more open and talk about workplace stress
Leaders setting the tone can make a world of difference, according to Dr Witteveen. “Research shows that the most effective leaders are willing to be vulnerable.” It can be as simple as “being willing to say, ‘Wow, that was a tough day'”.
Creating opportunities — regular ones — to enable people to be real is an important factor. Whether planned or unplanned, these regular check-ins are helpful.
“Asking how everyone is doing (and meaning it!) is a good start towards ensuring people feel comfortable to share, if and when they need to.”