We don’t get a break from workplace stress after the stressful holiday season. In fact, January is the most stressful month of the year, according to a 2014 Friends Life survey of 2000 people.
Now, more than ever, it is important to engage with employees and support a culture of kindness and gratitude.
The busy whirlwind of the holidays can lead to a buildup of past-due work in January, compounded by staffing shortages during winter vacation season. This month is also a time when many people put pressure on themselves to keep their New Year’s resolutions — a difficult task when professional obligations are mounting and bills from holiday extravagances are due.
So, how you can help your employees navigate this stressful time of year? Beating workplace stress takes personal and organizational resilience. It also means going against some of our most basic instincts. But once you train yourself and others to react smarter to stress, your workplace will benefit tremendously!
Stress vs. Challenge
What is workplace stress, anyway? According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), stress can be defined as “the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources or needs of the worker.”
But isn’t a little stress good? Not exactly, according to NIOSH.
NIOSH notes a distinction between stress and challenge. Where stress demotivates and drains, challenge motivates and energizes. When we meet a challenge, we are rewarded with a sense of relaxation and satisfaction.
“Thus, challenge is an important ingredient for healthy and productive work,” NIOSH concludes.
Stress, on the other hand, has serious ramifications that go deep. Individually, it can lead to poor health and even injury. On an organizational level, stress is a disastrous problem that drags down productivity, quality and happiness.
The symptoms of stress — depression, loneliness, isolation — are now at epidemic levels and cost the economy billions of dollars, says James R. Doty, founder and director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE).
Job stress is “far and away” the major source of stress for American adults and has “escalated progressively” over the past few decades, according to the American Institute of Stress.
“In New York, Los Angeles and other municipalities, the relationship between job stress and heart attacks is so well acknowledged that any police officer who suffers a coronary event on or off the job is assumed to have a work-related injury and is compensated accordingly (including a heart attack sustained while fishing on vacation or gambling in Las Vegas).”
YOU CAN’T BEAT STRESS WITH STRESS
It’s impossible to fix the manifestations of stress (burnout, anger, inability to focus) by applying more stressors, even when these stressors are intended in good faith to fix symptoms. Stress begets more stress!
That’s why punishment and draconian rules won’t do much to shrink workplace stress. Unfortunately, even our own instinctual responses to stress can be self-defeating, as you probably know if you’ve ever experienced chronic anxiety and bouts of irrational anger, or beat yourself up for not doing enough.
Stress decreases in a culture or environment that supports healthy coping.
A study of more than 800 surgeons and other doctors in the U.K. concluded that job satisfaction “significantly protected” the employees’ mental health against job stress and that companies can help rein in workplace stress “by maintaining or enhancing job satisfaction, and by providing training in communication and management skills.”
This recommendation from researchers is significant because it doesn’t suggest any of the typical ways we’ve learned to deal with stress, such as a vacation or a party.
Instead, researchers suggest aiming higher: overall job satisfaction. When employees feel fulfilled, heard, appreciated and well-managed, they’re better protected against stress.
The Kindness Cure
Since stress is a reaction to outside forces, how we handle our reaction matters greatly. Organizational stress reduction takes coordinated effort and the time to implement it, but the seed for change is simple: kindness.
Kindness as an organizational tool is trending, and for good reason. Science in recent years has revealed the tangible benefits of a more compassionate workplace. But, as with any trend, it’s important not to get swept up in it without fully understanding it — a phenomenon TIME magazine called “Cashing In On Kindness.”
A mandatory, one-hour workshop on kindness may do more harm than good, according to Olivia O’Neill, a PhD graduate of Stanford Graduate School of Business who has studied the effects of companionate love in the workplace.
“When people get burned out, they’re actually not feeling caring and compassion at all — the pressure to express these emotions is just another load on top of them,” she says in an interview with her alma mater.
Kindness “has to come from a place of authenticity, or at least cultural internalization, not something employees are complying with because it’s what the boss wants,” O’Neill says.
Kindness isn’t just a powerful force between coworkers and between employees and company leaders. Self-compassion is powerful, too. It gives us resilience to handle stress individually.
Despite these benefits, it carries a stigma.
“Although being compassionate with yourself leads to high achievement, people resist self-compassion because they think it’ll make them lazy,” O’Neill says.
When we’re compassionate with ourselves and with others, we squeeze out stress and make room for success!
Want to learn more about the power of compassion and appreciation to transform your workplace? Click below to download our free eBook. A culture of gratitude fosters the resilience necessary to cope with stress and thrive!
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