Not all stress is bad stress
The good news is that, if work pressure is managed correctly, it can help keep employees alert, motivated and able to learn.
That said, the World Health Organization (WHO) draws an important distinction between work pressure and work stress. ‘Stress results from a mismatch between the demands and pressures on the person, on the one hand, and their knowledge and abilities, on the other. It challenges their ability to cope with work,’ claims the WHO in a report titled Work Organization & Stress.
In a nutshell, pressure keeps you motivated and teaches you new skills, while stress damages your physical and mental health. The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) found that one in four workers in South Africa has been diagnosed with depression and, as a result, take an average of 18 days a year off work.
Stress-related absenteeism is only half the story, though. Presenteeism is an even bigger problem and the SADAG research found that only half the employees with depression actually do take time off work. The other half remain at their desks but aren’t ‘there’.
‘If an employee has depression but is at work, [he is] five times less productive than an employee who [took sick leave] due to depression,’ psychiatrist and clinical psychologist Dr Frans Korb said in a SADAG statement. ‘Depression affects cognitive functioning such as decision making, concentration, memory and problem solving abilities.’
Meditating and practising mindfulness are among the biggest trends when it comes to creating a stress-free workplace.
Reducing stress in the workplace
What can employers do to reduce workplace stress and to keep employees focused, motivated and stress free?
‘A good employer designs and manages work in a way that avoids common risk factors for stress and prevents as much as possible foreseeable problems,’ says the WHO. The organisation suggests that employers start by identifying incongruence between what is expected of employees and their knowledge and abilities, and prioritising the necessary change to lessen the pressure on employees, thereby reducing risk.
There are also proactive ideas that employers can implement to create oases of calm amid the chaos at work. It is no longer unusual for a company to arrange yoga or Pilates classes during lunch hour or even to offer perks such as free meals and rides to work. Employers that arrange sponsored outings and activities, or allow office workers to bring their pets (office mascots) to work, don’t raise the eyebrows any more either.
Meditating and practising mindfulness are among the biggest modern trends when it comes to creating a stress-free workplace and an increasing number of businesses offer employees mindfulness training.
There’s sound science to back up the benefits of mindfulness. A 2015 Harvard Medical School study found that people who meditate experience positive changes in key areas of their brain structure, including the amygdala, which governs the fight-or-flight response when faced with anxiety, fear and stress. These changes were noticeable after just eight weeks of practising mindfulness.
‘It’s vital to examine how depression is managed in the workplace and what procedures are in place to ensure that affected employees are encouraged and supported in seeking treatment,’ says SADAG operations director Cassey Chambers.
Ways companies can help manage workplace stress
SADAG lists five ways that companies can help manage stress – and depression – in the workplace:
- Educate employees about depression, especially how cognitive symptoms can affect work performance.
- Raise awareness about employee-assistance programmes and emphasise how they can help with mental-health problems, such as depression.
- Promote a culture of acceptance around depression and other psychiatric disorders – they are no different to chronic conditions, such as diabetes and asthma.
- If employees have opened up about struggling with depression, refer them to a mental-health professional and reassure them that the illness can be treated.
- Explore creative ways to support an employee’s recovery, such as flexible/adjusted working hours or allowing them to work from home temporarily.