Why does stress matter?
Other than the toll that prolonged stress takes on our physical and mental health (it is estimated that work-related stress leads to 57% of all lost working days), it’s also damaging the British economy. Respondents to the Resilience Tracker cited long hours as a cause of stress, and indeed we work the longest hours in Europe – the average working week in the UK is 42.3 hours compared to an EU average of 40.3. But these hours are not leading to improved performance and productivity remains stagnant: by Thursday evening, French workers have produced as much as their British counterparts will in the whole week, despite the Gallic average of a 39-hour working week.
What is the connection between pressure and stress?
Without pressure, work lacks challenge and vitality, leading to boredom and stagnation. We perform at our best when we have a goal that will require some hard graft and passion to achieve. From an employer perspective, a high-performing workforce is also going to deliver you better business results. But when pressure grows too great, or is sustained for too long, it triggers the response that we call stress.
What does the survey reveal?
Over 2000 employees of varying seniority were asked a series of questions about their experiences of stress at work. The results reveal the state of stress in the UK, with 43% of employees feeling stressed or very stressed on a typical day. Concerningly, only 38% feel comfortable talking to their manager when they are suffering the effects of too much pressure.
The 2019 Resilience Tracker also suggests that, for a significant number of people, their stress in the workplace is getting worse, with 34% of respondents saying they feel more stressed now than two years ago. The reasons for this include:
- Higher workload (66%)
- A lack of control over own work (27%)
- Longer working hours (26%)
- Economic or political challenges such as Brexit (17%).
How does stress effect performance?
We should not resign ourselves to excessive pressure at work, especially when it doesn’t produce the best results: studies show that there is a clear tipping point when measuring workload and outcomes (fig. 1).
As this graph shows, being able to harness pressure is the key to maximising performance. Training people to develop their resilience can help to extend the “stretch” area, allowing individuals to avoid pressure turning to stress and all the issues that come with it. You can learn more about the physiological effects of stress here.
What can be done to handle stress at work?
Respondents were asked what might reduce harmful stress in the workplace. 30% felt that a four-day week would help – an intriguing proposal that is beginning to gain traction in the UK and elsewhere. The second most popular answer was ‘more support from managers’ (25%). For this to work, businesses need to empower managers to better support their team members, meaning more time devoted to genuine conversations and acknowledgement when pressure becomes stress.
All employees can learn to cope better, and even thrive, under pressure by becoming resilient, but the onus cannot rest with them alone. Organisations should consider how they can nurture the growth of personal resilience in their employees through development and coaching. A resilient workforce is a healthier, happier, and more highly performing workforce, leading to fewer lost working days and better business outcomes. Who wouldn’t want that?