Productivity & the Global Stress Epidemic

What experts call “occupational stressors” are off the charts both in terms of number and intensity. Occupational stress – in all its various guises – has been defined as a “global epidemic” by the United Nations’ International Labour Organization (ILO).

Somehow, it seems to have become trendy to be constantly living in a ‘maxed out’ state!  Being super busy has become a ‘badge of honour’.

Perhaps, as a consequence, mental health issues now feature on many corporate agendas, where they didn’t before. In its 2012 report, the ILO also warned of a rise in mental ill-health due to stress at the workplace. 

So, what’s causing all the stress?

At work, we operate within a context of “information overload, intensification of work and time pressure, high demands on mobility and flexibility, being constantly “on call” due to mobile phone technology, and… the worry of losing one’s job”, as the ILO research summarised.

At the same time, as the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) point out “A person can experience excessive pressure and demands outside work just as much as they can at work. Stress tends to build up over time because of a combination of factors that may not all be work related. Conflicting demands of work and home can cause excessive stress.”  It seems that increased levels of stress in the home are also playing a part in many industrialised nations. A 2009 American Sociological Review study revealed that “Among U.S. men and women, 70 percent report some interference between work and non-work responsibilities” as one of the major sources of stress.  A later (2012) ComPsych study reported that personal relationships really were at the heart of 22% of American workers’ causes of stress at work. 

Emotionally-related or relationship stress is playing an increasingly significant part in the build-up of pressures people face today.

How does emotionally-related stress show up at work?

The physical effects of excessive stress on employee wellness (health) have long been recognized — from heart attacks and strokes to ulcers and other gastrointestinal disorders. Continual stress also takes a toll on the body’s immune system, causing frequent colds and other illnesses.

How stress plays out in employee well-being (mood and happiness) space, however, can also have far-reaching consequences, though it tends to receive less focus.  Imagine a lawyer fighting a very complex contractual case, while in the midst of the emotional turmoil of a divorce or long-term relationship breakdown.  Or an investment banker in a similar mind-frame negotiating a very sensitive, multi-billion pound deal, or a surgeon in the operating theatre, or military personnel out in the field…

The impact of well-being in the workplace is also much less well-documented.  While many organisations track and have clear data on the direct cost of “absenteeism” due to poor health – typically about 15% of payroll (according to a Mercer survey of employer-sponsored health plans) – they generally have no real sense for the cost of “presenteeism” (the term for where people are physically on the job but not performing due to poor well-being).

And how is it impacting our businesses?

The statistics around the enormous cost to corporates of low employee engagement whether as a result of physical or mental health issues are staggering: Leading workplace psychologist Prof. Sir Cary Cooper put it this way: “Workers coming in and doing nothing is more dangerous for the UK economy than absenteeism”.  A Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) report showed that “presenteeism” – those times when productivity takes a dive because people’s minds are elsewhere – is actually costing organisations the same again (or even slightly more) as the cost of absenteeism.  It turns out the total productivity hit is more like 25%-35% of wages.  The Guardian reported a 2014 survey (carried out on behalf of the family justice organization, Resolution) showing:

one in seven workers say relationship breakdowns have had a negative impact on their business’s productivity.”

But a second way in which relationship breakdown is hitting business is through unexpected staff turnover in an environment when many corporates are already struggling to attract and retain the best talent. The Guardian survey also showed that 9% of employees either had to leave their jobs as a result of divorce or separation from a cohabiting relationship or knew a colleague who had done so.  In 2013, the Centre for Social Justice estimated the annual cost to the government of family breakdown to be £46bn.

Here are the (literally) million (billion?) dollar questions:

What measures can a conscientious and forward-thinking organisation take to tackle this stress epidemic? How can they find the right balance for their employees between healthy levels of stress leading to productivity and excessive stress levels that lead to productivity decline? How can employers boost their employees’ capabilities to manage stress – that is, increase their emotional resilience? And how can employers address that major contributor to stress – personal relationships outside of work?

Silicone Valley is famous for its flexible scheduling, yoga classes, exercise breaks and mindfulness investment. But are these Californian measures truly the most effective ways to combat and reduce stress? Silicone Valley is far from stress-free…

Perhaps some concentration on an employee’s ability not just to reduce but to manage and regulate stress is more effective. In reality, what benefit is a trip to the gym for stress levels, or taking a mindfulness class, if an employee knows their disgruntled partner is waiting at home for a fight?

So, credit to the employers who have already started arranging for their people to go to counselling when personal relationships break down. But truly innovative corporations are the ones going further and getting to the root of the problem by proactively addressing the relationships that have the potential to cause one of the greatest sources of stress before they become problematic.  They do this by helping their employees strengthen their spousal relationships.

It turns out that investing in supporting marriages and other long-term relationships delivers benefits in at least 4 different ways: 

  • Stems the stress tide – Research has shown that healthy marriages or committed relationships actually reduce the production of stress hormones. That is, clearly and inarguably, those employees who are in healthy, committed relationships produce less cortisol than those who are not, which is contributing to “a growing body of evidence showing that marriage and social support can buffer against stress”.
  • Builds emotional resilience to deal with other stress factors – The corporate world is a more stressful place now, and those employees who have coping mechanisms for managing that stress – through becoming emotionally resilient – are the ones who are going to remain productive at work even if the environment is occasionally tough. A strong healthy marital or committed relationship opens the door to an employee taking advantage of all the stress reducers on offer – the yoga, physical activity, healthful diet, adequate sleep and mindfulness techniques that many organisations provide  – and provides the basis upon which stress can be managed and controlled. By providing the support employees need to improve their spousal relationship, employers can aid them in a lifetime of stress reduction and management that pays the corporation dividends for years to come. 
  • Reduces Costs – A healthy relationship doesn’t just help employees manage other stressors; it eliminates that significant stress of the personal relationship, and brings with it a whole host of health benefits that directly pass to an employer in terms of reduced spend on wellness: A 2013 study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology studied around 1.3 million cancer patients; it found that married men and women were less likely to suffer cancer spreading and less likely to die from it. Similarly, those in a happy relationship suffered less from heart disease, stroke, mental illness, recovered faster from major operations, and enjoyed overall greater levels of satisfaction, happiness and general health! “There is something in a good relationship that helps people stay on track,” says Katheleen King, researcher and study author from the University of Rochester.
  • Improves Productivity – A Healthways Centre of Health Research study showed that a 10% increase in well-being spending correlated with 5% increases in job performance, 6% more “best work” days per month and decreases in presenteeism by 24%, 5% fewer unscheduled absences, and a host of other performance benefits for the firm.

Concluding thoughts…

According to Kate Lister president of the agile workplace consultancy Global Workplace Analytics, employees with high levels of well-being not only cost their employers less, but they also tend to be more productive and more engaged in their work too. 

In the war for talent, investing in the relationships that matter in employees’ lives will certainly create a strong “attractor factor” for the organisations that offer this support.

By investing in relationship expertise and helping their employees build emotional resilience, employers can go to the root of the global stress epidemic, equipping their employees with the knowledge and understanding they need to strengthen the relationships that anchor them in life, create a network of support at home, and manage their health and stress effectively.

In turn, employers can begin to make a dent in this global problem that threatens developed nations’ business bottom line, and reap the benefits of a healthy, committed, engaged and more productive workforce.

Three smiling work colleagues lean on a white banister.

Written by…

You might be interested in…

Relationship breakdown and the workplace - YouGov Research Report

Download Relationships and the Workplace Report

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

30 Days Sign Up

Email course last 30 Days, during which you will be offered other Courses. Unsubscribe anytime. Data not shared with 3rd parties. See our privacy policy.