One of the most striking effects of stress is its impact on the brain and nervous system:  difficulty managing emotions, focusing attention, making decisions and thinking clearly. Add that to fatigue, depression, binge drinking, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, smoking, drug use and a weakened immune system, and it becomes clear that chronic stress harms employee health, well-being and on-the-job performance.

On a scale of 1 to 5, more than 1 in 4 working Americans say their average on-the-job stress is a 4, according to a 2017 Paychex survey. Nearly three-fourths rate their daily stress at 3 or higher.

High stress increases the utilization and cost of health care. Health care spending and ER use are nearly 50 percent greater for employees who report high levels of stress, according to IBM Watson research.

Stress is a major driver of absence; research shows highly stressed workers take almost twice as many sick days as the least stressed. And stressed employees who do show up for work are 50 percent more likely to be unproductive. Even worse, their coworkers become more stressed by coping with habitually late, absent or unproductive team members.

Stressful work conditions are also associated with the intent to quit; about 40 percent of turnover is attributable to stress levels. High-performing employees most commonly cite job stress as their key reason for leaving.

What can companies do?

1. Reduce the root causes of stress

Culture, managers, work processes and policies are key targets of opportunity. Flexible work policies, for example, improve work-life balance, increase perception of job control and eliminate commute time. Very often financial insecurity is a major cause of stress; supporting employees with financial education, student loan consolidation or repayment assistance can make a positive impact.

2. Teach employees to grow their resilience

Resilience (the capacity to positively adapt to adversity) can be cultivated; contributing factors include positivity, behavioral control, family support and sense of belonging to a community. Many large employers now offer resilience training.  

3. Provide resources for mind and body

 Mindfulness-based stress reduction programs can reduce perceived stress levels as well as self-reported anxiety, depression and anger. They also can improve positive emotions, empathy and life satisfaction. Physical activity, yoga or tai chi and access to relaxation areas is also beneficial.

With stress increasing, so is awareness of its threat to work and health. To combat this trend, employers and their well-being partners are increasingly focusing on evidence-based strategies to mitigate real-time and downstream effects of unproductive stress.