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Workplace Health and Safety

How to Tell If Your Employees Are Stressed in the Workplace

Stress can have serious negative impacts on health, and hurt productivity and morale. We talked with LuAnn Heinen, vice president of well-being and productivity at the National Business Group on Health, about how to identify the signs of and alleviate stress at work.

Does workplace stress differ from average stress when not working?

Whether working or not, everyone experiences stressors such as the death of a loved one, divorce, job loss, financial setback, serious illness, caregiving, and more. For those with jobs, work stress is at or near the top of the list of reported stressors. However, individuals have different thresholds for stress, as well as unique protective factors and coping abilities. 

Stress is often exacerbated by personal attitudes and perceptions (i.e., how we respond and how much we worry), regardless of employment status. A purposeful and collegial workplace offering flexibility and support for employees can be quite protective. Alternatively, not having a job can itself be a source of stress and financial insecurity.

Are people who work a standard 9-5 job more at risk for stress?

There isn’t research on exactly this question, but the answer is likely no. Part-time work may be a necessity if full-time is not an option, either because it’s unavailable or conflicts with other responsibilities (child or elder care, for example), both of which can be a source of stress. 

In addition, part-time work is lower paid and less likely to provide autonomy and control, recognition, or tangible benefits, such as paid leave and healthcare, all factors that mitigate stress. 

Shift work (i.e., schedules other than 9-5), whether rotating, evening/night, or early morning, are clearly associated with higher levels of stress and, over time, decreased health and well-being.   

Is there evidence that employee wellness plays a role in workplace productivity?

There is evidence that lost productivity — in terms of presenteeism, being in suboptimal health/mental health at work, and absenteeism — is associated with (a) stress, including job-related stress; (b) lifestyle risks related to obesity, smoking, and alcohol/substance use; and (c) mental health and chronic conditions. 

While not every “employee wellness” intervention is successful, common sense, and a growing body of research suggest that strategies and investments to manage and mitigate stress, increase treatment access for mental health and substance use disorder, help employees manage chronic conditions, and support behavior/lifestyle change should, individually and collectively, move the dial on well-being and productivity.

What are some common signs of negative employee wellness that may go unnoticed?

Unplanned absences, consistent lateness from work, or being at work but not fully present (and therefore not performing at capacity) can be indicators. Lower quality work and/or higher error rates; sleepiness on the job; inattention to grooming or appearance of impairment; personality changes like detachment or withdrawal from social contact; and erratic behavior such as overreaction to criticism, hostility or manic behavior could all be signs. 

High or growing use of 401(k) loans across an employee population can signal financial insecurity and stress.  

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