Stress management at work - A comprehensive guide

Some people perform at their best in the workplace when they are under time pressure and working to a deadline. Others, however, literally collapse under the same stress. How is it that some people are able to handle stress at work so much better than others? According to psychologists, resilience, our inner resistance, plays a big role here. In this article, you'll learn more about managing stress in the workplace through resilience.

What is stress?

We usually only associate "stress" with negative things. Today's "To Do's", the ever approaching deadline, the unfinished household chores waiting for us at home - we feel tense, uncomfortable, overwhelmed or in short: stressed.

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But stress is not a bad thing per se. When we are confronted with a stressor, it first of all means that our body and mind are being activated. They switch into "problem-solving mode," so to speak. This ensures that we are more efficient and have extra energy to cope with an upcoming task or challenge.

Scientists speak of a "stress reaction or stress response" that takes place. The amygdala is responsible for this - an almond-shaped brain region that is part of the limbic system. Through nerve cell activation and hormone release, our body prepares for activity. Evolutionary biologists here refer to the "fight-or-flight" response that becomes necessary when we find ourselves in a "dangerous situation".

So from a perspective of evolutionary biology, stress is relevant to survival. Of course, today we are no longer exposed to such dangers that require us to fight or flee to ensure our survival. Nevertheless, stress, or a stress response, is useful and relevant to our daily work: Activating our bodies and minds helps us gain an extra dose of motivation, focus and performance.

The burden of stress at work

The positive effects of stress dissipate when stress becomes a chronic state. That means the body is constantly in a state of alertness. Such a state negatively impacts employees' mental health and can cause mental illnesses such as burnout.

It is concerning that more and more people are suffering from stress-related illnesses such as burnout. According to a study by the Techniker Krankenkasse, the number of absences due to burnout increased by 92% between 2006 and 2018. That simultaneously worsens employee mental health and increases the costs for companies. According to a study by the Institute for Employment Research (IAB), each day of absence caused by stress costs a company an average of 350 euros. In 2019, the cost of work absences due to mental illnesses amounted to 12.6 billion euros.

It is vital to reduce stressors in the workplace to decrease stress-related costs and promote better well-being among employees. A study published by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work shows that companies that invest in measures to prevent stress can save an average of 2.50 euros for every euro invested. In addition, reducing stress in the workplace can lead to higher job satisfaction and productivity. A study by the Gallup Institute shows that companies with high employee engagement are 21% more productive and achieve 22% higher profits than companies with low employee engagement.

What are the causes of stress at work?

The fact that employees feel increasingly stressed at work can have a number of causes. Often, several stressors interact and reinforce each other. Stressors that are particularly common in today's working world are the following:

  1. A high degree of work compression: With increasing speed of work processes, due to new technologies, the demands and the pressure on employees are increasing. More and more tasks have to be completed in less and less time. The thought of not meeting this expectation causes stress.
  2. Deadlines and constant availability: Deadlines can lead to employees working too much overtime. When deadlines are looming, employees also tend to check their work e-mails even in their free time. According to studies by the German Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health more and more employees today say that they feel they have to be reachable by e-mail or phone even after work hours. The result: employees do not have enough free time and distance from work to recover from stress.
  3. Lack of (positive) feedback: If employees do not receive feedback on whether their work was good, they constantly carry the uncertainty about this with them. The thought of not being good enough can cause an enormous psychological stress level in employees. If positive feedback is absent altogether, employees become less motivated, which actually reduces the quality of their work.
  4. The Corona Crisis: With the Corona Crisis, employees are confronted with additional, new stressors on top of the "regular" stress at work. Examples include the forced shift to digital collaboration, fears about the future associated with short-time work, layoffs and the economic crisis, and little or no recovery from work-life blending.

Managing stress in the workplace through strengthened resilience

With more and more people suffering from stress-related mental illnesses today, effective stress management is more important than ever. A particularly effective and sustainable tool in this regard is training your own resilience.

Stressbewältigung am Arbeitsplatz durch Resilienz / Managing stress in the workplace through resilience.

"Resilience" can be roughly described as our inner resistance to stress. More concretely, it means the ability to cope with particularly stressful times such as strokes of fate, separations, dismissals or time pressure at work without suffering any psychological impairment. It is often said that resilient people carry with them a kind of "inner shield" that repels stressors and preserves their mental health. It is as if resilient people are "immune" or "resistant" to stress. If you are interested in learning about the specific characteristics of resilient people, read this article.

Approach by Dr. Raffael Kalisch

research has shown that this resilience can be learned and strengthened. But, one might argue, wouldn't it make more sense to reduce stress in the workplace rather than make employees more stress-resistant?

The neuroscientist Raffael Kalisch, asked himself the same question. He goes even further: Would a completed training, which is supposed to strengthen resilience, lead to employees then being burdened with even more tasks by their bosses?

Of course, it must be of utmost importance for any company not to burden its employees with too much. This is true, on the one hand, because their mental health must be protected and preserved. And on the other hand, because the economic performance of the company decreases when employees fall ill due to stress.

But, according to scientist Kalisch, actively strengthening resilience offers a great opportunity and many advantages. Successfully applied resilience training for employees can lead to a reduction in the number of stress-related illnesses, relieve them of unnecessary anxiety, and increase their productivity and thus that of the entire company.

It is therefore more than advisable to provide employees of a company with resilience training or resilience coaching to actively support them in managing stress in the workplace. Sparrks Coaching offers such a specific training or business coaching on the topic of "Strengthening Resilience" in its selection of coaching topics.

Of course, it is also possible to work on your own resilience without a professional business coach. To do this, we recommend you to read the article "How can resilience be strengthened?" In it, we provide you with practical tips that you can use to work on your own psychological resilience. However, only a learning or coaching process accompanied by an experienced business coach, as is possible with Sparrks, is really promising.

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FAQ: Managing stress in the workplace

What are some typical signs of work-related stress?

Common signs of work-related stress include feeling twitchy, lack of motivation, failure to commit, increased time off, late arrivals in the office, and mood swings.

Should I quit my job due to stress?

Not necessarily. If your job is causing you stress, you can get back to healthy levels by taking on fewer responsibilities or scheduling some daily breaks from work. In more severe cases, you should consider quitting.

What can a company do to reduce stress in the workplace?

Some benefits a company can offer that reduce stress at work include telecommuting, flexible hours, paid time off, promoting healthy best practices, relevant training or coaching, and additional resources.