High Stress in the Workplace is Killing Productivity
In a hypercompetitive global economy, organizations must be “on” 24/7. Yet this scramble for perpetual performance is taking a harsh toll on employees. They relentlessly push to get ahead and stay ahead —working longer days, emailing after hours, taking fewer vacations — often with little acknowledgment for their efforts. The result is a workforce that’s not just disengaged (Gallup’s 2013 State of the American Workplace report revealed that 70 percent of U.S. employees fall into this category), but also stressed and depressed.
And here’s the irony. The constant hustle aimed at increasing productivity and profitability actually decreases both, says Graeme Cowan, author of Back from the Brink: True Stories and Practical Help for Overcoming Depression and Bipolar Disorder.
Cowan says the stigma around mental health issues keeps people from seeking help. “In fact, despite depression and stress disorders being the biggest source of lost productivity, my research shows that 86 percent of those afflicted would rather suffer in silence,” he says. “That’s very bad news for employers, who may have a big portion of their workforce struggling along at reduced capacity.”
Turns out the problem is quite costly indeed. A study recently published by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that depressed workers experienced more health-related productivity losses than those without depression — costing employers $44 billion.
A big part of the problem is a phenomenon called presenteeism—meaning that people are physically at work but not engaged and certainly not fully functioning. In fact, the JAMA study found that presenteeism accounts for greater losses in productivity among depressed workers than does absenteeism.
“The loss in productivity caused by depression is extremely difficult to track because it manifests via poor performance,” Cowan says. “But companies that don’t address the elephant in the boardroom will suffer — even if they don’t know they’re suffering at all.”
Below are recommendations for leaders seeking to help depressed employees:
*Be proactive about helping employees treat depression. Provide employees with workplace resources — including a mental health policy, wellness program, and intranet materials — to help them take action to deal with their illness. Whether available via an organization’s intranet or downloadable in the form of a smartphone app, these resources must be both practical and evidence-based. To accommodate different learning styles, multimedia delivery would be optimal. Companies could also assemble a panel or list of suitable mental health professionals whom employees can feel comfortable going to when they need assistance.
*Know how to recognize the signs of depression. Of course, a key step in providing employees with the care and support they need is knowing what signs indicate they may be suffering from depression. If a normally reliable employee starts calling in sick more than usual, missing deadlines or meetings, looks tired or overwhelmed, or has a decrease in overall performance, they could be depressed.
“Employers, managers, and coworkers should also keep an eye out for changes in temperament,” Cowan says. “For example, maybe an employee was well known for greeting you and other coworkers each morning or making friendly conversation during work breaks, but now goes straight to his desk or spends his breaks alone or surfing the Internet. These could each be signs that depression has taken hold and certainly indicate it might be time to check in with them and see how they’re doing.”
* Teach managers and team members how to ask “Are you okay?” Fifty-one percent of employees believe that the most effective way to address harmful stress is “speaking to someone at work.” “This creates a compelling case to increase the will and skill of managers and team members to ask ‘Are you okay?’ and encourage the stressed employee to take action,” Cowan says. “I recommend a four-step process to building trust and helping someone you are concerned about. First, break the ice. The best ice breaker? Simply ask ‘Are you okay?’ Next, listen without judgment. Then, encourage action. And finally, follow up.
“Many managers are paralyzed by the fear of saying the wrong thing and opt for saying nothing instead,” Cowan continues. “Employees say that when a supervisor or coworker shows they care about them as a person, it is the biggest predictor of recovery and return to productivity.”
*Make sure their work fits their strengths. Engaged employees, doing work they’re good at, are happy employees. Companies can help prevent workplace depression by making sure employees are satisfied with their work. And where depression already exists, Cowan says helping the employee get back to doing fulfilling work will help them recover. “Employees achieve the greatest fulfillment from work when they’re using their strengths,” Cowan says.
Tom Rath’s book, Strengths Based Leadership, finds that employees who use their top five strengths on a daily basis are 600 percent more likely to be engaged at work and 300 percent more likely to be satisfied with their lives.
*Provide ways for employees to get exercise. One of the common symptoms of depression is fatigue and an overactive mind and underactive body. According to the Mayo Clinic, a 30-minute brisk walk improves your mood two, four, eight, and 12 hours later compared to those who don’t exercise. “A great way for companies to play a role here is to offer physical and mental wellness programs,” Cowan says. “Employees with a positive mood are 31 percent more productive, sell 37 percent more, and are 300 percent more creative. The productivity benefit that could flow from a program that builds employee physical and mental well-being is almost self-evident, especially in light of exercise’s being judged so important for recovery.”
Cowan says if a virus or other illness was running rampant through your workforce, you wouldn’t sit back and do nothing while employees called in sick or sat at their desks unable to do their jobs. More than likely, you’d find ways to help your employees get well as soon as possible. “That’s why it doesn’t make sense for employers to ignore the hold that depression has on so many of their employees,” he says. “It’s time to get this elephant out of our boardrooms. Companies that recognize the importance of helping their employees get the mental health care they need will reap huge benefits.”
Graeme Cowan knows the ravages of depression firsthand. After spending most of his life as a senior executive with organizations such as Johnson & Johnson and A.T. Kearney, he suffered a mental breakdown, culminating in a suicide attempt. It was then that he began to wonder how widespread and impactful a problem workplace depression really is.
For complete details about Cowan’s book, Back from the Brink, visit www.iambackfromthebrink.com.
Illustration by David Castillo Dominici at Free Digital Photos.net
1. Realize that YOU are in control. You cannot control the outside world, but you can control your emotional reaction to it.
2. Accept where you are. Life is like those signs that read “You Are Here.” You can get somewhere else only if you know where you are now.
3. Adopt a positive vocabulary. Use strong adjectives (e.g., “fantastic”) to describe what’s good and weak words (e.g., “annoying”) to describe what’s not.
4. Condition your mind. Train yourself to think positive thoughts while avoiding negative thoughts.
5. Condition your body. It takes physical energy to take action. Get your food and exercise budget in place and follow it like a business plan.
6. Avoid negative people. They drain your energy and waste your time, so hanging with them is like shooting yourself in the foot.
7. Seek out the similarly motivated. Their positive energy will rub off on you, and you can imitate their success strategies.
8. Have goals — but remain flexible. No plan should be cast in concrete, lest it become more important than achieving the goal.
9. Act with a higher purpose. Any activity or action that doesn’t serve your higher goal is wasted effort—and should be avoided.
10. Take responsibility. If you blame (or credit) luck, fate, or divine intervention, you’ll always have an excuse.
11. Stretch past your limits. Walking the old, familiar paths is how you grow old. Stretching makes you grow and evolve.
12. Don’t expect perfection. Perfectionists are the losers in the game of life. Strive for excellence rather than the unachievable.
13. Celebrate your failures. Your most important lessons in life will come from what you don’t achieve. Take time to understand where you fell short.
14. Don’t take success too seriously. Success can breed tomorrow’s failure if you use it as an excuse to become complacent.
15. Avoid weak goals. Goals are the soul of achievement, so never begin them with “I’ll try …” Always start with “I will” or “I must.”
To learn more, visit www.geoffreyjames.com. Adapted from Business Without the Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts You Need to Know by Geoffrey James.