Best practices

Health at Work: What Companies Can Do to Help their Employees Fight Stress Interview with a doctor

Laetitia Vitaud

Editor in Chief

Stress has become a world-wide epidemic. Although it takes many shapes and forms and is linked to a plurality of factors, a large chunk of our stress can be said to be work-related. So what can companies actually do to help their people fight stress? To get some concrete answers, I interviewed Dr Lavinia Ionita, a London-based physician and entrepreneur, who is an expert on the subject. 

WTTJ: I’d like to start with a simple question. What is stress exactly? It seems everybody speaks about it, but nobody seems to speak about the same thing.

Dr Ionita: It’s true that stress can be experienced very differently by different people. Biologically speaking, it refers to a set of physiological mechanisms that are meant to help people react to external phenomena, like a predator, some environmental change, or anything that can threaten their life. A wildebeest develops stress when a lion is chasing them and that stress can save its life. Strong hormonal changes will help the animal run faster to escape the predator. 

When it comes to animals, either stress will save their lives or it doesn’t and they die. But either way stress comes to an end at some point. With humans on the other hand the stress mechanisms that were designed to save us from imminent dangers have often become chronic. Even in the absence of lethal threats, we undergo the same hormonal changes. Sometimes these changes can give us wings to overcome a professional challenge—that’s positive stress. But when chronic, these hormonal changes can lead to anxiety, sleep problems, digestive troubles, burnout. Stress can make us sick.

Stress was meant to save our lives and probably it did save us as a species. But now it’s triggered because we have too many emails, we are late to a meeting, we have a business presentation in front of clients, or we anticipate a difficult conversation with our manager. It’s rarely a life and death situation anymore!

Is there any medical way to measure and objectify stress?

Yes there is actually. There are a few biological indicators that can be measured. It is possible to objectify stress and understand its very real and dangerous impact on human bodies. If you rely only on an individual’s perception of stress, it’s not enough. Some people feel more stressed than others.

The first stress hormone that can be measured is cortisol. Our daily secretion follows a pattern that can be measured with several saliva samples at different times of day. Most people secrete more cortisol in the morning, then their secretions plateau and fall at the end of the day. If it’s too high late at night, then there will be insomnia. If it’s too low in the morning, it could be a sign a burnout (when you can’t handle anything anymore). But naturally it depends on individuals: people have different biologies and patterns.

Other hormones that can be measured include DHEA which offset some of the negative effects of cortisol. And dopamine, serotonin, adrenalin and noradrenalin, the catecholamine neurostransmitters whose presence in the blood increase when we are under stress. These neurostransmitters induce modifications like increased heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar. They’re the ones that help us respond to danger, run faster to save our life, for example.

Stress was not meant to be on all the time. In order for us to “have wings”, the mechanisms of stress cause all our other body functions to be sidestepped (digestion and immunity, for example). So when you’re always under stress you’re at risk of developing ulcers and hypertension, you will lose your libido, you can suffer memory losses and also get depressed. It can even be said that under too much stress, your brain will start to shrink! You are less productive and less creative.

How much of people’s stress can be said to be work-related?

Stress is a multi-factor thing. But it’s true a lot of our stress is work-related. Statistics show that nearly one in two people say they are stressed at work, but it could be more. Some people aren’t even aware of their stress. Others find it shameful to acknowledge it. In the world of entrepreneurs (which is also my world) stress is omnipresent. It comes from living in a constant state of uncertainty and fear. Entrepreneurs don’t know what tomorrow will look like and if their model is viable. They have to switch constantly from one task to the next. It’s very stressful.

In general I would say that work-related stress comes down to three things: time management (when someone has too much work on their plate and can’t handle it), wrong fits (when an employee is not the right fit for the job, or the job isn’t the right fit for the person) and toxic manager/employee relationships.

Exactly what can employers do to help their employees fight stress? To reduce stress at company level?

The most important thing is probably the most difficult: good recruiting. If you hire someone who struggles to do a job, they will develop more stress (and not be productive). Conversely, if you hire someone who finds the job too easy, they will get bored….and also develop stress as a response. The quality of your recruitments and your ability to determine who can do what, that’s what matters most. It’s a dynamic thing: over time employees must be offered opportunities that will fit their aspirations and evolving abilities. 

The second element is the company’s ability to create an environment that’s conducive to trust. People must feel safe enough to admit to being bored or to having difficulties with something. It’s a question of culture. [For more on the subject see must-read article about The Culture Code]. But a company isn’t a “family”, it’s more like a team of athletes. If one team member is too far behind or becomes toxic, it’s best to let them go. The performance of the team depends on it.

What about all the concrete things like yoga and meditation classes? What do you think of the happiness-at-work trend?

I’m a bit wary of the concept of happiness at work. I don’t think it’s appropriate to speak of happiness at work. Joy, drive, satisfaction seem like more appropriate concepts. Happiness is a passive state that seems incompatible with the inherent tensions at play when you work (when you need to solve a problem and overcome a challenge). That being said, stretching classes, meditation sessions and healthy snacks can be positive things. The risk is to create something too “totalitarian”: if an employee’s entire life (including leisure and sports) happens at the office, it could be harder to get away from work-related stress.

There are two concrete things I do believe are very effective: walking meetings and better lighting. Walking meetings could be described as a potential cure to chronic sedentarism in the workplace. A lot of research shows they have many mental benefits. They are particularly good for brainstorming (less suited to making decisions though). We all need to move a lot more and managers should encourage their employees to get off their chairs, stand, go out, walk or just move around more regularly. In many ways chronic sedentarism is the new smoking. As for lighting, research shows that an adequate amount of light improves mood and energy levels, why insufficient lighting can contribute to depression. Lighting also affects concentration. 

Last but not least, it’s essential to create an environment where concentration at work is possible. In some rooms there should be “library rules”: nobody should be allowed to interrupt anybody’s concentration. Concentration is too precious a thing.

There’s always some degree of stress at work. When is it too much? What are the signs a manager should pay attention too?

A manager should look out for personality changes in their employees. If a person changes their attitude durably, it’s a worring sign. It could be related to something personal, but it could be a sign of work-related burnout. The World Health Organization has a new definition of burnout which elaborates on these changing attitudes. For example, if somebody suddenly becomes very cynical, it’s a sign.

It’s difficult for managers to monitor stress with objectivity because they are also affected by it. They are part of the relationships that can be stress-inducing. Often, they feel helpless. I believe companies need external, more neutral actors to do that monitoring. People should be able to speak openly about work to someone who doesn’t have a stake in the company. 

Photo by WTTJ

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