6 Things an Employer Can Do to Address Workplace Stress

Clare MillerResources

The Partnership for Workplace Mental Health, in partnership with DMEC, recently released a white paper on stress in the workplace. The two organizations, and the Mid-America Coalition on Health Care, recruited employer participants from an array of disciplines to participate in the study on which the paper is based, including human resources, disability management, and employee assistance. Study participants talked about the various ways their workplaces help to reduce stress or give people resources for becoming more resilient so they can recover from calamities should they occur. The paper, Employer Practices for Addressing Stress and Building Resilience, summarizes practical learnings from the study.

The study was designed using a strengths-based approach to investigate employers’ perceptions about their particular workplace’s approaches. Since the readers and members of the Partnership, DMEC, and MACHC have attracted employers with strong employee-centric mindsets, we felt confident that some interesting insights would bubble up. As it turns out, there were many positive examples and practical recommendations that surfaced among the group.

Here is our list of the top recommendations for employers who would like to do a better job of managing stress (or any aspect of mental health, for that matter):

  1. Build trust—The main message from the employer representatives was that trust is essential if you want to help people cope and bounce back from stress. Leaders must be highly ethical and should expect ethical conduct from all employees and managers. Employees and communities need to see that people are valued by the leaders and that the organization is predictable in order to build trust. It’s a cultural issue, something that’s passed down over time.
  2. Help people find their way—Organizational missions are everywhere, but employers are wise to go beyond the typical placards on the wall. Having systems to help individuals and work teams roll their own daily objectives into the broader mission can be stress reducing. Career progression is also a part of this—people need a sense that what they’re doing today, even if it’s not their dream job, is leading somewhere. Skilled mentors and managers help people have purposeful, successful experiences at work. And they celebrate accomplishments!
  3. Communicate, communicate, communicate—This is true for all levels of the organization—from leaders who meet regularly with employees at all levels and provide transparent insider news even when it’s bad news, to the managers of programs that offer specific help to people who are struggling—clear communication is key. Reduce the confusion of multiple places to call, and have one central source where people can get information and answers to their questions about their work or about educational programs, treatment benefits, and supportive services to help them cope. Invest in training to help your people learn to LISTEN and ask questions, especially in emotionally charged situations. It will be money well-spent.
  4. Provide a continuum of help—There are universal ways that employers can do a better job of reducing stress—attending to workloads, flexible scheduling, skill training, and making sure environments are safe. But there will always be some employees who need more. Provide resources through health promotion and EAP programs to help employees (and managers!) be more resilient—developing skills for thinking optimistically and rationally, believing in their strengths, finding a sense of meaning and purpose, embracing change, and honing a sense of balance. EAP can also help employees who are struggling find a way back to a better place. For those who are deeply troubled, a proactive disability management strategy can be helpful for getting people back to work more smoothly.
  5. Think multidisciplinary teams—All of this takes some planning and strategizing across multiple levels of an organization. That includes executive leaders, human resources, and a variety of program and benefit managers. Communication and collaboration are critical.
  6. Measure broadly—Many employers are getting boatloads of data from program vendors. Be sure you are doing something with it. Data integrators can help you make sense of reams of data, finding connections between the essential elements. This can be very helpful for program and benefit planning. Look beyond narrow data sets. For example, healthcare costs are only a portion of the picture. Wise employers look at broader indicators of effectiveness, such as employee satisfaction and engagement, team productivity, and overall organizational performance.

Watch an archived DMEC webinar including one of the study’s employer participants, Michael Paolercio, EAP manager of the San Francisco Giants, or read more in the November 2012 issue of the Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine.