It's no secret that the U.S. has a "workaholic" job culture. Ironically, this emphasis on work does companies more harm than good. Stress isn't just bad for our bodies – it's also bad for our businesses, as it negatively impacts employee performance, turnover and long-term productivity.
With more than a third of people reporting chronic workplace stress and up to 90% of all primary care visits related to stress, with symptoms like heart disease and hypertension, we know our current "workaholic" culture isn't sustainable.
For long-term success and continued innovation, it's important that businesses take stock of how their workplace culture affects employee burnout and overall well-being. Since April is Stress Awareness Month, let's investigate the top ways that employee stress hurts business.
How work stress impacts employees and businesses
Though a low amount of stress may give a momentary productivity boost – what some experts refer to as a stress sweet spot – chronic stress has been shown to decrease employees' long-term productivity. It also stifles creativity, perception and cognitive function, which is the opposite of what companies want from their employees.
One factor is that Americans are terrible at taking time off – in many cases because they feel they will be penalized for doing so. In November 2018, CNBC reported that a quarter of Americans had nine or more days of paid time off (PTO) left in the year. Studies show that presenteeism – the act of showing up for work when you're ill – is another issue costing businesses money. Lost productivity costs about $150 billion a year – a far greater expense than absenteeism.
Employees who don't take their vacation time are sure to burn out much faster in stressful office environments, leading to higher turnover. According to one study, 40% of employees have thought of leaving their job because of burnout.
How employers can reduce their employees' stress
To avoid these pitfalls, businesses should focus on realistic expectations and employee health. Below are just a few of our suggestions.
- Encourage employees to eat lunch away from their desks. While there is no federal law that enforces lunch breaks, one hour allows a person to leave the office for lunch, go on a short walk or possibly hit the gym, and even encourages healthier eating habits. Even a few short breaks – five to 15 minutes – throughout the day can spur productivity.
- Beyond lunch, employers should normalize disconnecting from work, as it benefits mental health. Technology has us connected 24/7, which pushes us to feel that we should always be connected, but this constant contact should be discouraged. Employees who check emails and do other work-related tasks beyond normal hours actually work 36 extra days annually.
- Encouraging staff to take time off, especially when they are sick and can infect others, saves money and creates happier, higher-performing workers. Even when not sick, it's important to use PTO to recalibrate. HR teams can send quarterly reminders and even incentivize to staff to do so. Department heads and team leaders should communicate to their teams about when vacations fit well in their schedules, such as after completing a particularly big project.
Stress is built into our job culture, so it won't disappear with just a few quick fixes. The first step is accepting that much of people's work-related stress derives from trying to meet their employers' expectations. By embracing – and clearly communicating – that the well-being of employees is of utmost concern and providing actionable solutions to decrease workplace stresses, companies can tackle the problem of a burnt-out workforce.