How to BOOST Employee Performance by Killing STRESS in the workplace

How to BOOST Employee Performance by Killing STRESS in the workplace

Stress in the workplace has been on the rise worldwide. In 2018 one of the largest studies of stress levels in the UK showed that three quarters of people were so stressed that they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope at all.

One in three of these people felt suicidal and one in six had inflicted self harm!

Work is a contributing factor to stress levels.

During stress a chemical reaction is happening in our brain (in the amygdala) which looks out for any threat in our environment. The threat triggers distress signals throughout the brain and sets off two pathways. The first one triggers a fight or flight response – pumping adrenaline though our bodies.

The second pathway though increases our cortisol levls and other hormones in the body. Cortisol is often called the “stress hormone” because of its connection to the stress response.

Cortisol isn’t necessarily a bad guy. Both low or high cortisol levels are detrimental to the human body and either can cause serious illness. But it is needed so that it can help control blood sugar levels, regulate metabolism, help reduce inflammation, and assist with memory formulation.

These functions and more, make cortisol a crucial hormone to protect overall health and well-being.

When cortisol is released it allows the immune system to focus on specific areas in the body that feel threat. Cortisol can alter or shut down functions that get in the way. These might include your digestive or reproductive systems, your immune system, or even your growth processes.

What is stress in the workplace?

“Stress is a reaction to a situation – it isn’t about the actual situation. We usually feel stressed when we think that the demands of the situation are greater than our resources to deal with that situation. For example, someone who feels comfortable speaking in public may not worry about giving a presentation, while someone who isn’t confident in their skills may feel a lot of stress about an upcoming presentation. Common sources of stress may include major life events, like moving or changing jobs. Long-term worries, like a long-term illness or parenting, can also feel stressful. Even daily hassles like dealing with traffic can be a source of stress.”

From: “Stress”, Canadian Mental Health Association, 2018

Stress arises from the event and sometimes it may not be due to the event itself. It may not be the work it self that causes stress, but underlying activities, processes, people or systems that cause individuals to react adversely. It’s important to start recognizing how you or your employees react to events. Doing so, doesn’t just tackle stress related issues, but also tackles performance and motivation related issues.

What are the causes of stress in the workplace?

There is no one cause of stress in the workplace. Our individual personalities, experiences, emotions, and needs all play into the stress that we may feel at work. What one person deems stressful may not be stressful to another employee.

Although certain events will cause stress to be triggered for a large group of employees – such as company wide lay-offs. There will be day-to-day activities that cause stress to individuals.

Causes of stress could be any number of the following:

  • poor communication in the workplace or poor flow of information
  • little recognition for good job performance lack of systems in workplace available to respond to concerns
  • not engaging employees when undergoing organizational change
  • conflicts in the role and duties of an employee
  • discrimination, prejudice, or harassment
  • lack of overall job satisfaction
  • lack of job security
  • lack of responsibility or too much responsibility
  • abilities or skill set does not match job demand

There are a number of causes that could be impacting outside of this list also and it’s your job as the employer or manager to identify the various stress factors in the workplace. Let’s go through 5 things you and your employees can do to reduce stress and increase performance.

1. Focus on mental health

Reading, meditation, music, entertainment and humour play a big role in dealing with mental health issues. People that use humour generally deal with stress much better than those that do not.

Research also shows that the number of symptoms arising from PTSD (post stress traumatic disorder) and burnout were generally far less for people that used humour as a coping mechanism. Laughing releases hormones that help fight of stress symptoms. Not to mention that humor is also a great relationship builder. Using humour in the workplace reduces stress, while helping nurture great relationships.

You can easily encourage and foster a ‘happy‘ place of work. Simple things like:

  • Putting in appropriate jokes or funny stories in your weekly comms
  • Using icebreakers and fun activities during daily stand ups or team meetings
  • Using humour in work presentations and meetings
  • Setting up a ‘fun’ group on team chat where people share funny stories, memes, videos or giphys

Reading also boosts performance while helping reduce symptoms of stress. Creating a library in the office is great and gets employees to read in their spare time or out of hours. Even allowing reading during work hours is beneficial as reading is shown to increase creativity and productivity.

2. Focus on physical health

Exercise has a profound impact on mental health also. There are a lot of things you or your employees can do to alleviate stress:

  • Morning walks and walking as much as possible when commuting to work
  • Going for a walk during lunch breaks
  • Exercising during lunch breaks
  • Giving employees additional time to exercise during work hours
  • Creating physical activities and games during team building activities
  • Setting up an x-week health challenge
  • Participating in charity events that use a sports or athletic theme such as marathons, cross-fits, and walks

3. Get good sleep

Getting good sleep can be a challenge on its own. But a lack of it does not help reduce stress. It’s generally up to the individual to manage how they sleep. However as a business, there’s something you can do too!

With email and mobile interaction increasing, we’re breaching work-life balance more often. This has the impact of multiplying stress and its symptoms on the body. Work is generally starting to spill over into our spare time after hours.

It’s important to encourage employees to get good rest. Managers can help by not encouraging or conducting late night communication. It can be typical for workaholics and managers to send out emails and notifications during the night, after hours, or vacation time.

Granted some jobs require after hours communication. But you can prevent exponential health repercussions by avoiding unnecessary comms. Without realizing it, it can have a detrimental effect on your employees sleep and health.

For executives that are lying to them selves – it’s important to recognize if people are working after hours and during personal time. It’s only fair that you make up for it by giving them personal time during work!

4. Social proof yourself

Building a network of people that support you essential to combating stress. Research among children showed that a key to healthy development stems from healthy social interaction, stimulation and parental support. Likewise adults that can find dependable, supportive, close relationships can also combat stress.

You can find support not just those physically present close to you. But creating support groups online and joining external groups can also help. You can encourage employees to setup communities in the workplace, using external support groups

5. Meditation and mindfulness

Meditation is commonly known to reduce stress significantly. Research shows that just two months of practice can create changes in the brain that help with better emotional health and stress resilience.

Through mindfulness practice you can start training your mind and body to become more resilient to stress factors in life. A chemical called Neuropeptide Y (NPY) when released helps cope with stress – acting as an on and off switch. The chemical acts like a catalyst to turning your body’s response on to stress but then quickly turning it off when the danger is over.

An experiment on US soldiers who completed an eight week course on mindfulness showed a significant improvement in ability to cope with stress. After an ambush simulation, the solders were shown to quickly return to normal far quicker than those that did no mindfulness training.

What can I do as a business to reduce stress

Almost all of us know that a nutritiously dense diet, meditation, sleep, and exercise are good at helping cope with stress. But just knowing it and acting on on sporadically does not help manage stress in the long term.

As an employer you can become a catalyst for helping employees reduce their stress levels quickly.

For example, as an employer you can provide workplace ‘perks’ that incentivizes or encourages people to seek out stress relievers. There are numerous examples of what you can do. But for example, why not organize a walking challenge to see which individual or team has the highest daily step count? These are cheap to do and people enjoy it as there is a competitive edge to it.

You can organize lunch time physical activities including walks, running, yoga, or meditation. Why not create a whole program that will get your staff or groups interested in this to try different things? Making these competitive and assigning rewards is a great way to continue encouraging the behavior.

Also keep in mind that these ‘perks’ don’t just benefit the employee. Such things are great at helping retain good staff and prevent employee turnover. They also help boost engagement during work activities as well as increase performance.


Research indicates (and if personal experience is anything to go by) we find that some stresses are actually good for us! Pushing ourselves during a high weight gym session, watching a good horror movie, training for a new job, positive debating with a colleague, or what ever it is – some of these actually benefit us even though they are stressful activities. It will be up to the individual to decide on what stressors push them for the better, and which ones they need to avoid.

Generally speaking though elevated stress levels are harmful to everyone. A stressed out workforce can have a detrimental impact to the business. There are a number of things a business can do to reduce work induced stress. Some of these include encouraging physical activities, offering perks that encourage mindfulness, better mental health, and building resilience.

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