We’re all supposed to feel stress from time to time. It’s the way the body responds to demands and dangers. A stressful event triggers the release of hormones. These hormones, according to Psychology Today, “increase heartbeat and the circulation of blood to support quick action, mobilize fat and sugar for immediate energy, focus attention to track the danger, prepare muscles for movement, and more.” This fight-or-flight response helps us overcome these challenges. It can save our life before we realize we’re in danger.

We are not, however, supposed to feel stress all or most of the time. Stress, particularly the regular or chronic variety, impedes learning and performance, and can lead to illness and other mental and physical health problems. As executive coach Sarah Noll Wilson notes, stress also makes it more difficult for us to access higher level brain functions like logic, reasoning, problem solving, listening, and empathy—all of which are not only important for us to perform according to our potential but also useful for managing stress itself.

It’s no secret, unfortunately, that many of us live overly stressful lives, more so now that we’re in the midst of a pandemic. According to the American Psychological Association, 7 in 10 employed adults say work is a significant source of stress in their lives, and overall stress levels have dramatically increased for Americans as a result of COVID-19. Some days we may feel overwhelmed by stressful situations and overloaded with stress hormones, and it’s not a coincidence that on these days we seem less able to think clearly and work collaboratively. We’re literally hindered chemically from doing so.

Why is the workplace so stressful?

The workplace can be a demanding, high-risk environment. Employees face a risk of failure and its consequences, such as a missed deadline that may jeopardize a deal or an important initiative. This risk is compounded by dynamics unique to the workplace. For instance, the workplace is often an interdependent environment, so failures or missteps are both public and can have a domino effect, affecting the success of others. Additionally, work is connected to a person’s livelihood, so failures at work can have implications far beyond the specific deliverable, including a person’s ability to support their family at home. 

In addition to these stressors are less-noticed ones. Feelings of loneliness and isolation can add to a person’s stress at work, as can mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Employees without a strong support network or those experiencing mental illness may have an even more difficult time managing common workplace stressors. Worse, their additional struggles are often invisible to managers and peers.

Similarly, managers and peers are often unaware that some employees are experiencing the stress of microaggressions (explained below) and subtle forms of oppression and discrimination. In an interview with Forbes, Minda Harts explains what it’s like to be the only or one of only a few women of color in the room: “After a while, you just start to settle into the microaggressions, you start to settle into the isolation, and you start to question everything you’re doing, and your expertise.”

And now, added to the mix, is the COVID-19 pandemic, which, to quote Sarah Noll Wilson, means “living with the constant hum of a threat” and with fewer moments “where our brain can properly rest while we still go about our day.” That’s a big issue. Chris Weller at the NeuroLeadership Institute writes, “Just as a sponge can only soak up so much water, and a computer can only process so much information, our brains have finite holding power. After a certain point, we all need to stop working, rest, and recharge.”

What employers can do to make the workplace less stressful

Not every stressor in the workplace can be eliminated, but some can. And those that can’t be eliminated can likely be managed. The foundation for reducing stress in the workplace is building a culture of trust, so employees see their responsibilities and collaboration as opportunities not threats, and providing clear priorities and measures of success, so employees feel a sense of control over their work and outcomes.  

Once that foundation is in place, here are six practices that can help make the workplace less stressful:

  • Don’t assume the worst. Because the workplace is a complicated environment to manage, employers too often grow cynical about the employment relationship. They view their employees as risks or obstacles to their organization’s success, rather than partners and agents of it. But assuming the worst about employees, for instance that they don’t care or are motivated only by self-interest, or seeing them primarily as threats or liabilities, will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It will create more drama, add more stress, and ruin otherwise functional relationships. As Cy Wakeman says in her book No Ego, “stop believing everything you think.” Instead, advises Wakeman, ask yourself what you know for sure and base your thinking and your decisions on what is, in fact, real. Tell your employees to do the same.
  • Act in good faith. There are times when the right thing to do is going to cause someone stress. For employers, it might be discipline for a policy violation, a poor performance review because of unmet expectations, or a layoff due to a shortage of work. For employees, it might be providing candid feedback to a peer, asking a coworker to cover a shift, or setting an ambitious deadline for a project. The important part is not to try to avoid these decisions and conversations, but to approach them in good faith and to be transparent about where they are coming from. Acting in good faith shows that you care about their success and wellbeing, even when making a difficult decision. It helps reduce the stress of the situation and enables others to understand and accept it.
  • Address sexism, racism, and other forms of inequality. Inequitable, unequal, offensive, or hurtful conduct are stressors that every employer needs to acknowledge and work to eliminate. Unlike other stressors, they are not inevitable.

    Microaggressions, in particular, deserve to be called out. Writing in Harvard Business Review, Ella F. Washington, Alison Hall Birch, and Laura Morgan Roberts explain that microaggressions are “verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group. For Black people, they are ubiquitous across daily work and life.” These indignities are not “small,” as the term micro might seem to imply, but rather frequent and casual. The authors cite research suggesting that “subtle forms of interpersonal discrimination like microaggressions are at least as harmful as more-overt expressions of discrimination.”

    To support the health of their employees, not to mention build an ethical workplace and comply with the law, employers must work to prevent and eliminate hostility, harassment, or discrimination, period. 
  • Promote support networks. We’re not meant to struggle with stress alone. We need others, and they need us. You can facilitate relationships and support systems among employees by facilitating mentoring programs, peer groups, and social events, as well as, in a pandemic period, giving employees access to virtual chat programs and video conferencing apps. Reassure employees that relationship-building is part of the job, and that it’s fine for them to take time during the workday to reach out to others about non-work matters and participate in activities. Managers can set the tone by participating in these chats and activities and encouraging employees to join in.
  • Provide mental health benefits, if possible. In some cases, employees who want to get the mental health care they need can’t afford the costs. Losing pay from a missed work shift might be too great a hardship, and effective treatments might be financially out of reach. These financial hindrances can exacerbate stress. In other cases, employees can afford the time off and the treatments, but they can’t make regular appointments work with their schedules. If you can offer paid time off, health insurance benefits, or flexible schedules, these can help employees get the care they need. A number of companies have taken creative measures to help employees feel less isolated during the pandemic, like offering free family counseling sessions and providing access to well-being coaches.

    An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) may be another option for employees feeling overwhelmed by stress. It gives employees access to expert, confidential assistance for substance abuse issues, relationship troubles, financial problems, mental health conditions, and other major stressors.
  • Give people permission and time to rest and recharge. Whether it be a confrontational customer, an equipment malfunction, or a controversial decision, workplace stress is practically inevitable. Employers need to proactive promote employee health so when these situations arise employees are in a good position to navigate them successfully. That means communicating that employee health is a priority of the company and providing avenues for employees to rest and recharge, whether at work or on their own time.

    Employers may set time aside during the week or month for employees to participate in activities like yoga, meditation, and mindfulness. There are known techniques, such as deep breathing, for eliciting a relaxation response when someone is experiencing stress. Educate yourself and your employees on these healthy practices for managing stress.