To reduce employee stress, make sure you’re addressing the right culprit

Man in a dress shirt and tie with his head down looking at stacks of binders on his desk

You might think employee stress comes from a poor sense of work-life balance and 24 hour access to email, but our research suggests that’s not the case. So what’s causing employees to feel stressed and what can employers do to help ease their burdens?

Employees are stressed out. According to our Global Benefits Attitudes Survey, close to half of the employees surveyed (49%) said their stress levels were either above average or high. Stress, if left unmanaged, can take its toll, affecting employee health and work performance. In fact, our research shows employees under high stress are more likely to be in poor health, disengaged from work and have issues with absenteeism and productivity.

Employers recognize the effect employee stress has on their workforce and want to provide resources to help employees reduce and better manage stress. While this is a step in the right direction, there seems to be a disconnect between what employers think is the source of stress and what employees say. By understanding the disparity between the two, employers can create an effective stress management program that delivers where it’s needed most.

So, why are employees stressed?

Findings from our 2016 Staying@Work report revealed many employers saw poor work-life balance as a leading source of stress. Advancements in technology have enabled employees to be switched on to work around the clock and employers are concerned this is having a negative impact on employees. But employees disagree. For them, stress is largely a result of more traditional concerns: the increase in financial difficulties much of the workforce is facing.

Our research finds there’s a strong link between financial difficulties and stress; those who are struggling with their finances are twice as likely to report above average or high stress (70%), compared to those who say they’re not worried about their finances (35%).

How do employees cope?

Stressed people use various ways to cope. Around 80% manage stress on their own by engaging in physical activity, using relaxation techniques or coming up with a plan to address the source of their stress. About two-thirds of employees indulge themselves, either by eating badly, smoking, drinking, or retail therapy. These negative behaviors can, in turn, lead to a downward spiral of poor health, a worsening financial situation and … More stress. Fewer than half tend to seek medical or professional help, or use the services provided by their employers, such as Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), for example.

However, when it comes to mental health, in cases of severe stress, depression and anxiety, 59% seek medical help, and 58% make significant changes to their lifestyles. More sobering is that only 26% discuss their issues with their managers and only 25% turn to employer-provided services.
What can employers do to help?

Knowing what kind of stress you’re trying to manage and who you’re trying to help is key to employers providing meaningful support. There are three things to keep in mind:

1. Tailor programs to the needs of your workforce

Address the needs of the broader workforce, where stress can sap engagement and morale, but may not reach crisis level. Since most employees manage stress on their own, make methods of coping with stress easily available, whether it’s access to a gym that offers relaxation and yoga classes, or by offering stress management and resilience classes in-house to help people tackle the sources of their stress. You should also help employees steer away from negative coping mechanisms by creating a healthy workplace culture that supports people in making the right decisions. Providing programs that address employees’ financial wellbeing can help alleviate financial concerns and in turn help them improve their financial situations.

2. Train your managers to deal with stress

Managers have a critical role in raising awareness, using company initiatives and addressing the causes of stress in the immediate work environment. Training managers to recognize when employees are coping with stress and providing them the flexibility to deal with it in a way that meets their employees’ individual needs can be a tremendous help.

3. Create a supportive work environment

Creating awareness around stress and mental health can go a long way toward creating a supportive workplace environment, making employees comfortable about disclosing their concerns and receiving the appropriate support from their managers and colleagues. Breaking down cultural barriers to admitting to stress can be crucial. In fact, findings from GBAS show that 70% of employees who have sought support from colleagues, managers or employer-provided services say they felt supported.

Final thoughts

There’s ultimately no magic bullet that will alleviate stress. Rather, careful targeting and intelligent engagement offer the best way to meaningfully address problems and help employees better manage their stressors. By stepping away from the received wisdom that work-life balance is the cause, you can make it easier to start making real, lasting change that will lead to a happier, healthier workforce.


Steve Nyce, Ph.D., senior economist and director of the Research and Innovation Center at Willis Towers Watson.Steve Nyce, Ph.D., is a senior economist and director of the Research and Innovation Center at Willis Towers Watson.


Jonathan Gardner, senior economist at Willis Towers Watson

Jonathan Gardner is a senior economist at Willis Towers Watson.

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