Learning Lab

Reduce occupational stress in the workplace using neuroscience

By Amy Brann

The World Health Organization recognized occupational stress as a global epidemic. There is a human and financial cost to occupational stress in the workplace. However, using neuroscience, coaches can present viable solutions to reduce the occasion of occupational stress in the workplace.

Time Management

Materials, goods, office supplies, management takes inventory of many company assets. Yet organizations often overlook perhaps the most precious commodity of all in business—an employee’s time. Companies keep track of payroll. Nonetheless, do they really understand how workers are spending time?

Many organizations have checks and balances systems integrated into the culture. This is prudent to a point. However, when operational systems remove a person’s sense of control over their time, work, and resources, research shows that this lack of control creates an atmosphere of anxiety in the work place.

Take for example a supervisor that demands that team meetings occur first thing on Monday morning. That sounds reasonable. However, if Monday morning is the busiest time to receive customer phone calls, and the manager is pulling staff members from the phones for the meeting, they are not available to answer questions and serve customers. In that context, Monday morning meetings may not make much sense after all. An improved practice in that case would be for the supervisor to consult his staff in order to find out when the best time for a meeting would be, he would be able to avoid creating a great deal of stress in the work environment.

In addition to meeting schedules, it is best to step back from micromanagement and allow employees to schedule their time. Of course, there are certain activities that demand employees be present at a specific time or place and there are organizational deadlines to meet. However, the more a person is able to control the way he or she works serves to create a reduced feeling of stress, and therefore the organization may produce superior work. An example of this concept is the fact that some people are morning people; they like to do high concentration work in the morning, in the afternoon they prefer to do tasks that are less demanding, like cleaning out their email box or returning phone calls. Conversely, there are people who do not really get going in their work until 10:00AM. For them, they prefer to leave higher concentration work for later in the day when concentration is better in that case. Allowing employees to customize their schedule to their personal biorhythm creates a higher level of work productivity and less stress in the workplace.

Let it flow

A recent study of Japanese office workers demonstrated that the best resource that management is able to provide for the members of their organization is control over their work environment, information, and the best tools to do their jobs well. It sounds simple, does it not? Yet, many organizations find themselves lacking in this simple strategy.

In many organizations, we often find people waiting. They are waiting for supplies, for information, for permission to proceed, or waiting for someone to sign something. These bottlenecks in workflow add to stress reactions in biology because workers find themselves in a situation without the tools necessary to do anything about it. Good managers will do work flow inventories, ask for feedback from affected members, and work with teams to develop the best systems and practices to keep the work flowing and employees feeling empowered. This creates a positive effect that influences the workplace, reducing unnecessary anxiety and stress outcomes.

Reduce the threat

The traditional office paradigm trends toward an atmosphere of implied threat to motivate workers. For example, there is the underlying fear that one will become redundant if they do not please a disagreeable manager. This “fear and threat” philosophy of management results in an increase of the biological threat response of the manager’s subordinates. The World Health Organization’s report on occupational stress in developing nations, states that prolonged stress response has the potential to lead to physical illness, low morale, and even depression among workers. There are times when this type of management style leads to high turnover rates that incur cost of retraining. This is not a work environment conducive to optimal production.

In contrast to the traditional threat and fear style is a trust and accountability system that invites employees to do his or her best work utilizing positive incentives to motivate optimal team performance. The starting point is to hire the best and the brightest available for the company. Then allow management to take the time to discover positive and productive ways to motivate workers in their organization. This more cooperative and supportive atmosphere will promote loyalty and confidence in employees, therefore there will no longer be a need to use archaic paradigms of punishment in order to push production in the organization.

Connect with employees.

Another way to reduce stress and increase positive biochemistry in the workplace is to install a feeling that workers are appreciated and belong in culture of the organization. When workers have a feeling of connection to the organization through small tokens of appreciation, for example bringing in food to share, or a small recognition of some kind, this builds up the chemical reward system within the biology of the people in the organization. Then, when work wears people down over time, these small tokens of appreciation can reduce stress and replace it with a sense of hope and belonging that inspires people to work harder and longer than they would for someone who does not care about their well-being.

By considering a few easy adaptations, even a comment like “Thank you, I appreciate your good work,” can greatly improve employee morale. One way to approach the challenge is to think about how much it will cost to implement these changes. Conversely, a manager may think of what is to be lost in absenteeism, presenteeism, illness, and constant retraining of new employees if the organization neglects to make a few positive changes.

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