Work is a major source of stress. That may be obvious to anyone who’s ever struggled to meet a deadline or reported to a difficult boss, but it’s also borne out by research. Work (along with money) consistently ranks among the biggest sources of stress for adults, according to the American Psychological Association.
If work ― and being at work ― creates stress, it might reasonably follow that the most effective ways to reduce stress lie outside the workplace. But a range of companies aiming to help employees reduce work-based stress claim the issue should be dealt with at the source.
While experts may disagree over the effectiveness of de-stressing strategies and services, a cottage industry has emerged to help workplaces track and mitigate employees’ stress and, at least in theory, boost performance and productivity.
“We spend most of our waking hours at work ― so the workplace is a natural starting place for dealing with stress,” Dr. Andrew Shatté, chief science officer of the stress management company meQuilibrium, told The Huffington Post. “If companies can help employees to experience less stress, it’s a win-win – the employee is healthier and happier in their own life and more successful at work.”
It’s this prospect that has many employers paying attention. Workplace stress costs companies up to $190 billion a year, according to one 2015 study. That helps to explain why, as of last year, about 70 percent of American companies included some form of a workplace wellness program.
At a time when health perks like company gyms and fitness challenges are relatively mainstream, the bet is that mental health – including stress management – is the next frontier.
Anti-stress programs take many forms. MeQuilibrium, for instance, offers software that companies can buy to give their employees digital lessons and coaching on how to deal productively with setbacks. LifeDojo is another digital platform that creates customized 12-week programs for people to address their personal stressors. Both are accessible through computers and mobile apps.
There are also real-life consultants, like those offered by Clarity Seminars, which is run by a traveling duo of wellness consultants.
Matthew Grawitch, a Saint Louis University professor who studies workplace stress, said that increased media coverage of topics like wellness and happiness has also contributed to the rise of workplace programs, including stress-reducing offerings, from therapy to yoga.
“Whether we’re talking about the Affordable Care Act or books like The Happiness Project, happiness and wellness are big sellers,” he told HuffPost. “There also seems to be an increased push for financial wellness programming and education, given that financial stress can have a huge impact on people, and it tends to spill over into the workplace.”
So, do people actually use corporate stress management programs? And do those programs actually make any difference?
On the first point, an NPR survey found that 51 percent of respondents said their company had a wellness program, and about 40 percent said they utilized them.
Whether that constitutes a huge success or a lukewarm response, Diane Domeyer, executive director of the staffing firm The Creative Group, told NPR the investment is worth it.
“There’s a recognition that the cost of burnout — either in the form of lower productivity or, in extreme cases, the loss of employees — is more costly” than taking steps to reduce workplace stress, she said.
And as to whether the programs really help with stress, Grawitch, the St. Louis University professor, said most programs amount to “tertiary interventions,” which address the visible symptoms of stress, like yoga for a tensed body. It’s harder, he said, to address the underlying factors that aggravate stress like lack of sleep, a demanding workplace culture, and layoffs that increase people’s workload.
“Stress is a subjective phenomenon,” said Shatté, of meQuilibrium. “So a subjective measure, like a self report, does not get at the very heart of stress. But it’s also important to evaluate your stress management program in terms of all aspects of stress: sleep quality, physical health, emotional health, productivity and performance ― each of which can use ‘harder’ measures.”
One big, relatively simple thing companies can do to help with stress management is to encourage workers to take regular time off, said Grawitch.
“But that doesn’t just mean vacations,” he said. “That also means recovering in the evenings and on weekends.”
Companies need to support employees’ “self-regulation” between their work and non-work lives, Grawitch said, adding that a day or two off work on a regular basis, outside of a long chunk of vacation time, can help decrease stress in the long run.