The Stress Pandemic in the Workplace

Performance, Sleep

There I am in the picture talking about stress....and work.

The workplace is the #1 driver of habitual stress, so employers have an incredible opportunity to make a difference in employee health, and their bottom line. When up to 70% of doctor visits are stress related, and stress is the 3rd costliest underlying issue in health, one of the most obvious ways to be healthier, live longer and reduce individual and population healthcare costs is to get control of how the body and mind respond to daily stressors.  We suggest everyone begin with basic education on the health and financial value of regular stress reduction.  

Modern medical science understands better than ever why low-grade daily stress takes a tremendous physical and mental health toll, and often quite quickly. The brain, heart, lungs, bones and muscles -- even our genes -- are the daily recipients of the stress we absorb, whether it's real or perceived. Heart rate, blood pressure and general cardiovascular health are tightly coupled to the stress response. Even minor repetitive stress - physical or mental - causes damaging stress hormones to be released throughout the body, adding to inflammation and weight gain, among other symptoms. Stress makes it harder to focus, remember things, manage social interaction, and - of course - to sleep at night. There is even strong evidence that prolonged stress activates disease-causing genes!   

For US employers the toll of stress is $300 billion to $1 trillion each year in the form of healthcare cost increases and employee absenteeism. Wellness programs have historically had difficulty with stress because it's hard to eliminate root causes, and education or tools have been limited. Stress remedies have been typically silo-ed within either Asian culture and traditions, which are not accessible to many, or interventional Western medicine, which often addresses stress only after health issues have arisen. The most common prescription for stress - exercise - is very effective, as are practices like yoga or mediation.  But even these won't give you all of the tools and skills to manage stress day-to-day, moment-to-moment. And, what about those who can't or won't exercise daily?  Isn't it crazy that there aren't better options for proactively managing stress in the workplace?  

Recent studies show that a regular relaxation response in the body is deeply effective in the moment, and builds strong resilience to stress over time -- measurable results appear after 2 months of practice and improve dramatically thereafter. Taking just a few minutes each day to relax starts a systemic improvement in gene de-activation, reduced inflammation, improved brain function, and decreased vulnerability to all types of disease. Developing the mind body connection even creates conditions for healing from many types of injury, pain or trauma, which is often at the root of stress or high-risk behavior. Since employers must also look at their bottom line, mindfulness practices are shown to reduce healthcare utilization by 43% and healthcare giant Aetna has even shown annual ROI per employee to be $3,000, just on improved productivity and lost absenteeism! Healthcare costs savings are on top of that. As an employer or individual, self-care is arguably the essential ingredient in healthcare, and managing stress is a huge piece.

Life involves stress. Our biggest stressors - work, money, family, illness - can often not be eliminated. As an employer, or an employee, we can start by helping others understand the costs of not addressing habitual stress more effectively, and the financial and health outcome opportunities available to those who want to proactively do something about it.