Workplace stress management and mental health continue to top the charts as the health risk issue employers are most concerned about. The business world has changed a lot over the past decade. Competition between companies has grown since the 2008 financial crisis and, despite improving economic conditions, the pressure on employees to outperform hasn’t relented. Restructuring, downsizing, mergers and acquisitions, and widespread cost-cutting measures may have kept businesses afloat during tough times but have not come without consequence to employee morale and employee emotional well being.
In a workplace stress impact publication by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), it was estimated that 60% of workplace absenteeism is stress-related, and that the direct cost of stress to employers is about $600/employee per year or $3.5 million annually for a typical large employer.1 In another study, it was reported that 80% of workers surveyed felt the impact of workplace stress, and that nearly half felt they needed help learning how to manage stress at work.2
EMPLOYEE WELLNESS IN ACTION
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STRESS AND THE HUMAN BODY
Chronic stress has been implicated in nearly every single significant physical and mental health condition – including insomnia, depression, anxiety, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, gastrointestinal disease, and Alzheimer’s disease just to name a few.3 Because of the deleterious mental and physical impacts of chronic stress on employees, managerial tactics that intend to propel workers into a culture of high performance – “do more with less, and do so as quickly as possible” – typically backfire, costing organizations a substantial amount of money in the long term.
THE STRESSED OUT MANAGER
It’s not easy being a manager. Management typically bears the brunt of workplace pressure due to constantly increasing targets, restricted budgets, reduced headcounts, and stickhandling conflicts between stressed-out staff – all while trying to mobilize, influence, and motivate their teams. What categorized managers as “hyper performing” in the past, is today considered ordinary.
In my 20 years of both clinical and research experience, I’ve worked with hundreds of leaders to help them navigate stressful life and work situations in a healthier way. Learning to manage stress is not a simple thing to do; there is no quick fix, and no onesize- fits-all approach. However, little changes may have big impacts. Thus, this article is intended to provide two simple tools, which, if practiced twice per day for just 5 minutes, have been proven to help both alleviate and prevent stress.
THE “FIGHT OR FLIGHT” RESPONSE
The body is biologically designed to function differently when under stress. Whether you are being chased by a rabid dog or your boss gives you an unrealistic deadline – your body will essentially respond to the stress in the same way. When under stress, your sympathetic nervous system is activated to produce adrenaline to increase your metabolism, and your respiratory system is signaled to accelerate breathing to ensure adequate supply of oxygen to support the body’s stress response.
The body’s “fight or flight” response is very effective, particularly in acute situations. Nonetheless, in the case of chronic, unrelenting stress (such as stress at work) the sympathetic nervous system becomes hypervigilant. This makes the opposing response to stress, that of the parasympathetic nervous system which promotes a return of the body to a calm and relaxed state, more and more difficult to trigger.
THE LIFE-CHANGING BENEFITS OF DEEP BREATHING
If you’ve ever been to a yoga class, the practice and benefits of deep, controlled breathing are probably not unfamiliar. For others, it may come as a surprise that deep breathing has proven physical and emotional health benefits – including signaling the body to return to a calm, relaxed state.
Scientists have identified a group of neurons called the pre- Bötzinger complex – dubbed the “breathing pacemaker” – that link respiration and relaxation of the body.4 When you practice deep, slow, controlled breathing for a set period of time, you stimulate the production of hormones that help relax the body and combat the adrenaline produced when your body is under stress.
TIP #1: MAKE TIME FOR YOURSELF - EVEN IF IT'S JUST 5 MINUTES A DAY
For example, in a quiet space, pick two times per day (eg. before lunch and in the afternoon to take a break) and practice a series of 10 deep controlled breaths for five minutes. It's a simple as that!
TIP #2: PICK A PERSONAL MANTRA AND START REPEATING IT
We’ve all laid awake at night before obsessing over something bad that happened at work or in our personal lives, stressing or fretting about our kids, going through our mental “to do” lists, or criticizing ourselves unnecessarily. Instead of letting your mind run wild, try selecting a personal “mantra” and repeat it in your head to clear your mind. Your personal mantra should be a positive phrase or sentence that reflects your personal goals and values. In order to really benefit from this exercise, take the time to reflect on your personal values and goals and compose a mantra at your image. Whenever you feel that stress or anxiety starts to creep in, whether at work or at bedtime, find an intimate space and repeat your personal mantra. Try it for just five minutes, twice a day. You will find that with a little perseverance, using the practices of deep breathing and using your personal mantra to clear your mind, you will develop the ability to relax your body, minimize stress, and enjoy happier, healthier days.
-Dr. Emmanuel Poirel, Ph.D.
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Sources: https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/99-101/, https://www.stress.org/workplace-stress/. 2. http://www.stress.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/2001Attitude-in-the-Workplace-Harris.pdf. 3 http://www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/features/10-fixable-stress-related-health-problems#1. 4 https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2017/03/study-discovers-how-slow-breathing-induces-tranquility.html.
About the author: Dr. Emmanuel Poirel is a stress management clinician and has been working at the Medisys Executive Health clinic in Montreal since 1995. He holds two bachelor’s degrees (psychology and physical exercise), a master’s degree in motivation, and a doctorate in psychopedagogy specializing in workrelated stress. In 2010, Dr. Poirel was the recepient of two "best thesis" awards in Canada (Greenfield Award and Dunlop Award). Since 2011, he has been a professor and researcher at the University of Montreal, teaching master’s and doctoral courses on psychological health at work and on leadership. Dr. Poirel is passionate about workplace health and was instrumental in the development of the first global standards for “Healthy Businesses” (BNQ 9700-800) focusing on prevention, promotion, and organizational practices that support workplace health. Dr. Poirel is an experienced executive coach and a recognized leader in the fields of conflict management, “emotional intelligence”, organizational stress management, and managerial interpersonal communication.
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