Reducing Stress In The Workplace: Research Round-Up
- The topic of stress in the workplace is particularly prevalent right now, as summer comes to an end and Autumn sets in,
- BlueSky Thinking takes a deep dive into recent research from top business schools about how to reduce employee stress and improve workplace wellbeing,
- From flexible working, to being set more challenging tasks, it’s clear employee wants and needs are varied, but research shows that ensuring a good work-life balance is a universal way to improve satisfaction in the workplace – something actor Hugh Jackman can advocate for.
“Having a nine-to-five is still cool, like there’s still something very sexy to that,” says Gabrielle Judge, a 26-year-old TikToker, who has become famous for dubbing the term ‘lazy girl job,’ a work-from-home role that requires minimal effort for the same reward. “But unless you take away this pressure of working pay-check to pay-check … we’re just not operating at our fullest potential.”
It seems Hugh Jackman might also be a fan of the lazy girl job. The Wolverine actor has made headlines recently for being an advocate for the 85% rule – the idea that we should try hard at things, but not too hard. The 85% rule is a rule followed by elite athletes: if they operate at 85% capacity, they will perform better in the end because they will be relaxed.
What do employees want?
The topic of reducing stress in the workplace has been one that higher education institutions around the world have been focusing on recently in their research, as the summer comes to an end, and workers are forced to confront the reality of their less-than-perfect jobs. The result has been a surge into research looking at how employers can improve the work environment.
“As artificial intelligence enables greater automation of the most basic of tasks – and with social and emotional skills taking on a yet larger role in our future workplaces – the importance of workplace wellbeing is only likely to get bigger over time.”– Dr De Neve, University of Oxford
We’ve taken a deep dive into what experts at some of the world’s top business schools are saying about how to improve the employee experience and reduce stress in the workplace.
To discover how employers can create a less stressful, enjoyable work environment, we must first look at what employees want.
Some of the results are surprising…
Mentally challenging tasks
Happier employees are generally more productive, found recent research from the University of Oxford, completed in partnership with UK employer, BT.
This in itself is hardly shocking. But the research also found that happiness was not the only thing that impacted an employee’s productivity. Jan Emmanuel De Neve Professor of Professor of Economics and Behavioural Science at Saïd Business School revealed that a boost to workplace productivity was also dependent on the task at hand.
Basic tasks – such as taking a customer’s details – showed a smaller increase in productivity than for those duties which required greater social and emotional intelligence.
Does this mean we want our work to be more difficult? Apparently so. In the study, happier workers completing more complex tasks, such as upselling package deals or retaining customers, showed a 20 percent boost to productivity.
“As artificial intelligence enables greater automation of the most basic of tasks – and with social and emotional skills taking on a yet larger role in our future workplaces – the importance of workplace wellbeing is only likely to get bigger over time,” says Dr De Neve, who is also Director of the university’s Wellbeing Research Centre.
A safe, collaborative environment
Employees who feel safe and supported at work will speak up more and take risks, boosting innovation, says Dr Anca Metiu, a professor in the management department of ESSEC Business School. Her recent research found that employees who are playful at work can generate psychological safety, through creating an atmosphere of vulnerability and comradeship.
What does playful mean in a work context? Dr Metiu gave the examples of telling a joke with colleagues, or playing a round of table tennis. Anything voluntary that is not directly related to a work task, but is still done at work.
“It’s not sufficient to just put a foosball table in the breakroom” says Professor Metiu. “The organisation as a whole needs to have a culture that encourages and supports play, including its work design and a commitment to innovation.”
Of course, many people now work from home – either full time in a hybrid set-up, making that playful work context harder to implement.
Flexibility to work from home
The flexibility to work from home is something that employees value highly, discovered new research from researchers at Chicago Booth. So much so, employees are even willing to give up part of their salary to work from home.
There are of course, financial and personal benefits of this, as employees save the cost and time of commuting by working from home. Interestingly, the study found that women – including both women with and without children – were willing to pay more than men to work from home in most countries.
The results, which surveyed participants from 27 countries in mid-2021 and early 2022 and 34 countries in April and May 2023 of mostly highly educated workers, reveal a large, favourable, and pervasive shift in perceptions about working from home.
This was supported by a recent study from Hult International Business School in which researchers, Dr Guy Lubitsh and Dr Carina Paine Schofield, surveyed respondents about the realities of working from home since the pandemic.
An impressive 80 percent of respondents rated flexibility as one of the top benefits an employer could offer. Sixty per cent of respondents listed ‘autonomy’ as one of their top three benefits, and almost one half (46%) listed ‘work-life balance’.
The respondents said that increased flexibility allowed them to appreciate a greater work-life balance; spending more time with family. Many described how the result of this could be a more motivated and happy workforce.
However, the study also offered insights into the downside of working from home. Over half of respondents (54%) agreed that they feel more isolated at work (compared to just over one quarter, 28%, who disagreed) since the start of the pandemic. Almost one half (46%) also agreed that they feel lonelier at work (compared to one third, 33%, who disagreed). Almost half of respondents (47%) agreed that the quality of their relationship with colleagues they do not work closely with became worse during the pandemic.
While working from home clearly has its challenges, the increase in hybrid working has allowed many of us to have more control over our workspaces, creating a work environment that works for us.
Physical comfort was named by IESE insights as one of the top three factors that contribute to employees’ wellbeing at work. Whether in the office or at home, working in a comfortable environment is essential for maximising performance and insuring good health.
IESE insights suggests employees would benefit from a workplace that enabled them to put focused attention on a task for a significant amount of time.
IESE Professor Sebastian Reiche says: “We are living in a world of complete information overload, increasing sleep deprivation, bad diets and constant stress.
“In order to pay attention well and focus on something for a sustained period of time, our brains need exactly the opposite: a good rest, proper nutrition, mental well-being, manageable workloads and some slack time to let the mind wander.”
For employers, this means optimising the work environment – whether this is at home or in the office – to give people the space to recharge and focus.
What can employers do to improve the employee experience?
With all of this in mind, what can employers do to improve the employee experience?
To find out how to improve workplace culture, teamwork and productivity, experts at the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative (WiN) and the global consulting company, Slalom, conducted a series of neuroscience experiments with employee volunteers.
Their results provided some interesting insights into the employee experience in the workplace, and what employees can do to improve productivity and happiness.
The study found that:
- Taking breaks can make your brain perform better at work
- Employees who work closely together think and feel similarly about their workplace
- Internal messaging resonates less with employees who aren’t engaged, which can be a challenge for global teams
The study suggests that to improve the employee experience, employers should take active steps to schedule breaks between meetings. They should advocate for incorporating a healthy mix of break types that include going for a short walk, meditating and breathing exercises, physically stepping away from the computer, etc., mixed with ‘productive’ breaks such as checking emails and chat notifications.
But it’s not just employees that benefit from a better work environment, Tiffani Bova, global customer growth and evangelist at Salesforce, writes in the Harvard Business Review. Bova’s recent research reveals that a company can increase its revenues by 50 percent by improving the employee experience and reducing stress.
Using regression-analysis, Bova and her colleagues pinpointed some of the most important factors in creating a better employee experience:
- Mutual trust: Employees must trust the organisation and the organisation must trust its employees.
- C-suite accountability: Ensuring company leadership is committed and responsive to both the business and its workers.
- Alignment of employee values and company vision: Employees want to align with their company’s values, but that makes the C-suite responsible for clearly enunciating them — and then making sure corporate actions are consistent with them.
- Recognising success: Workers who believe their success will be recognised are 2.7 times more likely to be highly engaged than peers who don’t, according to the employee engagement firm Quantum Workplace.
- Seamless technology: Technology is a tool for increasing productivity and reducing effort, and yet Bova’s research shows that technology is one of the most poorly rated dimensions of employee experience. Improving the technology can result in increased satisfaction and a better employee experience.
“These five elements are intertwined,” writes Bova. “Each builds on the others to establish a stronger employee experience and unleash new value.”
The need for feedback
Of course, every workplace is different, and improving employee satisfaction does not have a one-size-fits-all solution.
Regular feedback is needed to monitor how policies are performing. Employers need to be continually reviewing employee satisfaction and taking their feedback into account. It’s up to the organisation to ask for feedback on organisational culture and HR policies, says IE University’s Nick van Dam, Chief of the IE University Center for Corporate Learning Innovation.
By collecting this information, organisations can help improve working conditions and increase employee engagement and motivation.
“When employees feel heard, they are more likely to contribute positively to the organisation and feel more engaged. This can lead to higher productivity, less absenteeism, and better retention rates,” writes van Dam, who is also a professor at both Nyenrode Business University in the Netherlands and the University of Pennsylvania. “Based on this feedback, any pain points can be identified and addressed with appropriate action.”
Perhaps employers should follow Hugh Jackman’s lead and remember that allowing employees time to rest can actually make them more productive in the long run.
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