Why is stress in the workplace such a big deal?

During a time where we are all being faced with the biggest worldwide health crisis in most of our lifetimes, businesses, managers, and individuals may tend to overlook or even ignore an epidemic that has plagued the human race for years, mental health.

The effects of mental health on the workforce have long been downplayed. However, the threat of the mental health crisis is very real in South African Organisations, and it is being fuelled even more than usual by the unprecedented circumstances that everyone has been forced to deal with due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the biggest triggers of mental health issues in organisations is stress, which can ultimately lead to burnout.

A Bloomberg 2019 SA study revealed South Africa was ranked as the second-most stressed country in the world, while a study in 2004 discovered as many as 30% of South Africans were likely to suffer some sort of mental health issues in their lifetime.  According to the SA Depression & Anxiety Group (SADAG), “40% of mental illnesses in South Africa are the result of work-related stress, depression, burnout or anxiety disorders, and companies are losing up to 16 days every year in productivity per employee because of this”. Greater to the detrimental effects on the turnover of individual organisations, Work-related stress, and major depression, burnout and anxiety disorders are costing SA’s overall economy an estimated R40.6 billion a year – equivalent to 2.2 % of the gross domestic product.

What is Stress?

Stress is the work environment is inevitable and is usually fuelled by work demands. Most individuals actually thrive when placed under a certain amount of stress and pressure. However, it is when pressure and stress becomes consistent and excessive that problems start occurring.

Stress can cause one to start experiencing multiple side effects, both physically and mentally. Excessive stress can lead to one developing numerous mental health issues including anxiety, depression, and burnout. Physically, stress can lead to one experiencing nausea, stomach problems, loss of appetite, excessive appetite, chest pains, a rapid heart rate and body aches and pains.

According to the theory of Eustress vs. Distress, an individual’s performance is directly linked to the amount of stress and pressure that they are under. Under extremely low levels of stress, most employees will be bored and not perform optimally. However, when employees are given engaging work, fair deadlines, and support, they will perform optimally and will be experiencing eustress. When one experiences eustress, they become more energised, focused, and find it easier to work. However, when demands start to become excessive, employees will start to experience exhaustion, ill health, fatigue, anxiety, and burnout, which will lead to a crash in their performance levels.

Ultimately, if you do not manage the stress levels of your employees to ensure that they do not cause them distress, you will be harming them and the organisation’s bottom line.

From this theory, it is clear that excessive stress does not only harm individuals, but the operations of the organisation as well.

What causes Stress?

Stress is caused by a variety of different issues, but for simplicity, these can be broken down into three main categories:

  1. Personal Factors
    • These can include family issues or any general mental health issues individuals are facing.
  1. Organisational Factors
    • This can include having excessive job demands and not enough support and resources to aid employees in dealing with these demands.
  1. Environmental Factors
    • This can include social and political factors.
    • An example is the coronavirus pandemic we are currently facing.

How can I, as a manager or leader, support my employees?

As stress is an inevitable factor at work, as managers we can protect our employees and the bottom line by helping them to manage their stress. Here are a few tips to do so:

  1. Recognise them, and their stress

Employees appreciate it when you recognise that they are stressed and empathise with them. If employees continuously put in extra hours and go above and beyond to get their work done without receiving any sort of acknowledgement, it will only lead to anxiety and burnout.

  1. Respect their time outside of working hours or leave days

There is nothing worse than going home after a long day, only to be bombarded with demands, questions and emails from your boss during what is supposed to be your downtime. It is understandable that due to deadlines this is unavoidable, but try by all means to respect your employees working hours and personal boundaries, you never know what they are going through away from work.  Establish boundaries with your employees, perhaps indicate that emails need only to be attended to during work hours, but WhatsApp’s are urgent. If you do contact your employees after work hours, try to ensure that it is indeed urgent.

The same principle goes for leave days. If employees take annual leave or sick leave, try to ensure that you do not contact them unnecessarily during this time. If they go on planned leave, have a meeting beforehand to ensure a proper handover of projects that they are busy with so that you do not run into unnecessary problems.

  1. Be flexible

As mentioned, employees have lives outside of the office. Offering flexible working arrangements allows your employees to balance their lives and work in a more reasonable manner, and will help them manage personal sources of stress.

  1. Be visible and clear in your leadership

As a leader or manager, providing employees with clear-cut goals and fair deadlines will help them manage their time more effectively. Having open communication channels where you are aware of what each of your employees are busy with will prevent you from overwhelming them with work that they do not have the capacity for.

In addition to this, encourage your employees to make use of organisational interventions, such as wellness days and fitness classes, to manage their stress. If your organisation does not offer such interventions, consider coming up with team interventions to ensure that everyone remains well and healthy.

  1. There is no shame in asking for help

Sometimes we need help from professionals and individuals that can help us to manage our own stress effectively and efficiently. That is where a stress management workshop or program becomes useful. You can contact Orgro to find out more about this solution.


By Megan Carey-Wessels
Senior Consultant / Consulting Psychologist

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