How to increase stress resilience and improve mental health in your organization

The world we live in today is a lot more stressful than it used to be – and that might not change anytime soon. The COVID-19 pandemic, political unrest and global tragedies are just some of the factors that are weighing heavily on our society. Two in three adults (67%) say they have experienced increased stress levels during the pandemic.

In addition to global stressors, individuals face the stress of adapting to new situations and dealing with day-to-day pressures of work, relationships, health, etc. This chronic stress can harm physical, mental and emotional health and, in extreme cases, can lead to substance abuse and suicide.

Although we do not have control over many stressors in our environment, there are steps we can take to increase our resilience to stress and improve our mental well-being and that of those around us. Organizations can play an important role in developing long-term solutions to combat stress and promote an environment of resilience for the people in their organization. Here’s how:

Understand stress

Understanding the science behind stress puts us in a better position to find ways to work with it. When most people think of stress, they associate it with negative experiences and assume it’s a bad thing. However, the reality is that stress serves a valuable purpose.

In prehistoric ages, early humans relied heavily on their biological responses to survive. When threatened, they had to fight off predators or run away from them. Scientists call it the fight, flight or freeze response. This is not a bad thing in itself, as it has served to protect our species through the ages.

The problem, however, is when we are under too much stress for long periods of time. Stress will eventually take a toll on your body, physically, mentally and emotionally. Consequences of stress may include physical symptoms, such as headaches, upset stomach, high blood pressure, chest pain, and sleep problems. It can also lead to depression, anxiety, and addiction.

The performance area

Neil Shah, anti-stress director of The Stress Management Society and founder of International Wellbeing Insights and Avetta Fellow, explains that when we find the right amount of stress, performance thrives. Too much stress will quickly lead to burnout, where we’re not as efficient, we don’t think clearly, and we’re more likely to take shortcuts and make mistakes (which can lead to accidents and injuries). On the other hand, too little stress will lead to “rusting”, which often includes a fall into depression. When we find the balance of pressures, it’s called the “performance zone,” where we feel our best.

The bridge analogy

A useful analogy for understanding how we tolerate stress is imagine yourself as a bridge. A bridge can hold a lot of weight, but if all the weight is concentrated in one place and keeps getting heavier, there comes a time when the bridge collapses. For a person, it can look like depression, a heart attack or other serious health condition, drug addiction, or in extreme cases, suicide. Shah suggests that, like a bridge at a breaking point, we can reduce stress by distributing the load or providing additional support.

Change your organization

The first step to changing your organization is to assess where you are now. This can be done through interviews, surveys, focus groups and visits. Next, create a clear vision of where you want your organization to be. Then, create a roadmap of how you’ll get there. This can include initiatives such as trainings, workshops and support pathways. The important thing is to not just focus on the initiative, but on the strategy that will lead to long-term results and lasting change.

If you need a place to start, Neil Shah offers specific ways organizations can likely improve:

1. Connect with people: One of the crucial aspects of improving mental health in the workplace is making a real connection with people. Especially in an increasingly virtual environment, we’re losing those “water cooler” conversations and truly understanding how people are doing and what’s going on in their lives. We ask: “How are you?” but never expect anything more than “Fine, thank you. And you?” The Ask Twice Campaign aims to solve this problem by encouraging people to always ask another question, like “How are you really?” “What’s going on in your life?” or “What challenges are you facing?”

2. Be authentic: If you want people to give honest answers, you too have to be authentic. Be prepared to speak openly and share your experiences, and others will feel free to do the same.

3. Don’t neglect the simple things: Encourage people to do simple things that will make a big difference in their physical and mental well-being, like staying hydrated, taking breaks, unplugging from technology, and being mindful.

4. Offer support: Make sure your organization offers support and resources to deal with stress and deal with mental health challenges and crises. Put up signs and send e-mails; make sure it is clear where people can get help if they need it.

While healthy amounts of stress can be helpful, stressors in our environment today are high and many people experience negative consequences in the form of physical, mental and emotional health issues. Organizations can be proactive and help their employees be more resilient to stress by distributing their load and providing additional support. And by focusing on real relationships, we can better understand people’s situations and avoid serious negative consequences before it’s too late. It’s not just about launching “initiatives”: it’s about developing long-term solutions and changes that will transform your organization for good.

Richard Parke is SVP, Supplier Services at Avetta.

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