After taking center stage throughout the bulk of the media’s coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, blue-collar workers say they’ve gained more respect and appreciation from the people they serve—and have gained a newfound sense of appreciation for their own work as a result. According to recent findings from the Harris Poll, roughly nine in 10 blue-collar workers feel proud of the work that they do, a feeling that more than a third attribute to their ability to help others and perform purposeful and meaningful work.
But while things may be looking good for the blue-collar workforce now, that wasn’t always the case. Especially for front-line workers, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic presented a series of challenges for blue-collar workers seldom felt among white-collar industries, including cuts to their hours and thus to their incomes in the early months of lockdown, followed by a treacherous return to work when these sudden financially-stricken employees were forced to face either an increased risk of exposure to COVID-19 or face unemployment.
Even now, blue-collar workers still express concerns over their personal safety due to health hazards at work, as one study conducted by Joblist reveals that these workers were twice as likely to contract COVID-19 than their white-collar counterparts throughout 2020-21. This is in line with similar health disparities observed between the two sectors; specifically, mental health disparities that predated the pandemic, including blue-collar workers’ elevated risk and incidence of anxiety, depression, and PTSD.1
The leading reasons for these COVID-related disparities, however, all boil down to differences between work environments, as blue-collar workplaces are beset by unique physical stressors that the nature of white-collar jobs generally protects against. “Higher densities of people in factories compared to office spaces in conjunction with more constraints on ventilation and personal space, for example, exposes blue-collar workers to more health risks and hazards,” Jordan Carlton Schaul, Ph.D., a systems coach and consultant tells Verywell Mind.
But while white-collar workers may have skated by during the pandemic, avoiding both occupational infections and financial losses thanks to their ability to safely work from the comfort of home, the tide now seems to be turning, as new research finds that these workers are considerably more anxious about the post-pandemic return to work compared to blue-collar employees, citing fears concerning their ability to effectively network once back in the office, and concerns about their future career prospects; concerns that are only growing as massive layoffs across the tech and banking industries—including widely publicized job cuts from big-names like Meta, Amazon, and Twitter—further threaten their job security amidst what many experts are now calling a “white-collar recession.” This comes as both blue- and white-collar workers now grapple with increased surveillance from their employers, further evoking feelings of anxiety and insecurity.
What this Means for Workers—And Their Employers
The conditions highlighted above are all examples of psychological stressors found in the workplace: the structures, systems, events, environments, situations, tasks, hazards, and all other work contents or contexts that evoke harmful physical, mental, and emotional responses from workers, otherwise known as stress. The consequences of work-related stress on employees are vast; decades of research reveal that job stress can make employees more prone to error, leading to illness or injury, and physical and mental health issues, including symptoms like fatigue, depression, anxiety, as well as risk of stroke, heart attack, or cardiovascular diseases.
As a result, the presence of these stressors in the workplace can yield damaging results for employers, from accidents and frequent absences, to legal issues and high insurance costs. According to the American Institute of Stress, an estimated one million workers are absent every day due to work-related stress, costing US employers more than $300 billion in conjunction with losses due to decreased productivity and work-related illness and injuries. Adding to that total, research shows that employees experiencing workplace stress incur nearly twice the amount of healthcare costs accrued by their counterparts, costing US employers another $190 billion each year.
Furthermore, roughly three in five workers admit that work-related stress makes them less productive and engaged at work, and makes them more likely to look for a new job, as one study found that over two in five HR leaders say that workplace stress is responsible for up to half of their annual voluntary turnover. Even when these employees decide to stay with their organizations, their employers still lose out, as more than 90 percent of workers say that feeling stressed at work negatively affects the quality of their work.
With these outcomes in mind, it’s important that leaders familiarize themselves with the various types of stressors that may show up in their workplace, the effects that they can have on their employees, and how they can best support their employees in managing them.
Common Psychological Stressors and The Toll They Take on Workers
When it comes to who experiences higher levels of stress—white- or blue-collar workers—the research is inconclusive. Some studies have found that blue-collar workers had a 1.5 times higher risk of stress compared to their white-collar counterparts and had a higher tendency to smoke or be overweight or obese; whereas other studies conclude that the white-collar industry endures the largest amount of stress due to workers’ sedentary behavior and high decision latitude, which results in the same outcomes.2
Regardless of who experiences more stress, what countless research does suggest is that both blue- and white-collar workers are largely subject to the same or similar psychological workplace stressors in the workplace. The most common among them include:
- Heavy workloads. In a study conducted among nurses during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, findings revealed that nurses with the highest risk or incidence of burnout were also subjected to the heaviest workloads; a finding that decades of research corroborate.3
- Too much physical labor, or too little. The key to physical labor, according to experts, is balance; too much or too little physical labor can be unhealthy for different reasons. Research shows that the intense physical labor that blue-collar workers are subjected to is a significant risk factor for depression and anxiety, while high physical activity is also associated with poor health, including fatigue and even early mortality.4-5 On the other side of the scale, studies have found that white-collar workers are up to four times more likely to experience high stress due to their sedentary work-lifestyle, which is also associated with mental health issues and poor physical health.2
- High emotional/psychological demands, or too little. Some studies posit that professions where communicating with and helping others are the main components of the job—particularly healthcare, hospitality, and retail work—are the most stress-inducing, due to the heavy emotional demands that they inflict on workers, which tend to spill into their life outside of work, impacting their sleep, relationships, and overall wellbeing. One study, in particular, found that healthcare workers are at a two times higher risk of depression and anxiety than those in jobs with little to no emotional demands, such as engineering, architecture, and surveying occupations.2 However, other studies note that a lack of or low psychological demands and passive jobs are associated with a higher prevalence of a more severe presentation of mild cognitive impairment and distress; but this may have more to do with low job control or autonomy, which is another psychological stressor found at work.6
- Exposure to trauma or dangerous conditions. Unsafe workplace environments and exposure to dangerous working conditions are found to be two of the most common reasons for voluntary turnover among healthcare workers, truck drivers, and grocery workers. This is due to the stress that such conditions induce; more specifically, the fear or the concern that these conditions induce that one is unsafe while on the job, which can diminish confidence or trust in employers, putting workers on high alert, and leading to chronic stress.7 This was especially prevalent during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, where those working in public-facing jobs especially (I.e., nurses, front-line workers) grappled with a strong perceived threat to their own health and safety and the health of their loved ones as they worried about workplace exposure to COVID-19, felt alone, isolated, and uncertain about the future of their jobs if they contracted COVID-19, and also had to deal with bullying, threats, or harassment from the public over the politicization of masks, vaccines, and social distancing measures.8
- Lack of flexibility. Decades of research have shown that long hours, night shifts, lack of opportunity for breaks or time off from work, and no variety in work-related tasks are all independent risk factors for stress and other adverse mental health conditions. For instance, one study found that public health workers who were unable to take time off from work when they needed to during the COVID-19 pandemic were twice as likely to report symptoms of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation.8 A recent Japanese study also found that the increase in deaths from suicide, heart attack, and stroke among younger workers is directly associated with long working hours, work overload, and poor flexibility.9
- Lack of job control or autonomy. Research indicates that one of the principal reasonings for higher stress levels in blue-collar workers is due to their lack of autonomy or control at work: they are largely unable to control the tasks that they do, when and for how long they do them, when and for how long they work, when their breaks are, and when they have time off.10 They are also largely unable to control or improve the conditions of the environments that they work in, and have historically faced challenges when fighting for better wages, working conditions, or treatment. On the other hand, research also shows that high decision latitude is a significant source of stress among white-collar workers, who face higher amounts of perceived pressure to make the right decisions amidst high-stakes scenarios.
- Job insecurity or uncertainty (I.e. work loss during COVID-19, changes to an organization such as downsizing, layoffs, budget cuts, etc.). Over the past three years, just about, nearly all workplaces have undergone a series of organizational changes from transitions to remote work; temporary shutdowns, unpaid furloughs, or reduced hours or wages; to downsizing, merges, and budget cuts. Study findings reveal that such changes in the organization are all strong predictors of negative health outcomes, from high levels of stress, to anxiety, depression, PTSD, and substance use disorders, as workers fear what such changes mean for them. In fact, one study conducted among the Swedish working population found a link between perceived job insecurity or fear of job loss and an elevated risk of suicide, diabetes, and heart disease.11 The rise in automation across all industries has also led to an increase in job insecurity among the global workforce, as more than a third of young workers are now worried that their jobs will be eliminated as a result of tech advancements.
- Effort-reward imbalance; no room for growth. Although white-collar workers tend to be more satisfied with the sense of achievement they feel for having landed their career positions after years of education and gaining experience, both white- and blue-collar workers are at risk of stress and other detrimental health effects due to what is known as effort-reward imbalance, a mismatch between efforts spent at work and the economic, social, or organizational rewards obtained in return. This may include lower salaries than what employees may deem deserved, lack of recognition for efforts or achievement, and limited to no opportunities for promotion or career development. According to one study, workers with both a high job strain and high effort-reward imbalance have a twofold higher risk of death from cardiovascular diseases or type 2 diabetes than their counterparts with low to no effort-award imbalance.2
- Poor organizational climate. Studies conducted in China, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Sweden, have all indicated that adverse conditions within the work environment (I.e. poor communication and management skills, inadequate support from leadership, or unconducive leadership styles; hostile relationships with coworkers; and workplace violence, harassment, or discrimination) can have a negative impact on workers’ stress response and are associated with higher levels of stress.12 In a recent survey from Wrike, more than nine in 10 respondents reported that they feel stressed at work, and cited “poor communication,” “team members not pulling their weight,” and “unrealistic deadlines,” as the top three stressors contributing to their stress. Furthermore, inadequate peer and supervisor support, as well as workplace bullying, have all been associated with poor mental health, psychiatric symptoms, and suicidal ideation in employees.13
Signs and Symptoms of Psychological Stressors at Work
While it’s helpful to know the various types of psychological stressors that may be present at work, this doesn’t necessarily make them easy to spot—especially if employees (whether due to stigma or poor self-awareness surrounding their own stress levels or the cause of them) do not approach management about the stress they may be experiencing at work or the conditions that are causing such stress.
Thankfully, there are tell-tale signs of workplace stress that leaders can familiarize themselves with in order to identify stress in their own employees. These signs include:
- Social withdrawal or tense, hostile interactions with coworkers.
- Short temper, irritability, or mood swings.
- Low mood or low overall morale.
- Loss of motivation, commitment, and confidence.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Slow, poor job performance.
- Changes in dietary habits (skipping lunch, consuming more caffeine, eating more “junk” foods).
- Changes in weight.
- Alcohol or drug use (smoking at work).
- Frequent or increased absences.
- High turnover.
- Psychological disorders, including depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
- Sleep disturbances.
- Increased heart attack or stroke.
It’s important to note that while these are the most common signs of stress, stress may manifest differently between blue- and white-collar workers. For instance, research suggests that while white-collar workers, due to their higher status and perhaps less-overt power imbalance at work, are more likely to openly complain to their supervisors about the cognitive effects of stress, blue-collar workers are more likely to exhibit the more behavioral effects of stress. This is largely due to problems with communication or conflict with their supervisors due to an uneven power dynamic, as managers may be insensitive to their problems or to communications issues since most of their communication with their staff is downward.14
Furthermore, data from the CDC shows that blue-collar workers are at higher risk of suicide compared to white-collar workers, with construction and extraction workers and those who work in mining, quarrying, oil, and gas having the highest suicide rates of any occupation. Furthermore, CDC research posits that suicide risk can be linked to low-skilled work, lower levels of education, and lower-class status.15
By monitoring employees for these early warning signs of stress, employers can work towards alleviating or removing stressors in the workplace before they lead to more chronic or severe conditions like cardiovascular diseases, musculoskeletal disorders, or suicidal ideation.16-17
How Employers Can Respond
While some of these stressors are simply inherent to the nature of the job and cannot be done away with, like physical demands, organizational changes, and exposure to trauma, for example, there are steps that employers can take to lessen the adverse impact that they have on workers and improve their ability to cope with them. In fact, findings from a 2021 survey from the American Psychological Association show that more than four in five employees say that their mental health is greatly improved just by their employer taking some form of action—regardless of what that action is.
That said, here are some key ways in which employers can work to alleviate or reduce stressors, foster workplace resiliency against stress, and provide adequate support in a manner that is timely and suitable to their workers’ specific needs:
- Investigate and assess psychological stressors present in the workplace. The first and most crucial order of business is identifying the specific stressors that employees are facing at work, how these stressors are impacting their health and wellbeing, and what employees think should be done about them. One of the easiest ways to achieve this—and a good way to demonstrate awareness of current issues and a commitment to employee wellbeing—is by disseminating annual, bi-annual, or even quarterly surveys to employees prompting them to provide feedback about the current state of the workplace and how they think it can be improved.
For an example on how these surveys can be laid out or what kind of questions should be asked, leaders can refer to (or even use) OSHA’s Workplace Stress Sample Survey. Some of the questions that this survey prompts employees to answer include:
- On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the highest), what was your average stress level at work over the past month?
- Has your stress level at work increased in the past month? If yes, what factors made it worse?
- What worries you the most about your job?
- Does your supervisor talk about and look for ways to reduce workplace stress?
- Is there anything we (senior management) could do to alleviate the stress you are feeling related to work? If yes, please explain how we could make things better.
Instead of asking open-ended questions and putting workers on the spot, employers can also prompt respondents to check off boxes next to statements that they agree with, including:
- I do not think we have enough protective measures in place at work.
- I am afraid of getting into arguments with customers or coworkers who refuse to follow safety protocols.
- I am having more trouble juggling my personal obligations than I did before.
- I do not have all the tools or training I need to complete my work efficiently.
- I am worried about job security.
Employers can also use surveys to measure employees’ awareness or understanding of benefits offerings or EAPs, by asking questions like:
- Did you know that we have an EAP?
- Do you know how to use the EAP if you need support?
- Do you know how to contact an EAP representative to talk?
- Do you feel comfortable talking with coworkers or your supervisor about stress and mental health issues? If no, why not?
- Are you interested in having access to mental health resources at work, such as traditional counseling or therapy, as well as wellness programs like meditation sessions, and yoga and exercise classes?
- Do you think that we offer enough mental health support?
Ultimately, by allowing employees to participate in stress-reduction and health and safety initiatives, employers can not only develop solutions better suited to their needs, but can also boost their self-efficacy and sense of support at work by helping them to feel seen, heard, and valued.
- Continuously look for ways to redesign, redistribute, and reschedule. When it comes to helping employees manage heavy workloads, avoiding or removing this stressor may appear impractical at first, given that the work still needs to get done, but providing employees with some sense of choice, freedom, and flexibility in the work that they do and when they do it can help reduce their stress so that they are able to better manage their responsibilities.
One strategy that’s becoming increasingly common among both employers and their workers, is job rotation: in which employees rotate between two or more jobs within the organization. When employees are forced to complete the same tasks over and over again, they can soon grow bored or fatigued, which can subsequently cause them to perceive their workload to be more burdensome than it actually is. Alternatively, research shows that when employees are given a variety of different tasks at work, they become more motivated, innovative, and creative, as they encounter different situations that require different solutions. Sharing work also allows employees to get to know each other better, which can also work to reduce workers’ stress as they begin to trust that if their work piles up, they’ll be able to reach out to their peers for help.
Even without implementing a job rotation strategy, employers can assess whether certain assignments or tasks can be redistributed if an employee’s workload increases or becomes too overbearing. Another helpful way to make one’s workload seem less daunting is by considering whether tasks can be reprioritized or if deadlines can be rescheduled. For instance, if a worker has a taxing assignment that they’re working on that is time-sensitive, their supervisors can take a look at their schedule to assess whether peripheral tasks can be pushed back, if not reassigned.
By allowing workers more time to complete their assignments when they have a busy workload, employers can help to relieve stress about impending deadlines and dispel fears that they may have about not being able to get their work done or not being able to produce high-quality work. This can inadvertently help them to work faster and more efficiently as they lose their perceived sense of time pressure, which may even result in them getting their work done ahead of their rescheduled deadlines.
Employers should also strive to be fair and realistic when it comes to setting deadlines and expectations—especially in situations where workers are taking on new tasks that require them to gain new skills—and ensure that employees are encouraged to work at a pace that is natural and beneficial for them in order to prevent the risk of high stress.
- Leverage technology for a better employee experience. Although today’s workforce is overwhelmingly in favor of tech in the workforce, with over 80 percent of Gen Z workers looking for employment that allows them to work with cutting-edge technology, there seems to be a bit of a disconnect between employers’ satisfaction with tech and their workers’ satisfaction with it. New findings from PwC reveal that while 90 percent of C-suite executives believe their organization pays attention to people’s needs when introducing new tech, only about half of their employees say the same.
There are a number of factors that play a hand in this discrepancy. Of course, there’s the anxiety that tech may eliminate their jobs, which can lead to initial resistance from employees to adapt to technological changes. Then there’s the well-substantiated concern about increased surveillance. And lastly—and most importantly—is the issue of poor managerial support. Employees want to learn how to use technology—and they’re willing to put in the extra time to do so—but too many employers are failing to provide adequate training to support them.
So, what can be done?
First, employers need to be considerate and transparent in their communications with employees about any changes being made regarding technology in the workplace. Clearly articulating the purpose of added technologies, providing employees with the opportunity to raise concerns, doubts, or questions, and reassuring them that they will be supported throughout the transition is the best way to gain and sustain workers’ approval of these advancements. By giving employees the opportunity to talk about tech and participate in the rollout of new technologies, employers can get a sense of what they’ll need to be trained on.
And when it comes to training, employers should be sure to offer a hands-on experience that demonstrates real-world applications of new technologies, giving employees a chance to develop new skills and sharpen old ones; something that more than four in five employees say they want from their employers. By effectively communicating the benefits that these technologies will have on employees’ current work experience as well as their future career prospects, employers can alleviate workers’ reluctance to use new tech and thus alleviate the stress they might be experiencing due to these changes.
In order to avoid additional stress or frustration with technology—and in order to provide employees with relevant opportunities for upskilling—employers should also try to opt for easy-to-use, trending workplace technology that aims to simplify and improve employees’ work experience. This includes the use of no-code tools, dynamic access, and authorization systems, integrated apps, OKR software, all-in-one management tools like SmartTask, automated tech for repetitive tasks such as data entry, and digital workplace software like Google Workspace, Slack, and Microsoft Teams. Ultimately, what employees are hoping for when it comes to tech additions in the workplace is digital assistance, rather than replacements. Employees are still overwhelmingly in favor of face-to-face interactions at work, but would prefer digital assistance when it comes to completing some of their more mundane or technical tasks, including HR tasks, scheduling time off, and enrolling for benefits.
- Offer flexibility. Another key aspect of the workplace that employees would like to see technology leveraged toward is flexibility; growing research shows that over 80 percent of all workers would choose a job that offers a flexible schedule over one that does not. Now more than ever before, employees are searching for jobs that provide them the option to work from home either all of the time or some of the time, while even more are looking for employers that will be understanding and accommodating when it comes to other responsibilities that may sometimes pull them out of work, such as childcare, eldercare, and medical appointments. While there are some jobs that simply can’t be performed efficiently under remote or hybrid working models, employers should seriously look into whether any changes to the current schedule can be made, such as switching to a four-day workweek model, or even simply allowing more breaks, more paid sick leave, or more days off. By offering more flexible and lenient schedules, employers can ensure that employees can take the time that they need to adequately rest and get a break from work, that will allow them to both recover from stress and prevent it from accruing.
By leveraging technology to support flexibility at work, employers can also help remote workers feel more connected to their team through digital applications like Slack or Teams, and also can improve employees’ access to perks and benefits offered by their employer, including digital coaching and telehealth benefits by ensuring that workers have multiple avenues to access support besides in-person care.
- Expand benefits offerings, subsidies; implement wellness initiatives or programs. The most important step that employers can take to reduce stress and improve their workers’ wellbeing is expanding or enhancing current benefits offering. According to new research from Randstad, less than half of white- and blue-collar workers are currently satisfied with the level of health and wellness support they receive from their employers. This statistic is especially troubling for blue-collar workers, whose income generally bar them from accessing high-quality healthcare—including emergency medical care that their line of work puts them at greater need for—and whose socioeconomic backgrounds pose significantly more barriers to health compared to those of their white-collar counterparts.
Thankfully, however, experts note that there are several overlaps in the types of benefits that would best support both white- and blue-collar workers. Survey data consistently shows that extensive healthcare coverage and annual health credits (I.e. gym membership subsidies) are the most important health and wellness benefits among both sectors; specifically, fully-insured health plans with little to no-deductibles and with 100 percent of premiums covered by employers that include comprehensive mental health coverage and virtual care options, and benefits-based incentives that allow employees to earn extra PTO and stipends.
Aside from health insurance plans, the best perk that employers can offer to reduce employees’ workplace stress is access to wellness programs. According to research from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 98 percent of all large employers (200+ employees) and nearly three-quarters of smaller firms offer at least one wellness program, including weight loss, smoking cessation, nutrition and healthy living, and personal health workshops; on-site exercise facilities or gym memberships; yoga, meditation, and fitness classes; and smaller but effective incentives like offering complimentary healthy snacks and providing access to on-site water coolers.
Study findings show that there are two main wellness objectives that employers should prioritize depending on if they work in white- or blue-collar industries: (1) improving physical activity—specifically, changing sedentary behavior—for white-collar workers, and (2) promoting healthier lifestyle habits—with a focus on nutrition and substance use—for blue-collar workers.2
In order to help white-collar workers—especially those working remotely—improve their physical health, employers can consider providing employees with subsidies for standing desks, under-desk ellipticals and bikes, balance boards, and wearable fitness devices to try to reduce the time that these workers spend completely sedentary, while still being able to get work done. In fact, allowances for home office equipment—including exercise and fitness gear—have been ranked as the second-most important health and wellness benefit that white-collar workers say they look for when looking for a new job.
For blue-collar workers, wellness programs should focus on goals such as weight management, smoking and tobacco cessation, limiting alcohol consumption, and maintaining a balanced diet. For instance, in order to support clients in the trucking industry, Dr. Steve Aldana, Founder and CEO of WellSteps, developed the Stop and Go Fast Food Nutrition Guide, a free tool that helps truckers to find healthier food options while on the road, which is historically a challenge for these workers given the pervasive fast-food culture.
Additionally, wellness programs targeted toward blue-collar workers should focus on effectively promoting offerings and creating incentives for them to participate. Given the nature of their jobs—long hours, physical labors, and dangerous work environments that require extensive concentration—blue-collar workers are shown to be less likely to engage in programs—specifically, virtual programs—as they do not have the time to see what’s available online or on their phones. That said, it’s important for blue-collar employers to prioritize simple, on-site wellness programs. This includes having those water coolers, on-site kitchens or kitchenettes, vending machines with healthy food options, and free snacks; it also includes hosting in-person wellness workshops or seminars that all staff are required to attend, providing on-site access to gyms, studios, or exercise rooms, organizing on-site flu and other vaccine clinics, and disseminating interactive print outs or worksheets that workers can fill out throughout the day to ensure that they are meeting daily health and wellness goals.
Still, given the uncertainty or inflexibility of their working hours, blue-collar workers—like their white-collar counterparts—still benefit from virtual care options, including online doctor consultations, online wellness platforms, virtual wellness workshops or coaching, and access to online health and wellness education courses. In order to provide such perks, leaders should consider investing in EAPs and collaborating with both on- and off-site wellness coordinators to determine how to best promote resources and to determine which services and resources would be most beneficial to their employees.
- Organize trainings, workshops; provide opportunities for growth and development. As employers face ongoing job shortages in both blue- and white-collar industries, while new survey data reveals that seven in 10 employees lack confidence in their career prospects as a result of perceived failure to master the skills needed for their jobs, another great way to prevent workplace stress for both employees and leaders is by offering trainings, workshops, and skills development opportunities. In fact, doing so can even help leaders to improve employee retention, as new findings from Gallup indicate that lack of growth and progression is one of the main factors affecting voluntary turnout.
Some of the most common types of training currently sought after by most employees include those for hard skills, including:
- Computer skills
- Technical skills
- Management skills
- Marketing skills
- Analytical skills
- Writing skills
- Design skills
- Accounting skills
As well as soft skills like:
- Leadership skills
- Critical thinking and decision-making
- Project management
- Continuous learning and creativity
- Interpersonal skills: communication, team-building, empathy
Such training programs, workshops, or other development opportunities should be provided both in-person and online to maximize accessibility and engagement; this may even include offering stipends for employees to use for external training, or providing time during working hours for trainings. Ensuring that blue-collar workers, in particular, not only have the opportunity for skills development, but access to such opportunities as well, will be essential to their survival as demand for workers continues to rise—as well as demands for new industry-specific skills.
Experts also find that acknowledging workers’ achievements and mastery of new skills serves as a prominent protective factor against workplace stress.18 Leaders can celebrate workers’ accomplishments by saying a few congratulatory words about an employee during a team or organization meeting, or within internal communications, including weekly or monthly newsletters.
- Lead with clarity and compassion; prioritize safety and wellbeing. The best step that employers can take toward reducing both stress and stressors in the workplace—and one that many take for granted—is improving both the state and perceptions of their organizational climate through compassionate leadership. Countless studies prove that one’s leadership style can have a considerable impact on the presence of work-related stress, with a lack of support or hostile leadership styles being one of the chief causes of workplace stress.19 On the other hand, studies show that workplaces that prioritize employee empowerment and inclusion see significant reductions in stress, as well as increases in worker satisfaction, contentment, and productivity, and improvements in their overall wellbeing.20-21
There are multiple avenues through which employers can practice compassionate and kind leadership; the first of them being through leading by example. The easiest way to measure the current state of the work environment is by examining one’s own stress levels. Are supervisors, managers, and top executives under significant stress? If so, is that stress impacting how they behave in the office? How they behave toward each other or their employees? If tensions between leadership and staff are palpable, that’s as good an indication as any that the work environment is probably causing undue stress in workers.
Fortunately, leaders can leverage these experiences to improve the current climate at work by talking openly and candidly about their own stress and the symptoms that they’ve had to manage as a result. This can help to alleviate some of employees’ stress, as they learn that they are not alone and, moreover, feel more confident and comfortable about talking about their own experiences to their coworkers and supervisors. Initiating open conversations about workplace stress can also reduce stigma around health issues at work and may also result in higher employee engagement with health benefits and wellness programs.
Along with initiating open conversations with employees about stress, health, and wellness, employers can also demonstrate compassionate leadership by proactively engaging with employees and actively listening to them. This entails regularly checking in on employees to see how they’re doing, asking open-ended questions like, “How are you feeling?” “How is work going?” “Is there anything that’s troubling you or bothering you?” “Is there anything I can do to help?” After employees answer these questions, leaders should also be conscientious about validating their feelings and expressing sympathy with statements such as, “I understand,” paraphrasing the response that they shared, and providing actionable solutions.
Leaders should also be sure to encourage employees to share feedback and suggestions about further improvements that leaders can make to the workplace in order to promote safety and wellbeing, and can further empower employees by designating a task force or committee in charge of monitoring safety hazards and stressors at work.
Another integral part of compassionate leadership is the promotion of work-life balance. Leaders should strive to create a strong separation between work and life by routinely ensuring that employees are adhering to their schedules, breaks, sick leave, or vacation time—making sure that they are not still checking or responding to emails and other work-related communications while they are not on the clock, especially when they are not expected or required to respond. Additionally, leaders should consistently encourage workers to make time for self-care, encouraging them to take breaks throughout the day, and looking for or creating ways for them to take more time off throughout the year.
Lastly, in addition to compassionate leadership, employees are also in need of clarity from their leaders as well; specifically, clear benefits communication. For instance, a recent study conducted among public health workers during the pandemic revealed a glaring discrepancy between the percentage of respondents who had access to EAPs through their employer, and the percentage of respondents who thought they did.8 While EAPs were available to nearly two-thirds of respondents who reported need for such services, only 11 percent of those respondents accessed their employer’s EAP, and more than a third admitted not knowing whether their employer offered one, which resulted in nearly one in five of these respondents going without support.
With that said, leaders should come up with comprehensive and visible campaigns to promote the health and wellness benefits that they offer to their workers. This should include organization-wide messages via email, text, internal channels, and social media as well as physical flyers and handouts or in-person presentations. Leaders can also tackle both the stigma surrounding mental health and employees’ poor awareness of benefits offerings by participating in promotional campaigns throughout the year, such as heart month, nutrition month, employee health and fitness month, mental health awareness month, and other relevant observances.
For more information on how to practice compassionate leadership, employers can refer to OSHA’s Supporting Mental Health in the Workplace Checklist for Senior Managers.