For many of us who toil in the modern workplace, it sometimes seems the main exercise we get comes from aerobic stress. Much like a session on the treadmill, stress fires up our cardiovascular systems with adrenaline, gets our hormones pumping, and pushes blood to the big muscles that enable us to do heavy lifting. But unlike that hour in the gym, stress is killing us. It drives up health care costs, makes absenteeism worse, and turns people into desk-bound zombies.

In survey after survey, about 60% of American workers say work is a significant cause of stress in their lives. Employers claim to be aware of the health and economic implications of workplace stress, but do they really grasp the full economic implications of a stressor-filled work environment? Researchers at Harvard and Stanford estimate that workplace stress contributes to at least 120,000 deaths each year and accounts for as much as 5% to 8% of annual health care costs in the U.S. Would employers take more effective action if they fully understood the cost that stress imposes on their businesses? If so, what would that action look like?

Successful stress-management responses require a systematic approach. The ultimate goal is to focus resources and effort on three categories of action:

  • Modifying environmental stressors – Reducing or eliminating stressors or transforming sources of stress and pressure into opportunities for employee challenge and fulfillment
  • Changing the employee response to stress – Enhancing employees’ ability to flourish and be productive in the face of seemingly unavoidable stressors inherent in the work environment
  • Ensuring access to health recovery support – Providing effective treatment for the behavioral health outcomes of stress.

Each element plays a role in a coordinated response to workplace stressors. But they do not carry equal importance. Organizational actions to deal with workplace stressors have tended to concentrate on large-scale employer programs to change individual behavior. These programs have achieved limited success, for a simple reason pointed out by researchers Sabir I. Giga, Cary L. Cooper and Brian Faragher: “Such stress intervention practices concentrate on reducing the effects of stress on individuals and fail to reduce actual stressors from the workplace.” (my italics) As Michael Peterson and John Wilson write, “We really have not done anything to resolve unhealthy workplace cultures, so the next best thing has been to focus on the individual … What may be preferable is a multilevel approach that incorporates both individual and cultural factors that determine occupational stress.”

Within a multipart stress response strategy, organizations should give first priority – the initial action, the principal focus, the most resources – to modifying workplace stressors. Improving employees’ responses to stressors and helping people recover from stress-related illness should be secondary and tertiary strategies, respectively.

In the most effective organizations, enlightened leaders guide the stress response approach. Executives who understand the importance of workplace stress can inspire, model, and require the kinds of behaviors they wish to see at all leadership levels. These are the hallmarks of a true culture of health, a culture in which responding to stress is understood as both a prerequisite for employee well-being and a requirement for achieving the economic benefits of a healthy workforce.