It's no surprise that job-related stress has serious consequences—both on an individual level and for workplaces as a whole, costing U.S. companies alone an estimated $300 billion a year.
Research has shown that chronic stress can take a beating on our bodies, affecting everything from our heart rate and blood pressure to our digestive track and immune system. The more stressed we are, according to Sharon Bergquist, professor of medicine at Emory University, the more vulnerable our bodies become to sickness.
And work-related stress in particular has been shown to have a direct connection to poor health. According to the Behavioral Science and Policy Association, particular work stresses like job insecurity, for example, increase the odds of reporting poor health by about 50%, and high work-related demands up the odds of having an illness diagnosed by a doctor by 35%, not to mention long work hours, which have been shown to increase mortality by nearly 20%.
The researchers, who conducted a meta-analysis of 228 studies, each of which looks at workplace stressors on health, urge companies to pay attention to the serious effects on employees and take measures to prevent them. "Policies designed to reduce health costs and improve health outcomes should account for the health effects of the workplace environment," they write.
Companies are taking notice and also getting more creative in the process—trying out unconventional approaches to help employees better manage their stress.
Like a growing number of tech companies, app development agency Appster offers perks like free meals and rides to work in an effort to minimize stress. The California office has a pet husky named Howl who helps employees blow off steam, and Appster pays for outings so that employees can do fun activities together outside the workplace. "If people are stressed, you don't want them going home stressed," says cofounder Mark McDonald.
But McDonald recognizes that all the perks in the world won't make everyone happy. While venting about the boss or job has long been reserved for hushed cubicle whispers or happy-hour rants outside the office, Appster, which has around 380 employees across offices in the U.S., Australia, and India, put in place what McDonald refers to as a "weekly vent report," an online board where employees can post complaints and concerns anonymously and publicly..
The company's three offices also each hold monthly town hall meetings where issues raised on the weekly vent reports get addressed openly and in person, says McDonald. Appster also prioritizes monthly one-on-one check-in meetings for all its employees so that they are given a chance to talk about their career, and any concerns they might be having on the job regularly. "The cheapest, most effective way to help stress is simply listening to staff," says McDonald. "It doesn't really cost us except for a little bit of time, but the impact on morale is really big."
Feeling heard and acknowledged when it comes to stress management is such a critical factor that one company, Lantern, has focused on pairing stress management coaches with individuals through a virtual platform. Linking smartphones to cognitive behavioral therapy is a growing area of interest for startups and researchers looking to tap into the $200 billion mental health industry in the U.S.
Lantern takes this approach a step further by offering users not just virtual stress reduction tools like 10-minute deep breathing techniques or muscle relaxation exercises, but by pairing those with one-on-one stress management coaches who recommend specific exercises to users based on their individual needs. "The novel thing that’s happening is that companies are starting to deploy services that address these issues," says Lantern cofounder Alejandro Foung. "Companies are promoting this alongside Fitbits, walking programs, and nutrition information."
To date, more than three dozen organizations are deploying Lantern's services, including employers, universities, and insurers, says Foung. Lantern currently has eight stress management coaches, each of whom can work with up to 250 individuals. "In order to service everyone within the population, there needs to be something that's a little bit scalable," he says.
If there's any one company pioneering stress management for employees, it's Google, unsurprisingly. But the company realizes the perks that come with working there, which are plentiful, are not enough to address the stress pandemic head on.
Taking a more targeted approach, Google also offers specific classes to employees with Zen-centric names like Meditation 101, Search Inside Yourself, and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. The company also has created a both virtual and in-person community called gPause to help support and encourage meditation practice, including features like daily in-person meditation sits at more than 35 offices, what the company calls "mindful eating meals," and day meditation retreats at a handful of locations. Given its pioneering status in the world of company perks, it should be no surprise that other companies will follow suit.
"In the workplace, you can't remove stress from life," says Foung. "All you can do is react better to stressful events." Why not get creative in the process?