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Not everyone has a boss as glamorous as Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, but many of us know exactly what Anne Hathaway feels like as she struggles to be a superhuman employee. Workplace stress, whether it comes from a tyrannical superior, an overflowing inbox, or competition between coworkers, is a major problem in the U.S.
That's according to the results of a new survey from the American Psychological Association, which found that more than one third of American employees experience chronic work stress. But what's more shocking is the fact that most workers say they don't know how to cope when stress strikes. These findings serve as a reminder that organizations need to make mental health a priority in order to maintain happy, productive employees.
What's the Deal?
In January 2013, the APA surveyed 1,501 Americans over the age of 18 who were working full-time, part-time, or self-employed. The results, published in March, showed that a third of respondents reported being chronically stressed at work. Among the most common causes of work-related stress were low salaries, a lack of opportunity for advancement, and heavy workloads.
These results aren't especially surprising - in fact, I admit I expected the number of stressed workers to be higher. The more eyebrow-raising finding is that just 36 percent of employees said their organizations offer sufficient stress-management resources, and fewer than half said their organizations are equipped to meet their mental health needs. In terms of overall health, fewer than half of employees said their organizations promote a healthy lifestyle. The survey didn't specifically define “mental health needs” or “healthy lifestyle,” but other researchers have proposed management programs that encompass everything from cognitive behavioral therapy to physical activityCan stress management at the workplace prevent depression? A randomized controlled trial. Mino, Y., Babazono, A., Tsuda, T., et al. Mental Health Section, School of Social Welfare, Osaka Prefecture University, Sakai, Osaka, Japan. Psychotherapy & Psychosomatics 2006;75(3):177-82.A synthesis of the evidence for managing strses at work: a review of the reviews reporting on anxiety, depression, and absenteeism. Bhui, K.S., Dinos, S., Stansfield, S.A., et al. Centre for Psychiatry, Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Queen Mary University of London, London, UK. Journal of Environmental and Public Health 2012;2012:515874..
Why It Matters
This research backs up findings from other APA surveys that suggest Americans aren't getting the support they need when it comes to overall health and wellness. The Stress in America survey, published February 2013, found that more than half of Americans say their healthcare provider offers little or no support to help them manage their stress. So even if American employees are looking for help outside of the workplace, chances are, they aren't finding it.
But stress management at work doesn't just mean mandatory shrink appointments for all employees (although those can work, too) Can stress management at the workplace prevent depression? A randomized controlled trial. Mino, Y., Babazono, A., Tsuda, T., et al. Mental Health Section, School of Social Welfare, Osaka Prefecture University, Sakai, Osaka, Japan. Psychotherapy & Psychosomatics 2006;75(3):177-82. A synthesis of the evidence for managing strses at work: a review of the reviews reporting on anxiety, depression, and absenteeism. Bhui, K.S., Dinos, S., Stansfield, S.A., et al. Centre for Psychiatry, Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Queen Mary University of London, London, UK. Journal of Environmental and Public Health 2012;2012:515874… Other possibilities include yoga, mindfulness meditation training, and even bringing a furry friend to workEffective and viable mind-body stress reduction in the workplace: a randomized controlled trial. Wolever, R.Q., Bobinet, K.J., McCabe, K., et al. Duke Integrative Medicine and Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, NC, USA. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology 2012 Apr;17(2):246-58..
Still, the onus isn't entirely on healthcare professionals or the leaders of business organizations to help people deal with their stress. Just 36 percent of employees surveyed said they participate regularly in any wellness programs their workplace offers. Presumably, if more workers took advantage of stress management resources already in place, the amount of frazzled employees would decrease accordingly. Other ways to combat stress on the individual level include making health and fitness a priority, taking real lunch breaks (instead of eating in front of the computer), and hitting the gym mid-day. That last one is especially important since workplace stress is associated with an increased risk of physical inactivityChronic workplace stress and insufficient physical activity: a cohort study. Kouvonen, A., Vahtera, J., Oksanen, T., et al. Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2013 Jan;70(1):3-8..
When it comes to pretty much any job, the question isn't whether we'll get stressed (we will) but whether we're equipped to handle our feelings. The latest APA surveys reveal that both individuals and the organizations they work for need to be better prepared with short- and long-term approaches for managing employee stress.
Photo by Marissa Angell
Do you often feel overwhelmed at work? How do you handle stressful situations? Share your tips in the comments below or tweet the author at @ShanaDLebowitz.