The Organization & Individual Consequences of Distress

Nov 28, 2016

For quite a while now it’s been demonstrated that stress increases health risks such as heart disease, weakened immune system, cancers, and even the common cold. In addition, stress affects learning and decision making abilities. Increased perception of stress also increases the risk of premature death in humans as well as other social mammals.

Certainly stress is a positive motivator and there are methods to balance the positive influence of stress with the health consequences of distress. One of those methods is social support. In a recent study, researchers found that chimpanzees’ levels of urinary cortisol were 23% lower, on average, during activities when they were with their bond partner, including – and especially during – stressful situations, even when facing physical harm or even death. Cortisol is one of the hormones released during perceived stress situations. Researchers noted that being with a buddy increases levels of oxytocin, which may reduce cortisol secretion.

Humans are social animals, just as chimpanzees are. Social connections are necessary for survival as well as for our overall well-being. Interestingly research conducted on Facebook users found that they lived longer than those who aren’t on FB. Social connections and a sense of belonging are important not just in our personal lives, but in the workplace as well. Lack of connection and support at work often has devastating health and productivity consequences.

Over the decades, studies have found higher heart rate and blood pressure readings, as well as decreased work effort when supervisor and/or coworker support were reported as low. Similarly, several studies found that coworker support and friendship acted as a buffer to reduce stress during difficult situations with supervisors.

What to do? There are several considerations for the workplace,

  • Encourage social connections and sense of belonging during the workday and within work groups.
  • Plan open meeting spaces for impromptu employee discussions.
  • Assess levels of distress, including manager- coworker and coworker – coworker relationships.
  • Consider the mind-body connection in health and productivity. The mind-body connection is well known yet is often discounted in the workplace including in leadership initiatives as well as wellness programs.
  • Integrate safety & wellness initiatives. Distress impacts safety by influencing decision-making abilities, often resulting in injuries.
  • Address the impact of distress on leadership decision-making abilities. When decision-making ability is affected, leadership capability and organizational effectiveness are compromised.
  • Expand beyond individual factors of stressors since organizational issues contribute to, and are often the major contributors to, distress. Stress Management Programs focusing only on the individual level are missing key elements, and often actually are a disservice. Not addressing or ignoring organizational factors yet expecting employees to ‘manage stress’, not only leads to cynicism, but also is counter to – and may undo – any wellness benefits.

Fostering social connections while at the same time addressing resiliency, positive work interactions, and organizational factors are beneficial in reducing distress increasing work satisfaction, and improving productivity. The results are transformative.