Illustration by Skinkeape

Work Culture

Workplace stress is eroding our productivity


Published on July 24, 2019

On a cold winter morning, in January, 2019, serial startup founder Sonya Lee lay on her couch in her small apartment. Her back muscles had seized and the smallest movement sent searing pain rattling down her spine. Her breathing was shallow, her heart rate raised, and her brow damp with a clammy sweat. Behind her eyes, Lee was trying to make sense of the chaos that had got her here—but she couldn’t. She was mentally and physically exhausted, her morale drained and her body pushed to the point of failure. In her depths of despair, Lee didn’t suspect this moment would set her life on a course for recovery. But it would.

Living the startup grind

Lee was the quintessential startup founder: a scrappy entrepreneur who worked 12 hours a day and answered emails in her sleep—and she’d been living that life for quite some time. After leaving her job as an art director at Walt Disney, Lee had founded and run several different businesses: a private mentorship community, a design agency, a design consultancy, and a comparison website. Long nights, early mornings, and constant stress about funding, recruitment, and traction were all just part of the job.

But after several years in the startup grind, things started to change. “It got to a point where I could not even will myself to work,” says Lee in an interview with Dropbox. “My mind fogged up, it refused to cooperate and the simplest of tasks were difficult. It was at that point I had to finally admit defeat to my team.” In January, 2019, the harsh physical demands of Lee’s lifestyle caught up with her as she burned out in a physical and mental implosion.

As she lay on her sofa, contemplating the last decade of her life, Lee came to a realization: this is no way to live. The founder’s life—a slog of eternal struggle, stress, and worry—was not for her. When she had recovered from her burn out, Lee decided to walk away from a career she had spent more than a decade building. She now works as a business consultant, helping would be entrepreneurs avoid the mistakes she made as a founder. 

A nation of Sonya Lees

Lee’s story is far from unique. Employee stress levels have risen 20 percent in just three decades. More than 90 percent of workers experience stress at work and almost a third say their stress is either high or unsustainably high. And skyrocketing stress levels are having a detrimental macroeconomic effects with absenteeism rising and productivity falling.

With stress levels continuing to rise, many experts are concerned employers are not doing enough to address the underlying structural stressors. But some organizations, supported by new scientific research, are fighting back against workplace stress. By installing innovative policies, processes, and structures, they’re mitigating workplace stress and helping their employees focus on their work.

What is stress?

Stress is a much misunderstood biological reaction, according to founder of organizational development consultancy QED, Dr. Russell Thackeray. “Stress describes the process of the body using specific hormones to create the energy we need to live our lives,” says Thackeray in an interview with Dropbox. When we experience stress, our hearts beat faster, our breathing quickens, and extra oxygen is sent to the brain. Adrenaline triggers the release of sugar and fats, which pour into our bloodstream to supply energy to systems around our bodies. Our sight, hearing, and alertness all increase, preparing our bodies for the work we’re about to perform. For more substantial energy requirements, our body also produces cortisol, a steroid hormone.

Thackeray says this process isn’t just healthy, it’s essential for everyday life. “Healthy stress is called eustress,” says Thackeray. “It’s used to plan a holiday, chase your kids, and drive your car to the beach.” From an evolutionary perspective, it’s clearly beneficial. When our hunter-gatherer ancestors heard a lion’s roar or an elephant’s trumpet, their bodies needed to kick into action in a split second so they were ready to run away or fight back.

But, as most of us can attest, stress is certainly not always a good thing. “Stress becomes disruptive when our requests for energy begin to overwhelm us or when they combine with emotional cues that can trigger the fight-or-flight response,” Thackery explains. “If we experience too many emotional and workload sources of stress, we begin to experience the challenge of cortisol. As it’s a steroid hormone, the more that is produced, the more it begins to work against us and, in the long term, negatively affect our health.”

When people become overwhelmed by stress, they can experience a debilitating salvo of cognitive and physical afflictions, including increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, fatigue, burnout, concentration problems, and depression.

While many people associate serious stress-related conditions with individuals in high-pressure roles, stress affects a wide range of people. And even people who experience mild or moderate stress are very susceptible to stress-induced health and performance problems, especially if they endure over a prolonged period of time.

A growing problem

In the last 30 years, employee stress levels have jumped up by 20 percent and a huge portion of the workplace experience stress on a regular basis. And the effect of stress on those individuals is immense. Individuals who regularly experience stress suffer poorer health and lower productivity. More than three-quarters of people who suffer stress say it has a negative impact on their personal relationships and two-thirds say they have lost sleep.

These effects generate significant aggregate challenges for organizations. Stressed employees exhibit 60 percent higher absenteeism and are significantly less effective when they’re at work. Researchers claim that presenteeism—when employees come to work suffering from conditions that cause them to underperform—can cut an employee’s productivity by up to 77 percent. While employees take, on average, four sick days per year, research suggests that time lost while on the job—by being present but not working productivity—results in a loss of 58 days per employee per year, although we don’t know how much is directly attributable to stress.

With a mounting pile of research drawing a clear link between stress and productivity, it’s clear that organizations and individuals have to do something—but what?

Fighting back against stress

If business leaders are committed to promoting a lower stress environment in their workplace, they need to understand the underlying causes of stress. According to Dr. Susan Michie, professor of health psychology at University College London, we can sort workplace stressors into five categories.

  • Intrinsic to job: Long hours, work overload, time pressure, difficult tasks, lack of breaks, lack of variety, and poor physical work conditions.
  • Role in organization: Role ambiguity, role conflict, responsibility for people, and conflicts of organization.
  • Career development: Over promotion, under promotion, lack of job security, and thwarted ambition.
  • Relationships at work: Poor interpersonal relationships and difficulty delegating
  • Organizational structure: Diminished participation in decision making, restrictions on behavior, office politics, lack of consultation, and financial difficulties.

“Historically, the typical response from employers to stress at work has been to blame the victim of stress, rather than its cause,” wrote Michie in her paper Causes and Management of Stress at Work. But Michie goes on to explain that times are changing and the onus is shifting from the individual to the employer. “Increasingly, it is being recognised that employers have a duty, in many cases in law, to ensure that employees do not become ill.”

Beyond legal incentives, Michie highlights the practical reasons organizations ought to care about stress in the workplace. “It is also in their long term economic interests to prevent stress, as stress is likely to lead to high staff turnover, an increase in sickness absence and early retirement, increased stress in those staff still at work, reduced work performance and increased rate of accidents, and reduced client satisfaction,” wrote Mitchie.

To learn how organizations are starting to tackle the stress epidemic, we profiled six diverse organizations and the policies, processes, and practices they’re implementing to help mitigate stressors in each of Michie’s five categories.

Intrinsic to job: Tackling long hours

In 1908, a New England spinning mill had a problem. Historically, U.S. businesses had worked six days with a rest on the Sabbath — which, for most Christian workers, meant they took Sundays off. But the mill’s workforce had a sizable Jewish contingent and they wished to observe Shabbos, Judaism’s day of rest, which falls on Saturday. Instead of forcing Christian workers to come in on Saturday and Jewish workers to come in on Sunday, the mill decided to close entirely over the weekend, creating the five-day working week. The five-day work week quickly became the standard across the whole country.

For 100 years, we’ve accepted that five days of work and two days of rest was the best split. But people are starting to question whether that’s really the case.

“A main cause of burnout is work overload, exacerbated by the drudgery of the daily commute to and from work,” explains Jan P. de Jonge, founder of People Business Psychology, in an interview with Dropbox. “To redress the work-life balance, organisations in several countries have successfully decreased the number of hours we work.” As well as improving employees' work-life balance, de Jonge explains that a shorter work week makes people significantly more productive in the office. “Research suggests that less is more. In some countries, like Germany and The Netherlands, people work less than in the UK, whilst their productivity is higher and their economies stronger.

In 2005, Glenna Crooks, founder of Strategic Health Policy International, realized a five-day work week was putting huge pressure on her team. “Nearly everyone was a working mom and their lives could not be fit into a weekend,” explains Crooks, in an interview with Dropbox. Crooks decided to try something radical: she told her team not to come in on Fridays.

By reducing her capacity by 20 percent, Crooks says she was prepared to take a financial hit—in fact, she was expecting to take one—but her revenue never dropped. “I realized that we were knowledge workers working on lots of complex problems and we needed more downtime. By taking an extra day, we could come to work with a clear head.” And that extra relaxation time allowed Crooks’ team to increase their productivity enough over the four remaining days to mitigate the time lost on Fridays.

Role in organization: Improving role clarity

Often, job specifications are created months or years in advance of a position being filled. So when a candidate is eventually placed in a role, their responsibilities don’t match up with the contemporary needs of the organization. In other instances, employees have skills and specialities that simply aren’t being utilized in their current role, which can be immensely frustrating.

In 1981, Swedish psychology scientist Bertil Gardell defined five requirements for a healthy psychosocial work environment. The first requirement is particularly interesting. “Work should be arranged in a way which allows the individual worker to influence his own working situation, working methods and pace,” wrote Gardell in his paper Work environment research and social change. Gardell’s argument was that people understood their own strengths, weaknesses, and preferences and that made them best placed to design their role.

Organizations in Scandinavia have been quick to latch onto this idea, allowing employees to participate in the design of his or work own work situation. But outside of Scandinavia, organizations have shown little interest in collaborative role creation. If organizations follow Gardell’s advice, they can craft highly personalized roles and re-engage employees with work that they are passionate about.

Career development: Providing progression guidance

In 2014, Australia’s last remaining automaker, Toyota, announced it would end car production in the country. Part of the corporate restructuring plan involved consolidating its national headquarters and moving its entire sales and marketing team from Sydney to Melbourne, 545 miles to the southeast. Job security is a common workplace stressor—but few people ever have to deal with such a seismic shift to their career.

Toyota’s senior management acknowledged the colossal stress they were putting on their employees and implemented an employee mentoring scheme. The scheme ran between July 2015 and May 2016, placing senior managers with more junior staff members. Initially, the meetings focused on whether the individual should relocate. If mentee decided they would stay in Sydney, the focus switched to helping them prepare for their job search.

“We were all going through a difficult set of circumstances, and the mentoring program provided a good connection point,” said Naomi Bryant, general manager for Toyota’s retail business solutions, in an interview for Art of Mentoring. “The program helped participants to make a decision.”

Beyond qualitative improvements in each employee’s life, there is strong evidence to suggest mentoring schemes significantly benefit the organization itself. In 2006, Gartner published an in-depth study on Sun Microsystem’s mentoring program. After monitoring 1,000 employees over five years, Gartner discovered that employees in a mentoring scheme were significantly more loyal to an organization—72 percent of mentored employees stayed for five years compared to just 49 percent of those without a mentor.

Relationships at work: Circumventing hierarchies

Steve Jobs was a great leader and part of that was getting his employees to stand up to him. An Apple employee recalled an argument he had with Jobs over a small design choice. The employee wanted one option and Jobs demanded another. The disagreement heated up until the two men were shouting at each other. Eventually, the employee relented and allowed Jobs to have his way.

But a couple of weeks later, it emerged that Jobs had been wrong—and he was furious. Jobs went back to the engineer and yelled at him for conceding the point. Jobs told him that he had hired the engineer because he was great at what he did and it was his job to tell Jobs when he was wrong. As he mused several years later: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

In traditional workplace hierarchies, this sort of encounter is fairly common. Lower ranking employees are unwilling to challenge their superiors. And when low ranking employees know things are going wrong, this can cause significant stress, especially if they don’t have Steve Jobs to force them to fight back.

According to communication expert Kim Scott, one of the most effective ways to circumvent hierarchy challenges is through a skip level meeting. “The way this works is if you're a manager of managers, once a year you meet with all of the people who work for each of your direct reports,” said Kim, in an interview with Dropbox. So if Kim oversaw three managers — Anne, James, and Thomas — she would meet with each of their direct reports and ask how Anne, James, or Thomas could improve their management.

Because Kim is speaking to people who don’t report directly to her, they are much more likely to be open and honest. Not only do skip level meetings provide a much needed venting opportunity for stressed workers, but they allow senior managers to identify potential fixes.

Organizational structure: Increasing participation

In 1980, Alan Parfett founded a new business, a warehouse club called Parfetts. Over the next twenty-eight years, the Parfett family grew their business into a regional powerhouse, with seven depots, four retail shops, and more than 5,000 weekly customers. But, like most retail businesses, Parfetts experienced its share of challenges, chief amongst which was employee engagement.

Like many workers, Parfetts’ employees felt disconnected from the larger corporate entity. They served customers, stacked shelves, and handled the day-to-day operations but they didn’t have any input into the running of the company.

Everything changed for Parfetts in 2008 when the company embarked on an employee ownership transformation, transferring all of its shares to its current employees. As shareholders, Parfetts’ 600 employees receive a dividend twice per year, which draws a clear link between their performance and the commercial success of the business.

Alongside the ownership change, Parfetts rolled out a number of innovative supporting policies like its elected employee representative. The two representatives sit on the company’s Board of Trustees, providing a way for employees to voice their opinion to senior management.

“One key workplace stressor is the sense of lack of control,” explains de Jonge. “Employees in part-ownership have more control over their work. Besides this, these employees have more room for their own initiative and discretion. They tend to experience higher levels of health and well-being, as well as support.”

Building better workplaces

Stress is an insidious challenge to individuals, teams, and organizations. If left unchecked, it will undermine our effectiveness, alienate us from our work and, in extreme cases, leave us burned out husks. But it doesn’t need to be this way. Scientists like Dr Susan Michie have given us the framework we need to understand the causes of stress and organizations like those we profiled are showing how we can actually tackle those causes.

However, real progress requires wholesale buy-in from across an organization. It needs individuals to acknowledge the stress they’re experiencing and senior managers to own the structural causes of stress. Once we acknowledge the serious threat stress poses and start implementing policies to reduce or remove key stressors, we can create workplaces that help people work at their very best.