We are all becoming increasingly aware of the negative impact of stress. Heart problems, mental health issues, migraines and strokes are just a few of the things that can be exacerbated – or even caused – by too much pressure. It’s also increasingly clear that stress is bad for business. According to the American Institute of Stress, over half of the 550 million working days lost annually in the U.S. are stress related, and unanticipated absenteeism is estimated to cost American companies $602.00/ per worker per year.

On a personal level, and when considering your staff, this is something business leaders have to think about.

There is however the competing idea that stress is a necessary and even useful part of running a business. Being stressed can be seen as a badge of honour, proving to you and your staff that you care about the success of your business, sharpening your senses and giving you that shot of adrenalin needed to go the extra mile. For many both of these things seem true, and it’s often difficult to know where to draw the line.

Many corporations, such as Google, have become so concerned about the impact of stress on their business that they began implementing corporate wellbeing programs. Johnson & Johnson, for example, offers access to massage therapists as part of its stress management programme, while Adidas gives employees the option to see life coaches and specialists trained in cognitive behavioural therapy. But others are nervous that such strategies could make them lose their edge, and instead rely on tighter deadlines and motivating pressure.

With this in mind, how much does stress propel you and your business forward, and how much does it damage your progress? This post will help you strike a balance with stress in business.

How the stress response works and why it can be helpful.

While too much stress is demonstrably bad for us, in terms of our survival over the millennia of evolution it has been vital, and is still occasionally useful today – even though we no longer have to outrun predators or battle a neighbouring tribe. The stress response is an ancient part of our physiology, and when stressed the body responds as if it was under attack, going into “fight, flight or freeze” mode. Releasing a mix of hormone our body reacts in variety of ways, from blood flowing into our muscles to digestion shutting down.

It can be argued that stress offers a sense of urgency, and the short-term burst of energy needed to get something done in a limited time frame. It can also, if only for a short time, focus our attention. When experienced on occasion the effects of stress dissipate in the long rest periods between stressful episodes and do no harm.

Why the motivating influence of stress can be overrated.

It’s true that in some moments an injection of stress can give us a boost. Whether it makes us work faster, think quicker or increase our energy, sometimes we just need a bit of pressure to really push ourselves and achieve our goals. Yet this can quickly become counter-productive. Feeling constantly under pressure and overwhelmed can actually hinder performance, with those who are stressed finding it difficult to concentrate, remember things effectively and come to sensible decisions.

While it’s true that stress can help you focus in the short term, being stressed out consistently makes it difficult to think with any kind of clarity or focus. This is especially true when we are presented with multiple tasks of equal urgency and not enough time to complete all of them – which is when panic sets in. Furthermore, when stress is due to tense relationships with colleagues, bad management, long commutes or other factors not directly associated with the actual job, it is much more likely to de-motivate you and your staff than fire you all up. Lack of sleep, mental exhaustion and health problems are the long-term consequences of being overly stressed, none of which translate well into the working environment.

How to Strike a Balance.

As someone who runs a business, it’s almost inevitable that you will have to deal with a certain amount of stress on a daily basis. There’s also going to be times as you grow that you may have to ask your staff to really push themselves, and put in an extra effort. The key to ensuring that this doesn’t get out of control is to foster a company culture in which stress cannot become embedded and damage your business. Some ways to do this are:

  • Avoid presenteeism. Having your staff at work for 4 hours longer than the usual working day does nothing to improve productivity and creates a high-pressure atmosphere, where people are worried about leaving at the proper time for fear of appearing uncommitted to their role. If you pay overtime, cap the extra hours your staff can work each week, and apply this rule to yourself. Instead, encourage a healthy work/life balance, and make sure that you and the people that work for you get the rest they need.
  • Make sure that everyone has the time, information and resources necessary in order to complete what is asked of them – including you. Don’t take on any extra responsibilities that you simply don’t have the time or resources to handle confidently.
  • Ensure that neither you or anyone with authority over others in your company adopts a intimidating, short-tempered style when dealing with staff, and that everyone in authority knows how to communicate effectively. Bad management is considered to be one of the biggest causes of workplace stress. Whether this is through incompetence, a lack of time which means managers don’t get a chance to praise and encourage staff, or a bullying manner which puts staff under unbearable pressure, if there seems to be an atmosphere of stress in your company take a close look at how it’s managed.
  • Pay fairly, and make sure that everyone gets their pay packet accurately and on time. This may seem obvious, but mistakes happen – even in large businesses – surprisingly often. Sometimes (especially when staff often work impromptu overtime) it can be difficult to keep on top of this and you may lose track, in which case you should resolve the issue immediately. With bills and commitments, there’s little likely to stress out your staff more than less pay than they were expecting, and such mistakes create a feeling of mistrust.
  • For the most part, enforce a policy where you and everyone else takes their lunch break (ideally away from their desks) and dedicate 15 minutes or so a day to a relaxing or meditative activity. Also remember every now and then to treat staff, whether it’s by letting them go half an hour early or ordering in a takeaway – especially in they’ve had to put in a special effort and you’ve asked more of them than usual. Knowing that hard work is rewarded rather than a thankless task will make any stress feel less intense, and this is an attitude you should also apply to yourself.

The solutions to workplace stress are quite simple, but it does require a commitment to think about the long-term health of the business, not its short-term demands. By striking a balance with stress in business, you can harness the short-term power of an adrenaline spike with none of the long-term detriment, and create a happy and healthy workplace.