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Research Is In: Work Stress Is Not “Just in Your Head”

Your boss is stressing you out. But they are stressed, too.

Key points

  • Managers impact employees’ mental health more than doctors or therapists—and even the same as a spouse or partner.
  • Work stress can negatively impact employees’ home life (71 percent), well-being (64 percent), and relationships (62 percent). 
  • The culture of the workplace needs to shift systemically and become more human-centric.
  • Organizations that focus on systemic intersectional inclusion will detoxify workplaces for all. 
Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash
Source: Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash

To paraphrase one of my graduate school professors, clinical psychologists study for years to make sure they don't mess someone up instead of helping them. But managers can mess up hundreds or even thousands of people by burning out and bullying them in the name of managing and motivating. And toxic organizations burn out everyone—including managers.

We spend much of our lives working. What happens at work is inevitably going to impact our mental health. Different mental health conditions are linked to various biological, psychological, and environmental factors predisposing one to or triggering their manifestation. But in almost every case, social environments—including workplace experiences—have a major impact on individual suffering or thriving.

According to new research, the impact our bosses have on our mental health is as large as the impact of our spouses or partners. That makes sense—many people spend more waking hours around their bosses or in activites determined by their bosses than with their family.

Striking New Research Results

The Workforce Institute at UKG surveyed 3,400 people across 10 countries to spotlight the critical role our jobs and our managers play in supporting—or harming—employee mental health.

And guess what—you did not imagine the connection between your boss and your stress. The results of the study are striking:

  • Managers impact employees' mental health (69 percent) more than doctors (51 percent) or therapists (41 percent)—and even the same as a spouse or partner (69 percent).
  • Work stress negatively impacts employees' home life (71 percent), well-being (64 percent), and relationships (62 percent).
  • At the end of work, 43 percent of employees are "often" or "always" exhausted, and 78 percent of employees say that stress negatively impacts their work performance.

No wonder employees are looking for a way out.

  • More than 80 percent of employees would rather have good mental health than a high-paying job.
  • Two-thirds of employees would take a pay cut for a job that better supports their mental wellness—and 70 percent of managers would, too.

Workers want leaders to do more. But leaders are stressed, too. According to the Workforce Institute, 40 percent of the C-suite say they will likely quit within the year because of work-related stress. And middle managers are most impacted—they are more often stressed out than their team members and senior leadership (42 percent vs. 40 percent and 35 percent, respectively), and 25 percent say they are "often" or "always" feeling burned out.

Systemic Solutions Are Needed

The magnitude of the mental health crisis suggests that it cannot be addressed by half-measures and mental health apps. The culture of the workplace needs to shift systemically and become more human-centric.

U.S. Surgeon General's guidance on workplace mental health and well-being provides important solution mechanisms. The five essentials of the framework are grounded in foundational human needs: safety and security (including safety from management by fear, crushing workloads, and psychological mistreatment), social support and belonging, autonomy and flexibility, dignity and meaning, as well as learning and accomplishment. An extensive body of research demonstrates that when organizations are structured to support these key human needs, employees on all levels benefit, along with the organizational bottom line.

While encouraging self-care and providing support for mental health are important, these are addressing the symptoms of work-related stress and burnout rather than the cause. Burnout causes must be addressed on the organizational level. There is no trick or app that will make the workload of people in chronically understaffed units manageable, and there is no self-care that will compensate for the lack of inclusion and belonging. And while training managers to be human-centric leaders is important, organizational processes, resource distribution, and reward systems should support human-centric leadership for this learning to be transferred into practice. Individual-level interventions are not enough.

Well-being will remain elusive as long as employees are pushed into doing the jobs of two or three people and working long hours.

Organizations must ensure appropriate levels of staffing. They must also regularly review the workloads and work schedules of their employees and make sure that loads are reasonable and manageable. The business will benefit from healthier work as well. Extensive research demonstrates, for example, that shorter workweeks and flexible schedules support not only employee health and well-being but also productivity.

There are also no shortcuts to creating emotionally inclusive and psychologically safe workplaces. It requires consistency and embedding inclusion into all practices and procedures. But benefits are also organization-wide. Organizations that focus on systemic intersectional inclusion and ensure employee participation and voice, focusing on outcomes, flexibility, organizational justice, transparency, and the use of valid tools in decision-making will detoxify workplaces for all.

More from Ludmila N. Praslova, Ph.D.
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