Stress at work: How leaders make all the difference

Sept. 12, 2018

This paid piece is sponsored by Sanford Health.

By Katie Nermoe

Times have changed, and the unique demands of the 21st century have left many feeling stressed and depressed. In fact, the number of adults on antidepressants has risen by 400 percent since 1988. Already, 19 percent of millennials have been diagnosed with depression, compared to 12 percent of baby boomers and 11 percent of older Americans.

More than half of people return from vacation feeling no reduction in stress, and almost one-third report feeling more stressed than before they left.

The high cost of stress

An estimated 75 percent to 90 percent of all visits to primary care doctors are somehow attributable to stress, and employers are paying for antidepressants and anxiety medications at increasing rates.

Many business owners indicate they are concerned about their employees’ increasing levels of stress — because they can see it in their faces, in their absenteeism and in their health care costs.

Our source of stress

Multiple studies indicate that jobs are the primary source of stress. This has escalated progressively over the past few decades. A review of the evidence for work factors associated with stress and associated absenteeism found the key factors to be:

  • Long hours worked, work overload and pressure.
  • The effects of these on personal lives.
  • Lack of control over work and lack of participation in decision-making.
  • Poor social support.
  • Unclear management and work role, and poor management style.

It’s important to note that an 11-hour workday bumps up the risk for heart disease by two-thirds.

Reducing stress at work

Because stress is a key driver of our overall health and wellness, it’s critical that organizational leaders who are striving for a healthier workforce understand the following leadership competencies designed to reduce stress:

Ask and remove

Do you know what creates stress for your employees? When is the last time you asked? The most powerful thing leaders can do for their team is remove the obstacles and barriers their employees confront in their day-to-day work.

This is the main reason why employees feel just as stressed or even more stressed when they return from vacation. They come back to the same obstacles and barriers that were there before they left — whether it’s unmanageable workloads, dysfunctional teams or lack of resources or support. At the end of team meetings, I try to remember to ask, “What is everyone worried about the most?”

Work supports

As leaders, you have control over the availability of supports offered to your employees. Many times these supports are housed in what we refer to as “support departments.” Human resources, information technology, legal, marketing and finance are examples. How well these departments are resourced and how well they are run affects everyone.

How accountable are these departments to the needs of your employees and to the business objectives of the organization? Consider conducting an internal customer service survey to measure the performance of support departments and if they are helping or hindering your pursuit to reduce employee stress.


Autonomy is one of the primary drivers of career well-being and is made up of the four T’s: time, task, technique and team. The more control employees have over these variables in their jobs, the less stress they have at work. Supervisors can reduce employee stress by giving teams full rights to the four T’s.

Employees need to know they are accountable to specific performance outcomes. If they know what these outcomes are and you give your staff full autonomy to meet them, you can hold your staff accountable.


Research shows that volunteering lowers stress and improves our overall sense of well-being. If we know this is a viable tool for reducing stress, as leaders we need to consider using it and incorporating it into our corporate culture. Offering VTO — volunteer time off — or creating opportunities for employees to volunteer together during the workday are increasingly popular options.

A dual benefit of creating a volunteer platform at work is the opportunities for employees to strengthen relationships outside the office.

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Stress at work: How leaders make all the difference

Did you know 75 percent to 90 percent of all visits to primary care doctors are somehow attributable to stress? And much of it can be traced back to the workplace.

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