Stress at work: How leaders make all the difference

This piece is presented by Sanford Health.

By Katie Nermoe, corporate wellness director, Sanford Health Plan

Katie Nermoe

Times have changed, and the unique demands of the 21st century have left many of us 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 us return from vacation feeling no reduction in stress, and almost one-third report feeling more stressed than before we 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 of our clients 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 our jobs are our 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 our 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:

  1. Ask and remove

Do you know what creates stress for your employees? When is the last time you asked? The most powerful thing a leader can do for his or her team is to remove the obstacles and barriers we confront in our day-to-day work.

This is the main reason why we feel just as stressed, or even more stressed, when we return from vacation. We come back to the same obstacles and barriers that were there before we 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?”

  1. Work supports

As a leader, 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.

  1. Autonomy

In The Power of Career Well-being, the importance of autonomy is discussed. Autonomy is made up of the four T’s: time, task, technique and team. The more control we have over these variables in our jobs, the less stress we 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.

  1. Volunteering

Research shows 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 of the office.

Learn more about Leading for Wellness from Sanford Health Plan. Contact Katie Nermoe, corporate wellness director, at


Want to stay in the know?

Get our free business news delivered to your inbox.

Stress at work: How leaders make all the difference

More than half of us return from vacation feeling no reduction in stress, and almost one-third report feeling more stressed than before we left. Here’s how leaders can help.

News Tip

Have a business news item to share with us?

Scroll to top