Hidden Productivity Costs of High Stress Work Environments

“It’s fine, I work well under pressure.” How full would your bank account be if you got a dollar each time you heard this from someone who does not, in fact, work well under pressure?

Most of us have been there. Whether it was a project in college or a quickly-approaching work deadline, we’ve all found ourselves in the thick of a high-stress environment at some point in our lives. It’s when this becomes a regular occurrence that it truly becomes a problem, not just for the stressed person, but for their company, too.


The Line Between Work and Stress

There’s a lot of excuses out there. I’m just a procrastinator. I work well under pressure. I’ve always done things this way. The truth is that high-stress work environments are more common than ever, no matter who you are. The American Institute of Stress reported that though stress is a “highly personalized phenomenon,” on average, 46% of stress comes from the workplace.

In American culture, we have a tendency to just brush that off. It's just the office. It’s just the way it goes. It’s just how we have to live. So we let stress go unnoticed until it builds up so much that we simply can’t go on another day. This happens to everybody every once in a while, but unfortunately, it’s become so common that the cost is becoming undeniably noticeable.


How Costly is Stress?

The American Psychological Association reports that “more than $500 billion is siphoned off of the economy because of workplace stress,” and a whopping 550 million workdays are lost due to stress. Data shows that stress costs US businesses around $30 billion dollars a year in sick days and lost productivity. Not to mention those who come into work sick and stressed anyway, spreading more stress and sickness around.

If we don’t stop stress, it becomes a vicious cycle. The American Psychological Association also discovered that an incredible amount of stress is because of money, which is unsurprisingly linked to stress in the workplace. This correlation between our work and our finances, and at times our finances and our worth, perpetuates this vicious cycle.

When we’re constantly worried about our finances, we don’t skip work when we’re sick. We take on more hours at work, even if our bodies can’t handle them. As our bodies start to give in our blood pressure goes up, we lose sleep and all of a sudden we just can’t get anything done at work. And then we panic and try to work harder. We skip meals, go into overdrive, and ignore our body’s cries for help completely.

Professors Emma Seppala and Kim Cameron tell Harvard Business Review that “the stress of belonging to hierarchies itself is linked to disease and death.” They point to research which shows that “the lower someone’s rank in a hierarchy, the higher their chances of cardiovascular disease and death.” Scientists have recognized that stress can indeed kill, and it’s time the business world acknowledged that too.

This obviously becomes not only costly to our health but also our quality of work. Dozens of nonprofits aimed at underprivileged school kids remind us, you can’t work well when you’re hungry. You can’t work well when you’re exhausted. And yet we forget that those truths apply to us as adults, too.

If your employees are stressed, they aren’t doing their best work. (And if you’re stressed, you aren’t either). No matter how many numbers you crunch, sometimes the best recipe for productivity is simply some stress relief.

Stress Relief? What’s That?

Professors Seppala and Cameron go on to explain that a “cut-throat environment is harmful to productivity over time.” So, even if you think you’re working well under pressure, you may be causing yourself and your company some unnecessary stress.

Obviously, we can’t just stop going to work, but we can take some actions so that our office doesn’t turn into a breeding ground for the virus of stress that seems to constantly plague us.


Use Your Tools

A large part of stress relief is utilizing the tools available to you. Get to know what helps release that pressure when you’re under stress, and use those activities and practices as your tools. It’s like a pot of boiling water. When you engage in low-pressure activities, you’re letting off steam so that the pot doesn’t boil over.


Proactive Coaching

Proactive coaching is one practice managers can use to decrease the odds of a stressful situation at work. It involves keeping a close eye on your team’s metrics, and noticing patterns before anyone gets behind.

After all, getting behind will simply cause more stress. It’s important to understand how and why someone is falling behind in the first place before it’s too late to be helpful. Stress can’t be totally eliminated, but knowing your team and personalizing their coaching keeps it from becoming unmanageable.



Make sure your channels of communication are open so that you can delegate when you become overwhelmed, and possibly so that co-workers can turn to you. A lot of stress is caused by miscommunications, which are entirely preventable if you collaborate effectively.


Work Doesn’t Have to be Stressful

Take a deep breath. Just because it’s work doesn’t mean it has to be stressful. And if it’s too stressful, that stress itself poses great risks to you and your company. Stay productive, but don’t let stress get a death grip on you.

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