Geopolitical tensions, extreme climate challenges and continuing pandemic/economic fatigue have created an ultra-stressed out workforce – in our own backyards and across the globe. This is an area where senior executives can play an important role, not only taking the pulse of their own employees, but also implementing better health and wellness across their organizations.
Close to home, for example, Innerbody Research used government data to determine that North Carolina is the fifth most stressful state to work in, primarily driven by workplace mental well-being challenges and money woes. Globally, the picture is arguably worse. The Workplace Stress Index created by Workplace Options found “workplace stress” (71%) as the number one symptom reported by employees around the world, while “anxiety/panic” (27%) placed second.
Given this stress epidemic worldwide, the spotlight on employee well-being is only going to grow and become an even more significant factor in creating workplace excellence. As senior leaders, we can no longer talk the talk of “Our people are our most important asset,” if we stand by and do little or nothing to alleviate this challenge.
While CEOs and other C-suite leaders address this concern, here are three immediate steps an executive can implement to alleviate workplace stress and foster an environment where teams can thrive.
Three action steps for a less stressful workplace
1. Cultivate a culture of open dialogue
Communication is the foundation of the workplace but exists in a cauldron of hierarchy, power and managerial experiences that can lead to overwhelming amounts of tension. The first step in reducing workplace stress should focus on creating psychological safety, so open dialogue is the status quo.
For CEOs and their teams, building this culture might mean being more approachable or demonstrating that you are willing to listen to and act on the concerns of different teams. Others might launch town hall meetings, where the leadership team engages transparently with employees. No matter the tactical execution, though, the point is that CEOs should forge the connection to show that they are inclusive leaders, ready to lead teams and organizations that are more culture-centric than ever before. Your workforce wants to know that their voices matter.
2. Institute a well-being program
The cornerstone or resilience and high-performing teams is well-being. C-suite leaders must advocate well-being programs that extend beyond traditional health benefits to encompass physical health, a sense of belonging, and mental wellness.
According to Workplace Options, “Employers are increasingly investing in whole-health approaches to employee wellbeing, recognizing an even greater interest—or rather, need—among their staff for both physical and mental health benefits…recognizing that whatever plagues employees’ minds, will inevitably plague their bodies…and that whatever wreaks havoc on their bodies, will do the same inside their minds.”
Supporting these programs can have an almost immediate impact on the everyday lives of employees, from mindfulness sessions and fitness programs to mental health workshops. Loud advocacy – backed by real action – will demonstrate that the C-suite understands and supports the work-life equation that we all balance.
One of the most important decisions a leadership team can make is how the organization will handle flexible work arrangements, particularly remote and hybrid operations. These decisions can be controversial, so great care is necessary, particularly if the decision feels like a directive without asking employees what they prefer.
3. Mentorship programs for new professionals
Most organizations have some form of mentorship or sponsorship program. Yet, if so many employees are experiencing overwhelming stress, then – logically – these initiatives must not be helping, or at least focusing enough in this area.
CEOs and their teams can significantly mitigate stress by implementing mentorship programs that focus on teaching new recruits and younger professionals how to navigate their roles with an emphasis on belonging. If mentors and sponsors can demystify the Teflon aura of senior leaders, while offering advice and insight, the process will create a deeper sense of camaraderie and shared purpose. Instead of another perfunctory meeting, mentoring must authentically nurture the culture the leadership team desires.
Leaders must take responsibility
The old adage, “It’s lonely at the top,” carries more truth than ever for C-suite leaders. The International SOS Risk Outlook Report 2024 found that 80% of surveyed global senior risk professionals predict burnout will have a significant impact on businesses this year. Organizations stand to lose billions of dollars as a result. Yet, while dealing with their own stress and workplace concerns, CEOs and board members must act in the best interest of their organizations.
Ultimately, it is direct action by leadership that will lead to better workplaces. As Laura Linnan, director of the University of North Carolina’s Collaborative for Research on Work and Health, told Time magazine, “We can provide all the coping strategies and stress-management programs possible, but if we put employees back in an environment where the work pace is out of control, the staffing is wrong, there’s a toxic supervisor – no amount of stress management is going to save that.”
In other words, time is running out. As CEOs and senior business leaders, we have power to shape the narrative. Let’s pave the way for a workplace where stress is not a constant companion. Through open dialogue, well-being initiatives and robust mentorship, we can build a culture where our teams grow stronger, more resilient and ready for future challenges.
About Donald Thompson
Donald Thompson, EY Entrepreneur Of The Year® 2023 SE Award winner, founded The Diversity Movement (TDM) to fundamentally transform the modern workplace through diversity-led culture change. TDM was recently acquired by Workplace Options, which brings holistic wellbeing services to more than 80 million people in more than 200 countries and territories across the globe. Recognized by Inc., Fast Company and Forbes, Thompson is author of Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success, hosts the podcast “High Octane Leadership in an Empathetic World” and has published widely on leadership and the executive mindset. As a leadership and executive coach, Thompson has created a culture-centric ethos for winning in the marketplace by balancing empathy and economics.
Follow him on LinkedIn for updates on news, events and his podcast, or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org for executive coaching, speaking engagements or DEI-related content. TDM has created LeaderView, a leadership assessment tool that uses cultural competency as a driver for improving whole team performance. To further explore DEI content and issues impacting your work and life, visit TDM Library, a multimedia resource hub that gives leaders a trusted source of DEI content.