As the end of the year approaches, you’re not alone if you find your stress level at work rising: Between crunch-time deadlines, family duties, and a lengthy Holiday party schedule, you might find yourself drowning in a sea of obligations and competing demands. The solution? Seek out support from friends and colleagues, say social scientists who advise against bearing the burden by yourself. “When you’re stressed, going it alone is not a good idea,” Dr. Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University said in a TED talk in 2013.
It turns out that seeking social support in stressful situations is precisely what our bodies are primed to do, Dr. McGonigal explained. A body under stress releases not just adrenaline but also oxytocin, a hormone that prompts us to seek out social connections. In turn, social interactions trigger added releases of oxytocin, which is an anti-inflammatory that helps heart cells heal from stress-induced damage, she added.
Essentially, what Dr. McGonigal is urging us to do is to get out of the way and let our bodies play out their biological response to stress. ““I find this amazing, that your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection,” she said on the TED stage.
But as most of us who have worked in an office know, not every work environment is set up to promote or reward social interaction and supportive behaviors. Knote spoke with Clemson University Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology, Dr. Thomas Britt, about workplace practices that can help soften the negative consequences of chronic stress. “Social support is a key factor in buffering negative responses to stress,” said Dr. Britt, who is co-author of the book Thriving Under Stress: Harnessing Demands in the Workplace, due out April 2015 from Oxford University Press. He believes that management should play a key role in providing the settings and structures for healthy social interactions to occur, and named some specific ways this can be done:
1. “Managers ought to set the tone by letting employees know that they are expected to work together and to back each other up when times are tough,” Dr. Britt said. It is up to management to create a culture where employees look out for one another’s well being, even though that is probably not an official part of their job description, he pointed out, adding that performance reviews are often an appropriate time to impart these kinds of cultural messages. For this to work, management also needs to promote a culture where employees feel “psychologically safe” asking for help, Dr. Britt said.
2. Management can help curb the dangerous side effects of acute and chronic stress by encouraging employees to detach from their work periodically, Dr. Britt said. Whether it’s a communal lunch or an evening happy hour, an effective manager will provide opportunities for socializing and relaxation, especially at times when employees think they can’t afford to turn away from work for even a minute. “Part of being an effective manager is learning how to encourage even brief breaks and other kinds of activities that help employees to relax,” he said, adding that recent research has shown the importance of taking periodic breaks during the workday, and also of recovering at the end of the day. For a manager, this means being mindful of the effect you will have on your employees’ stress levels when you, for example, email them after-hours and expect an immediate response, Dr. Britt cautioned.
3. The most valuable service management can offer when it comes to stress-reduction is to actually provide stress-management training, Dr. Britt said. In these “stress inoculation trainings” employees learn about the stressors they will encounter in their job, they learn about effective coping mechanisms, and then they participate in a simulated activity where they are presented with moderate amounts of stress. After an employee has gone through the training, “It is more likely that in the heat of battle the effective coping strategies will be employed and ineffective strategies like ignoring the situation or using alcohol will not,” Dr. Britt said.
Thousands of studies on burnout have shown that prolonged exposure to stress produce anxiety, frustration, and even dread about showing up to work, Dr. Britt said. “You need to replenish your resources,” he added.