Tips from a Hollywood comic: Address stress in the workforce

When one of your children grows up to be a Hollywood comic, you get used to your parenting style and idiosyncrasies being the fodder of jokes in comedy clubs across the country and post-pandemic online. My daughter is a Millennial of two parents with long careers in human resources. Too much political correctness is probably part of what drove her to be a comic.

Still, I was surprised when one of her tweets recently went viral with more than 609K likes, 90.2k retweets, and 2.8k quote tweets. “Oh my god,” I thought, “what is she writing about me today?” Actually, nothing.

My daughter Kari Assad tweeted about stress in today’s workforce — a sentiment that Millennials readily picked up on: “Am I depressed or is laying down *fricking* awesome,” she wrote. (Yes, the HR executive in me had me switch out the “f” words. I couldn’t help myself.) To me, this tweet was nothing to get excited about. What’s up? I asked her why her tweet went viral. “Dad,” she began, “Since the election, comedy has changed. It is not as much about politics. Although, situational comedy will always include politics. It is about wellbeing, especially at work with all the changes people are facing. Everyone is really stressed out.”

What my daughter was picking up on has been well documented by researchers decades ago and today, but without the bombast. In the past, when I gave talks on employee benefits, I always emphasized our mental health benefits and the employee assistance programs we had onsite or virtually. One in four adults will suffer from severe mental illness that needs attention, I warned. We confidentially offered these benefits discretely when employees or members of their families need them. Few, however, would access these benefits because of the taboo against admitting or asking for help with mental illness.

Before the pandemic, companies augmented their EAP offering with employee wellbeing programs. Wellbeing is more than the concerns of employees with mental health issues. It includes employee’s chronic health issues such as obesity, happiness at work, and employee engagement. Poor wellbeing manifests in higher absenteeism, presentism (which is being at work but not at the employee’s fullest capability), and poor health.  Some experts have calculated the hidden costs of poor wellbeing can cost a business nearly $10,000 per year per affected employee.

The scale of the workforce suffering from chronic stress is really alarming, and remember, this is all pre-pandemic. Global Workforce Analytics had calculated that about 43 percent of the workforce suffers from chronic stress. They individually lose the equivalent of 10 days of productivity a year due to absenteeism and another 12 days a year due to presenteeism. (Presenteeism is defined as being at work but not performing at your best.) Additionally, an employee suffering from depression (7 percent of the workforce) loses an average of seven days a year to absenteeism and a whopping 36 days to presenteeism.  (Please see the chart below).

During the pandemic, employers have reported wellbeing has become worse. Employees have spent more time working past their level of productivity, more time in meetings, experienced more burnout, and had mental health issues. Employers also report a decrease in work-life balance, engagement, and morale. These are the findings of a Conference Board report.  (The Wall Street Journal chart put together the chart below right).

This situation is a recipe for disaster. If not addressed, employees will begin to make their own choices to find new employers or cut back their work hours.

The Wall Street Journal reports that a November survey by public relations firm Weber Shandwick finds that 66 percent of people polled were planning to make a shift like switching jobs, moving out of town or cutting their hours to part-time as the pandemic continues.

How to reduce stress and improve wellbeing

With 66 percent of employees report having the thought of switching jobs to alleviate stress, companies need to address this issue. I recommend taking the following steps to mitigate workforce stress and improve wellbeing.

The first step is to clarify operating norms with  remote workers and employees on hybrid teams (teams with workers in the office and at home). When I implemented a remote and hybrid workforce with Medtronic in Santa Rosa, CA, in 2012 — long before the pandemic — we required all team leaders to set up operating norms with their teams, including limiting the number of hours worked to prevent burnout and turnover. Although Medtronic is a hard-charging work environment, it was critical to our success in alleviating stress and allowing employees more control over their workday and better integrate work and life for a less stressful balance.

The second step is for team leaders to check in frequently (at least every other week) with each employee to see how they are doing. Based on 2020 research on resiliency in the workplace, Marcus Buckingham, of StrengthFinders fame, recommends asking two questions: What are you working on this week? How can I help you? Team leaders also have the ability to tell employees what they need to know for any crisis in the near team. The more they do this, the more resilient their workers will be.

The third step is for executives. They need to stay one step ahead of events and communicate the reality to their employees. This recommendation also comes from Buckingham. Such concerns may include work employees need to do, information relating to customers, and details about the small steps they can take to continue the business. Senior leaders should not sugar coat bad news, and they need to follow through on what they say they will do and build trust with employees.

The fourth step is to promote employee wellbeing. This includes offering valuable (not limited) mental health benefits and promoting good eating, exercise, and wellness. Another key step in employee wellbeing is making sure the office environment has natural lighting and fresh air exchanges. Taking measures to prevent the spread of disease in the office, such as providing six feet of separation between office work stations and taking measures to avoid toilet plumes is also important.

The fifth and final step to promote wellbeing is to continuing to offer employees the opportunity to exercise, practice yoga, or meditate also promotes wellbeing.

You do not have to be a comic to know that the workforce had an incredibly stressful year in 2020 as a result of the pandemic, the frantic pace of change, and social and political unrest. The question is, what are employers going to do about it? Expecting employees to tough it out does not work. It costs your company thousands of dollars per affected employee per year in invisible costs that your financial system does not measure. Addressing it with the steps above will reduce these costs and prevent costly turnover.

Don’t let the issue of worker stress and well-being be a joke on you.

Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting, managing partner of InnovationOne, and Sales Advisor to MeBeBot. He works with companies to transform HR, implement remote work, recruit executives, and develop extraordinary leaders, teams, and innovation cultures. He is the author of the highly acclaimed book, Hack Recruiting: the Best of Empirical Research, Method and Process, and Digitization. Subscribe to his weekly blogs at 

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