By SANDY CLARKE
Stress can be a good thing. With just enough, it can act as a driver that increases our focus to help get the job done. But what happens when stress becomes too much?
A 2017 survey by AIA Vitality showed some alarming findings when it comes to work-related stress in Malaysia. For example, despite Malaysians working – on average – 15 hours more per week beyond their contract hours compared to workers in Hong Kong, Australia, and even Singapore, it has one of the highest rates of productivity loss.
A closer look at the research by AIA Vitality showed that more than half of Malaysia’s employees get less than seven hours of sleep at night, and two-thirds of workers don’t get anywhere near enough physical exercise.
As a result, more than 80 per cent reported having a musculoskeletal condition (the most common being lower back pain), with over half being at risk of mental ill-health.
Downside of not keeping stress in check
The Malaysian Mental Health Association has long implored employers to take care of the mental health needs of their employees, and currently, politicians are encouraging greater awareness and conversations around the importance of mental health.
While it’s great to see more conversations taking place, it’s traditionally been the case that mental health receives little more than lip-service. For things to improve, the government and business leaders alike must take tangible action if there’s going to be a shift in trends of the disturbing stats as they currently exist.
From an economic point of view, the longer mental health is neglected, the more it hurts the bottom line for Malaysia’s business.
On average, absenteeism and presenteeism costs the economy around RM3mil per organisation. Presenteeism refers to employees being present at work while ill, or not being productive due to stress or a related contributing factor.
Left unchecked, stress can significantly affect our health, putting us at risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity.
The effects of stress can induce the following: headaches, muscle and chest pain, fatigue, lack of motivation, sleep problems, less physical activity, emotional outbursts, anxiety, depression, feelings of being overwhelmed, and so on.
Misconceptions about mindfulness exercises
So, what can be done to mitigate the effects of work-related stress? Whenever I’m invited to give talks on mindfulness or stress management, the typical request goes something like this: “Could you please come and give a talk on how to manage stress? It would also be good if our employees could learn some meditation or relaxation techniques to take away and practise at home.”
While I feel happy to know that organisations are taking some interest in proactively supporting their employees, it’s clear that there’s an attitude which believes that, after a few minutes of meditation and breathing techniques, work-related stress magically disappears. If only it were that easy.
Research studies into the effectiveness of mindfulness usually involve at least six weeks’ worth of practice and intervention. In other words, to reap the benefits, it takes more than a quick two-hour talk to alleviate work-related stress. Anyone who tries to sell a quick-fix to a deep-seated problem is, to be blunt, trying to make a fast buck off the suffering of others.
Related: Ways to Reduce Stress at Work
What organisations can do to help
In order to reduce work-related stress, leaders should first look to the company culture to see how it’s adding to the likelihood of work-related stress occurring in the first place.
For example, do people get adequate breaks? Are they encouraged to take all of their annual leave? Are they being emailed and expected to respond at 11pm or on their days off? Is there an opportunity for employees to have honest conversations with leaders when they feel overwhelmed or have a work-related issue they need to discuss?
Ultimately, leaders can throw all the wellness programmes they like at their workforce, but if the culture encourages unhealthy habits and practices, the money spent on such programmes might as well be flushed down the toilet for all the good it does.
Having said that, it’s understandable that leaders can find it tough to deal with work-related stress. After all, bosses tend to only see smiling, agreeable faces – how are they to know what’s really going on if people are feeling drained inside?
Then again, if employees don’t feel like they can be upfront about how they’re doing, leaders might want to ask themselves why.
Why is it that, despite working longer hours, Malaysia has one of the highest rates of productivity loss? Why is work-related stress costing the country so much per year per organisation? Why does the problem show no sign of slowing down…and what can leaders do to reverse the trend?
It’s not inevitable that work-related stress continues to grow, but it is inevitable if there continues to be no real and sustained action taken to support the mental health needs of employees.
If there is a lack of investment in this area, employees will either look elsewhere (many beyond Malaysia’s borders) or continue to turn up ill or demotivated – or both – helping neither themselves nor their organisation.
The prognosis might sound bleak, but it needn’t be the case if the people in positions of authority resolve to take swift and substantial action to ensure people have the right support and access to resources that can help them feel stable, happy and motivated to give the best of themselves to whatever role they perform.
Sandy is a freelance writer based in Malaysia, and previously enjoyed 10 years as a journalist and broadcaster in the UK. He has been fortunate to gain valuable insights into what makes us tick, which has deepened his interests in leadership, emotions, mindfulness, and human behaviour.