How employees react to stress has a bigger impact on total health than the condition itself, according to a new report from Morneau Shepell Ltd.

“Stress itself is not something that is good or bad — it is merely a demand on physical or mental energy,” said Bill Howatt, chief research and development officer for workplace productivity at Morneau Shepell and author of the report.

“It’s important that we shift our thinking to better understand the many ways in which an individual can use stress positively, simply by changing their perspective. Ensuring that employees are taking a thoughtful approach to stress and focusing on what they can control can have positive effects on mental and physical health, resulting in increased engagement and productivity.”

Read: 25% of Canadian employees quit work due to stress: survey

Howatt identified three types of stress faced by workers: acute stress, which comes from everyday interactions and brief conflicts; traumatic stress, such as a disaster, bullying or an accident, that goes beyond someone’s standard coping skills; and chronic stress, which continues daily and puts the worker at risk of stress-related illness.

“It is not the amount of stress that employees’ endure that determines their stress level; it is how they are able to cope,” said Howatt.

“Reacting to stress occurs in three stages: the alarm phase, the resistance phase and the exhaustion phase. The resistance phase can often be the most dangerous, because it is during this period that bodies prepare themselves physiologically to adapt to stressors. The more time employees spend in this phase, the higher at risk they are to develop stress-related illnesses, ultimately leading to exhaustion. The better we understand how we react to and adapt to stress, the more likely they will be able to cope in a healthy manner.”

If intense stress occurs for a long time, burnout can occur, said Howatt. The symptoms of burnout include decreased work quality, chronic fatigue, a pessimistic view of work, increased absences, negative mood changes and reduced concentration. Other factors include changes to daily habits, difficulty with relationships inside and outside the office and the worker experiencing a sense of loss and moral purpose at work.

Read: Sounding Board: Management style, employee expectations key to supporting mental health

Howatt cited the burnout detection scale on Morneau Shepell’s total health index, suggesting that workers who score highest generally feel they have little impact on the organization’s policies, are unclear of their job description or their department’s purpose, have a feeling of restricted or ineffective communication in the workplace and face high demands with little guidance on how to handle daily workloads. He noted employers can focus on those areas and suggested workplaces should reduce environmental stressors, such as bullying and harassment.

In terms of other actions employers can take, Howatt noted in the report that engaging employees and being proactive in fostering dialogue and accountability is key. He suggested employers can also talk to employees to see what they want and need from the work environment and take stock of their current stress management programs and courses.

Read: How to optimize wellness programs to reduce absenteeism

Copyright © 2022 Transcontinental Media G.P. Originally published on

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