In the previous blog, we reviewed consequences of on-the-job (OTJ) stress and defined the various categories of stress management interventions (SMIs) aimed at dealing with stress. In this blog, we will review research findings on the effectiveness of specific SMIs and describe best practices. We will also provide some tips to help leaders start to think about what you can do to reduce stress in your organization.
The good news for those of us working in high-stress environments is that SMIs really do work! In fact, according to the largest reviews done on SMI research, secondary (ameliorative) interventions can reduce specific outcomes of OTJ stress such as anxiety and burnout from 20% to 80%. In fact, for organizations under stress, secondary level SMIs have the greatest impact on improving organizational functioning. What about primary and tertiary??
As we learned in Part 1, SMIs at the primary level are proactive while tertiary SMIs are reactive. For example: if a primary intervention would be installing earthquake-proof foundations for new skyscrapers in high-risk cities, then a tertiary intervention would involve rebuilding or repairing buildings that were ill-equipped after the earthquake hits. This metaphor is an example of how the success of SMIs depends on context. Primary interventions are obviously the best choice because they prepare organizations to handle stress well. But, if your organization has already been damaged (it didn’t have the fancy earthquake-proof foundation), tertiary interventions would be needed to make employees and teams functional again.
So where does that put secondary interventions? Right in the middle of the two extremes, and where most organizations actually are. Because of this, secondary SMIs are the most common and studied stress interventions. They include a range of specific interventions that help individuals and groups deal with OTJ stress. The most common are:
- Cognitive-behavioral: involves training employees on the role of thoughts and emotions in stress-management as well as how to modify thoughts to for better coping
- Relaxation techniques: involves training employees how to cope with stress through physical and mental relaxation
- Alternative interventions: include some combination of exercise and employee training on journaling/reflection, and other personal skills (goal-setting and time management)
Of these, cognitive-behavioral interventions are the overall winner. Compared to all other interventions, these have the strongest impact on the organizational and psychological outcomes of OTJ stress. Specifically, this intervention have been shown to greatly improve mental health and quality of work-life while reducing employee stress, anxiety, and burnout. However, it does not improve physical health or reduce absenteeism.
Alternative interventions that included personal skills training are the most effective for specifically reducing employee levels of stress. This is because training can be developed and targeted towards specific issues, such as time-management. Exercise programs combined with personal skills training is even better. When combined, they improve physical and mental health, reduce feelings of stress, and improve the quality of work-life.
Relaxation techniques are middle-road overall, but this approach is very effective effective at reducing anxiety and burnout. It also has a positive impact on physical health.
Taken together, this brief list of findings should indicate that different secondary SMIs are better at dealing with different OTJ stress outcomes. For example, exercise is better than cognitive-behavioral training at improving physical health but not anxiety.
Best Practices and Practical Applications:
- Begin with the desired outcome: Some SMIs are better than others at improving specific stress-related issues. So, target the specific application of SMIs according to the issues faced by your organization.
- Design interventions to be short: A 1-4 week cognitive-behavioral training intervention will have a much stronger effect than a 9-12 week one. A 13+ week cognitive-behavioral intervention might have no positive effect at all! Research has shown that short and well-targeted interventions are better at reducing stress than longer ones.
- Get ready to train:The most effective interventions involve training of some sort, whether it’s teaching a group of employees how to breath deep and relax or training a group of senior executives how to manage their time. If you do not have experts in the area you are seeking training in, find an external consultant with expertise in that area to conduct your trainings.
- To improve your organizations resistance to stress: intervene at the primary level. This means organization-wide change, but it also means less need for other SMIs.
- To ameliorate existing stress, intervene at the individual level: Giving attention to individuals makes a remarkable difference. Examples of this include secondary and tertiary interventions such as employee training on relaxation techniques or attending therapy. SMIs that target the organization as a whole rarely improve individual-level outcomes such as anxiety.
- Never ignore stress! Now that we know what the negative consequences of stress are, we have no excuse to ignore it when we see it. Avoid having to intervene at the tertiary level. If you’re not proactive or at least ameliorative in your approach to stress management, you are indirectly contributing to the adverse health of your employees.