How to Navigate Stress for High Business Performance



Ahead of Stress Awareness Month in April, I wanted to shed light again on stress in the workplace.

In 2023, the UK witnessed its highest sick leave rates in a decade (1). 76% of professionals report experiencing moderate to high stress levels, marking a 13% increase from 2022 (2). Deloitte estimates the annual cost of poor mental health among employees to be between £42 billion and £45 billion. Presenteeism alone imposes a yearly cost of up to £29 billion on UK employers and now has more impact than physical absence on businesses’ bottom line (3).

Not only this, we now know resilience is declining, particularly amongst those under 30. Generation Z and young millennials are missing the equivalent of a day’s work every week due to mental health struggles (4).

General health issues, including sleep problems, burnout at work, anxiety, depression, and much more, are at all-time highs.

If this data alone is not enough to take this topic seriously, we know companies investing in employee health and wellbeing have the highest level of “happy” employees are constantly outperforming those who are not. The “Top 100 ‘happiest’ companies” with the highest levels of employee wellbeing outperformed S&P 500 and Dow Jones by 20% since 2021, with increased firm value, return on assets, higher profits and revenue per employee (5).

Stress is a topic I am hugely passionate about. As someone who ended up in hospital in her early 20s due to a combination of stress, pressure, grief, loss, toxic work environments whilst neglecting my own personal needs, I am more than aware of the very physical impact stress can have on our bodies and minds.

When I left my corporate job, I took a year out and dedicated time and energy to getting my own health back on track. After this, I decided to move back to the UK, add to my qualifications, and begin my wellness career. Over the last 8 years, I have obtained over 10’000 1:2:1 coaching hours, delivered stress awareness and management masterclasses, and designed stress management strategies for some of the world’s largest companies including American Express, Snapchat, Cisco, and CDW, to name a few – I am also a regular speaker on this topic at the University of Cambridge.

Whenever I am discussing this topic, it often takes people by surprise when I say, I like stress.

Let me explain.

Stress is necessary in life. It not only keeps us alive but it motivates us to get out of bed every morning, to go to the gym, to work hard, to invest in our relationships. At a cellular level, we need stress to be able to learn to respond to it effectively. Stress is the precursor to a fulfilling life.

At the organisational level, if we want to create cultures of innovation, disruption, and high performance, then stress is fundamental to this journey. “Corporate wellbeing” is an area we are still getting very wrong.

The reason why stress is having such a detrimental impact on both individuals and organisations starts with the basic fact, we were never designed to deal with such constant stress. Evolutionarily speaking, the “fight versus flight” response was something that was only designed for short sharp bursts to deal with immediate threats, but modern-day stress sources are anything but immediate most of the time.

It is no longer about finding food, a shelter, a mate. It is about paying mortgages, promotions, education, feeding our families, saving for retirement etc. We have shifted from immediate-return environments to one which is a delayed-return. This means the stress we feel cannot be resolved overnight. Combine this with the fact that we live in a time where there is more political unrest, economic instability, we are still recovering from the impacts of a global pandemic, we are witnessing rapid technological advancements, and a huge shift in the way we are working – what once was an evolutionary advantage is now making us sick. This means we must learn how to manage our stress effectively again.

If you only take one thing from this article, let it be: Stress is only a powerful response if we are in control of our stress levels, not our stress levels controlling us.

This is where so many go wrong.

I do not believe in wrapping people in cotton wool, nor do I believe it is healthy or advisable to avoid stress and pressure in life. I certainly don’t think we as individuals should “play it safe” and not take risks. I do believe, however, if we want to do all these things effectively we need to be managing our baseline stress much better.

In an organisational setting, if we aim for our teams to perform optimally—resulting in increased output, innovation, disruption, and high performance—then we first must ensure we are building the cultures, environments, and systems that allow our individuals to operate sustainably. People who are “high performers” or “high achievers” often don’t fall into the category of those who have never been tested or challenged; in fact, it’s usually the opposite.

This is the mindset and culture we wish to cultivate within the workplace. One where we can overcome challenges and thrive amidst uncertainty, but to do this, we must ensure we are providing individuals the time, tools, resources, and support they need to take risks, deal with discomfort, fail, overcome, and ultimately succeed.

When aiming to create high-performing cultures, it’s crucial to strike the right balance between challenge and safety.

To achieve this, we must adopt a holistic approach to employee wellbeing and performance—considering all 8 pillars of health. Below (image 1), each pillar is outlined, including what it comprises and what needs consideration when implementing workplace wellbeing initiatives.

An example I often refer to in my workshops on this topic is if an individual exercises five times a week, eats well at every meal, and gets 8 hours of sleep each night but is terrified of how they are going to pay their rent, feed their children, or even maintain the lifestyle they have worked so hard for, they are not going to be healthy. This underscores why considering every aspect of health and wellbeing is crucial for both the long-term success of the individual and the business.

Meeting the basic psychological needs and safety of our people is essential before implementing the nice-to-haves. There’s little point in offering everyone in your organisation a free wearable or discounted trainers if they don’t have the time and energy to move.

It’s a complex topic and too broad to cover in one online article, but if you’re looking to improve in this area from a strategy perspective, or if you’re someone looking to manage stress and ensure high performance in your organisation, then I would starting with these 5 steps:

1. Be prepared

Don’t wait for the impact of stress in your workplace to become detrimental to both your individuals’ wellbeing and your business performance. Incorporate proactive strategies based on your people to prevent issues from spiralling.

2. Involve your people

Learn what will resonate with your employees by involving them in the planning process. Gather data and share surveys to gain a consensus on the types of strategies that would be most beneficial. If you have wellbeing champions or people responsible for wellbeing within your organisation, get their buy-in and let them be your ears on the ground to obtain accurate feedback. Staff engagement is crucial.

3. Train your people

82% of managers are “accidental managers,” meaning they have had no formal training for their role (6). Training has numerous benefits for everyone – it deepens understanding and promotes a culture of connectedness and inspiration. When employees are more aware, they are better equipped to manage stress in the workplace (and outside of it) effectively. Training in areas with more human-led skills, not just job-based skills, is fundamental for the future success of organisations. An example may be training for emotional intelligence for leaders or resilience skills for employees. This will overcome many common communication, conflict, and workplace challenges, especially for those in management/leadership positions. Employees under effective managers are 15 times more likely to excel and three times more likely to stay at their workplace, resulting in significant cost savings for the business and a much stronger culture (7).

4. Engage leadership

Effective communication, good conflict resolution, work-life balance, inclusivity, and work ethic are all influenced by leadership and management. Role-modelling from the top down is crucial; executives and senior leaders should demonstrate the behaviour they expect from their teams. This cultural shift can help reduce the incidence of toxic behaviours and promote a high-performing business.

5. Ensure your strategies will be used

A critical reason for the failure of wellbeing initiatives is low engagement and high dropout rates. Solutions need to offer flexibility in their services. An offering must be diverse so people can access the correct support and services as and when they need. The EAST Model is an easy to implement framework when testing the suitability of your offering:

  • Easy: To use and understand
  • Attractive: Intuitive and appealing
  • Social: Encourages interaction, friendly competition, or improves connection
  • Timely: Respects differing schedules so people can engage how and when it suits them.


As we approach Stress Awareness Month, remember, it’s just one month, but the importance of raising awareness is year-round. Integrating long-term initiatives into the organisation’s ongoing policies, programmes, and culture are key to employee productivity and sustained high-performance. The correct strategies will not only result in a higher quality of life for your people but also a significant competitive advantage for your business.

Lastly, like any other business strategy, it’s important to find what works for you and your organisation. There is no one-size-fits-all. You also need to constantly reevaluate and update your strategies, as your employees’ needs, business challenges, the markets, and your competitors will constantly be changing.

For anyone who would like to learn more I have provide some useful links below:

Have any questions? Book a complimentary call with me here.

Find out the risk of burnout in your workplace? Take the 3-min test here.

Want to hear more on this subject? Listen to our latest appearance on HR insights here.

Want some actionable strategies to meet the needs of your people and your business to ensure long term success? Download our 2024 white paper here.

Bianca, co-founder @ HumanOS

References:

  1. CIPD. (2023b). CIPD | Sickness absence rate jumps to the highest in a decade. [online] Available at: https://www.cipd.org/uk/views-and-insights/thought-leadership/cipd-voice/sickness-absence-rate-jumps/.
  2. Champion Health (2023). The Workplace Health Report The true state of mental health, wellbeing and productivity in the workforce. [online] Available at: https://championhealth.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/workplace-health-report-2023.pdf.
  3. Deloitte (2020). Mental health and employers Refreshing the case for investment. [online] Available at: https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/uk/Documents/consultancy/deloitte-uk-mental-health-and-employers.pdf.
  4. https://www.vitality.co.uk/media/two-thirds-of-workers-are-not-prioritizing-their-mental-health/
  5. Oxford University (2024). Happiest companies better in multiple measures of firm performance — Wellbeing Research Centre. [online] wellbeing.hmc.ox.ac.uk. Available at: https://wellbeing.hmc.ox.ac.uk/news/stock-market-performance/ [Accessed 26 Mar. 2024].
  6. Mayne, M. (2023). ‘Accidental managers’ without proper leadership training contributing to almost one in three workers walking out, research finds. [online] www.peoplemanagement.co.uk. Available at: https://www.peoplemanagement.co.uk/article/1844443/accidental-managers-without-proper-leadership-training-contributing-almost-one-three-workers-walking-out-research-finds.
  7. Gartner (2023). Gartner HR Survey Finds 77% of Employees Are Placing Increased Importance on Manager Support. [online] Gartner. Available at: https://www.gartner.com/en/newsroom/press-releases/2023-06-22-gartner-hr-survey-finds-77-percent-of-employees-are-placing-increased-importance-on-manager-support.