Feeling more stressed lately? You’re not alone.

Stress and burnout have risen 17 and 21 percent, respectively, since last December, according to a new study by meQuilibrium.

Andrew Shatté, Ph.D., chief knowledge officer and co-founder of the digital employee-resilience platform, says the ongoing pandemic has presented more mental and physical health challenges for a longer period of time than any other event in recent history. This has worn away at people’s ability to bounce back.

The human brain already has a natural tendency to focus on threats and other negative circumstances, which has helped humans survive, Shatté notes.

“When we go through these prolonged sorts of adversity, like we have here, the brain becomes even more negative than it typically is,” said Shatté. “[The pandemic] is global and the impact is extremely deep. It’s work and life. It’s not just us as individuals. It impacted our families, what we could do, where we could travel, who we could meet with … and, in addition, there was no end in sight.”

In the study, stress was defined as a variety of symptoms and behaviors, including depression, anxiety, pain due to inflammation caused by high cortisol levels, poor eating and exercise habits, and disrupted sleep, among others.

People who actively worked on self-care and resilience building reported no increase in these “somatic stress” symptoms between the surveys, which were conducted in December 2020 and July 2021. Those who took no action, however, reported a 36 percent increase in stress, during a period when most people were working remotely, at least part time.

Being at the mercy of big events that we can’t control has made people really stressed out, he says, so organizations need to look for for ways to “counteract that negative brain.”

Here are some ways companies have tackled that challenge.

A little help from your coworkers

“Relationships and well-being are vital to the health and happiness of employees. They support engagement, growth, creativity, innovation and productivity,” said Jen Fisher, Deloitte’s chief well-being officer, who is based in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area. “In a remote or hybrid work environment, we don’t have those serendipitous opportunities to connect with our colleagues that we had in an office setting, so we need to be more intentional about creating space to connect and build relationships.”

One Deloitte initiative helped teams adjust to working together in an all-virtual environment, she says. The consulting company provided written guides with information, ideas and resources to help teams with the process, as well as assist individual members in managing their well-being as part of a hybrid or all-remote team.

“Teams would get together to discuss well-being needs and challenges and then agree on new behaviors and norms that address them,” she said. Examples included creating daily shutdown times, identifying no-meeting days or setting up weekly virtual “water cooler” meetings for team members to personally connect.

“Creating a relationship-focused workplace culture is not only vital to staving off burnout. It’s also key to retaining talent at a time when many are reassessing their careers and moving to new jobs and organizations that better align with their values and their well-being needs,” said Fisher, who wrote the book “Work Better Together: How to Cultivate Strong Relationships to Maximize Well-being and Boost Bottom Lines” with co-author Anh Nguyen Phillips.

Research, then support

International SOS, a global risk-mitigation company, launched an employee wellness survey during the pandemic. The results informed what support the company gave workers to help stave off stress and burnout, says Jarrett Michau, CEO for the company’s Americas operations, who is based in Trevose, Pa.

Solutions included a weekly “Work From Home” newsletter, with helpful tips, short “bite sized” educational materials to promote things like remote health and safety, and a weekly podcast. He says that the company’s “virtual coffeehouses” let employees meet, relax and “chat about anything but work and Covid-19.”

The company also enlisted supervisors to help employees cope.

“Managers have regular discussions with team members to talk about not just work, but also how each team member is/was coping with the new work arrangement and gauge stress/burnouts,” he added.

Laughing matters

Laughter can be a powerful connector and de-stressor, says Dani Klein Modisett, founder of Laughter on Call, based in Los Angeles. She started her company after seeing how her mother, who had Alzheimer’s, began interacting and taking more joy in life after sessions with a comedian.

When the in-person comedy “counseling” sessions ended with pandemic restrictions, the company began offering free “Lunchtime Laughter” livestreams. Though it was to promote their virtual services for their original target clientele, it became clear that many people who showed up were workers who said they were feeling depressed and isolated because of the pandemic.

“We realized … we’re actually uniquely qualified to be a help during the pandemic,” Modisett  said.

As interest picked up, Laughter on Call developed programs targeted at businesses, with a focus on fun and inclusive sessions (everyone gets involved, including introverts) that combine stand-up comedy prompts and improvisation games.

“It’s all about connection, being present and feeling seen — because that’s what laughter really does,” she says. “Shared laughter says, ‘I see you. I get you. And it’s going to be okay.’ It doesn’t matter if you’re in a marriage, you’re dealing with Alzheimer’s or dealing with business and sales. It’s still, ‘I see you. I get you. It’s going to be okay.’”

That’s a lesson the strategic communications company Peppercomm learned about 10 years ago, after CEO Steve Cody fulfilled his long-time dream of learning to do stand-up comedy. When he saw how it also helped with his company’s business, stand-up comedy training became part of the onboarding program.

“Comedy is all about listening and creating your rapport with your audience and dealing with bumps in the road as you’re performing,” said Tara Lilien, chief talent officer for the New York City-based firm.

Lilien says the firm’s humor-based culture has helped people develop closer connections with their remote colleagues and fight against burnout and stress during the pandemic.

“It’s allowed us to find joyful moments together as a company throughout the last 18 months of remote work,” she said.

Twice a week, the firm has 12-minute companywide virtual meetings to celebrate team and individual accomplishments during which people talk about what’s happening in their lives — and they inject humor into the conversation.

“That automatically lowers the temperature of the room and lowers people’s stress because we’re having those conversations actively and openly,” she said.

Though being funny is not a requirement at the company, Lilien says, it’s not hard to find humorous moments in the workday to let off some steam with a good, shared laugh with colleagues.

“It really gives you the chance to bring your whole self to work,” she said.

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