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Stress levels have reached a 10-year high among adults in the U.S.

That’s what Gallup found earlier this year when it released the results of 151,000 interviews with adults in more than 140 countries. 

Americans are among the most stressed-out people in the world, experiencing stress levels that rival those of the Great Recession. About 55 percent of American adults reported they had experienced stress during “a lot of the day” prior to the interview, compared to just 35 percent globally. 

That stress appears to be highest among younger generations: According to the American Psychological Association, millennials and members of Generation Z — a group that includes those between the ages of 15 and 39 — experienced the highest levels of stress. They’re also more likely to report fair or poor levels of mental health. 

All that points to a stress epidemic in the U.S., and it’s hitting the current and future members of our workforce head on. 

But the solution isn’t a quick fix, like implementing a stress management class or offering in-office yoga, said Amy Arnold, East Coast Director, Workforce Health Consulting, at Kaiser Permanente. 

Instead, the answer is to find the root cause of the stress and treat that, she said. 

For instance, when an employer group recently asked Arnold and her team about how to address stress within the workplace, Arnold shifted the conversation. 

“I asked about culture. What we uncovered is that there was a volatile, unsupportive culture, and where we spent the time was not about using any particular app or health education class. We talked about how we can help to shift the culture,” she explained. “We also discussed their Employee Assistance Program and how it supported and could support their employee’s overall well-being.”

“If you’re just going to provide the short-term solution, it’s a Band-Aid approach. We’re really seeing the benefit when we’re focusing on long-term and sustainable solutions instead — just like we would in health care,” she said.

To that point, Arnold referenced research that shows 75 to 90 percent of primary care visits are due to stress-related concerns; there’s pain in the shoulders or back, for instance, it could actually be caused by or exacerbated by stress rather than an injury or underlying medical issue. 

To cure the pain, you have to target the source. The same goes for managing stress in the workplace, Arnold explained. 

That approach constitutes a significant shift for Kaiser Permanente. As recently as seven years ago, the national health care provider and not-for-profit health plan would provide solutions based on the issue as it was described by an employer. For instance, if a company asked for help managing stress, Kaiser Permanente would recommend something like mindfulness training or mandatory digital detoxes. While both are viable interventions that compliment an overall strategy, alone, they may not be enough.

“While that may feel good in the moment, what we’ve seen is that the outcomes are better when we take the time to find out what’s really going on,” she explained. 

Sometimes that means working on a shift in culture. For instance, an organization Arnold works with told her about a group of first responders who were reporting high levels of stress and needed support. Arnold and her team put together a four-hour mental health “first aid” course for the team to teach them tools to help them feel comfortable talking about the stress they were experiencing and to encourage each other to talk about it. 

“The goal was to create a culture that destigmatizes mental health,” she explained. 

Full-scale cultural change can take anywhere from three to five years to make an impact, Arnold said. In her experience, she’s seen it take even longer. But there are effects that take shape right away. 

For instance, in the wake of the mental health “first aid” course, there was the immediate acknowledgement that these tools could help the first responders in the moment. 

“And we’ll have to monitor that and identify what else we might need to support them,” Arnold said. 

Internally at Kaiser Permanente, Arnold said the company has experienced something similar. The health care provider’s operating plan includes a goal around creating a culture of health. 

“We’ve seen over the past few years that those departments with a higher rating of ‘culture of health’ have a lower percentage of injury on the job,” Arnold said. “When you do this work, there are tangible outcomes. It does take time, though, and organizations have to be willing to put the time in.” 

And when you consider the fact that nearly 70 percent of American workers are either not engaged at work or actively disengaged, companies that put in the time stand to reap significant rewards, she added. 

“This work is really helping to deepen that engagement with employees at work. They’re happier, healthier, and ultimately they’ll be more productive so that it impacts overall business performance,” Arnold said. “As a result, employers are taking it very seriously, and many of them are understanding that this is a people and culture strategy.” 

“If you aren’t sure where to start, ask your employees what they need to feel more supported. They will surely tell you.


Originally posted on The Washington Business Journal.