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Addressing the 'stress factor' can improve employee total health, performance and prevent burnout

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Corporate / Mental Health / Canada

Addressing the 'stress factor' can improve employee total health, performance and prevent burnout

Morneau Shepell's Dr. Bill Howatt explained in new white paper how employee reaction to stress is more impactful on total health than stress itself

TORONTO, Jan. 15, 2018 /CNW/ - Stress has become a major health concern within Canadian workplaces. In recent years, rates of stress have increased and, as a result, are affecting employees' physical and mental health, engagement and productivity. In a new white paper released today, Morneau Shepell found that how employees react to stress is more important than the stress itself.

The stress factor and its impact on employees' mental and physical health, by Dr. Bill Howatt, chief research and development officer, workforce productivity, provided insight into understanding the "stress factor," or the overall negative impact that stress, when left alone, can have on employees' mental and physical wellbeing. Dr. Howatt explained how a better understanding of the "stress factor" and more thoughtful reactions to stress would help employees and employers lift the burden of stress and prevent burnout.

Breaking down the "stress factor"

Understanding the "stress factor" and encouraging healthier reactions to stress is top of mind for most of the country's population. In fact, the Your Life at Work study, conducted by Morneau Shepell and the Globe and Mail, found that 60 per cent of Canadians go to work daily feeling some form of stress. In this white paper, Dr. Howatt highlighted how the origins of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion – known as "burnout" – is traced back to employees not having the positive habits and coping mechanisms to break the cycle of stress.

Dr. Howatt explained that how a person responds to stress is largely shaped by their environment. He separated employee reactions to stress into two categories: mindful response and autopilot.

Mindful responses to stress allow employees to take control of their behaviour, thinking and emotions, and focus on what they can control as a result of both positive and negative stimuli. These employees are able to better react to and cope with positive or negative news. In contrast, those on autopilot – those who feel they have no control and take no responsibility for their behaviour – are more at risk of allowing their environment to shape their reactions, and in turn, activate the "fight or flight" response. This encourages passive reactions that cloud coping skills and put employees at a greater risk of burnout.

"Stress itself is not something that is good or bad – it is merely a demand on physical or mental energy," said Dr. Howatt. "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."

Investing in coping mechanisms to build a healthy workplace

According to the white paper, no two employees evaluate or react to stressors in the same way. Recognizing the differences when identifying and addressing these stressors is important for both employees and employers in order to establish mindful reactions and prevent burnout.

"It is not the amount of stress that employees' endure that determines their stress level, it is how they are able to cope," said Dr. 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."

Employees and employers play a role in changing the way organizations understand and deal with employee stress. To maintain a positive, healthy work environment, employees should identify their current reactions to stress and evaluate whether they can be improved, take ownership over how stress is handled and take the appropriate steps to maintain mental and physical health. For employers, it is essential that employers take steps to understand the concepts and signs of stress to better help their employees' wellbeing. Employers should take ownership over creating a positive workplace environment that promotes positive coping strategies and education, to move past negative stress and prevent prolonged periods of distress from occurring.

Dr. Bill Howatt's biography can be found here. The white paper, The stress factor and its impact on employees' mental and physical health, can be downloaded here.

About Morneau Shepell

Morneau Shepell is the only human resources consulting and technology company that takes an integrated approach to employee assistance, health, benefits and retirement needs. The Company is the leading provider of employee and family assistance programs, the largest administrator of retirement and benefits plans and the largest provider of integrated absence management solutions in Canada. As a leader in strategic HR consulting and innovative pension design, the Company helps clients solve complex workforce problems and provides integrated productivity, health and retirement solutions. Established in 1966, Morneau Shepell serves approximately 20,000 clients, ranging from small businesses to some of the largest corporations and associations. With more than 4,000 employees in offices across North America, Morneau Shepell provides services to organizations across Canada, in the United States and around the globe. Morneau Shepell is a publicly-traded company on the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX: MSI). For more information, visit

SOURCE Morneau Shepell Inc.

For further information: Heather MacDonald, Morneau Shepell, 416.390.2625,