U.S. workers are some of the most stressed employees in the world, according to Gallup's latest State of the Global Workplace report, which captures how people are feeling about work and life in the past year.
U.S. and Canadian workers, whose survey data are combined in Gallup's research, ranked highest for daily stress levels of all groups surveyed. Some 57% of U.S. and Canadian workers reported feeling stress on a daily basis, up by eight percentage points from the year prior and compared with 43% of people who feel that way globally, according to Gallup's 2021 report.
This spike isn't surprising to Jim Harter, Gallup's chief workplace scientist, who tells CNBC Make It that rates of daily stress, worry, sadness and anger have been trending upward for American workers since 2009. Concerns over the virus, sickness, financial insecurity and racial trauma all contributed to added stress during the pandemic.
But stress spikes were especially acute for women in the last year: 62% of working women in the U.S. and Canada reported daily feelings of stress compared with 52% of men, showing the lasting impact of gendered expectations for caregiving in the household, ongoing child-care challenges and women's overrepresentation in low-wage service jobs most disrupted by the pandemic. By contrast, the daily stress levels for women in Western Europe went down in the last year, which researchers attribute to social safety nets for parents and workers to prevent unemployment.
And while employee engagement dipped in the rest of the world, it rose to 34% in the U.S. The correlation of higher engagement but also higher stress can result in burnout and mental health challenges and indicates "the intersection of work and life needs some work," Harter says.
These sentiments come at a time when younger generations expect their workplaces to provide more value than just a paycheck, Harter says, drawing on previous Gallup research. And in turn, he says organizations have a responsibility to help improve employee well-being if they want to support a resilient workforce; improve learning and performance; and attract top talent.
He points to five elements workplaces can focus on to improve employee engagement and help individuals thrive: career well-being, social well-being, financial well-being, physical well-being and community.
Stress in any one of these areas, such as financial stress due to inequitable pay, or community stress due to an unsafe work environment, can negatively impact a worker's mental health.
Leaders can do an audit, like through surveys and focus groups, to see if any of their company policies, structures, communications or programs negatively impact their employees' overall well-being. And when leaders introduce new programs or benefits, Harter says, leaders should connect the value of them to "those five elements, so people understand why you're providing various benefits, and why you're trying to provide an overall culture of thriving."
It's crucial CEOs communicate this priority from the top, Harter says, but managers play the biggest role in actually helping improve worker well-being throughout all levels of an organization.
"The most important thing employers can do is to equip managers to have the right kinds of conversations with people," Harter says. He says companies should be doing more to upskill their managers to facilitate meaningful and ongoing conversations. At least once a week, he says, managers should take the time to get to know their employees' personal lives, in addition to what they have going on at work and how the two intersect.
"What dictates employee engagement and high well-being is very situational," Harter says. "We have to equip them to have the right kinds of conversations so they can really impact people and help them find the resources they need."
Manager training should also be inclusive to recognize workers who need the most flexibility and support, for example, a mom who needs flexibility to do her best work while also taking on child care. Managers can not only point their employees to the best resources, but also be an advocate to senior leaders about introducing new policies or benefits that their workers don't have but need.
As Harter puts it, "managers are in the best position to understand their employees' life situation well enough to adjust the work to accommodate them."
Additionally, some organizations are investing in well-being coaches, seeing that employees who are fulfilled and secure in their personal lives can contribute to the business's success.
"Having leaders in an organization who authentically believe in improving worker well-being, that's important to culture," Harter says.