Stress affects all facets of our lives. It can break us down, cause ill health and reduce productivity. Increased demands and pressure at work, coupled with technological developments that require us to work harder and faster for longer, has led to a rapid rise in incidences of workplace stress and anxiety. The recently published health and safety at work report 2018/19 in the United Kingdom, for example, shows that incidences of stress in the workplace climbed from 595 00 reported cases in 2017-2018 to 602 000 in 2018-2019 in the UK alone. The report also noted that mental health was costing the UK economy GBP 35 billion per year, mostly due to lost productivity. These figures follow similar patterns around the world. A recent study by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group noted that stress, depression, burnout and anxiety accounted for around 40 percent of all work-related illnesses in South Africa.
To combat the detrimental effects of stress on employee health and wellbeing, and following extensive research, Baker McKenzie in Johannesburg recently invested in an innovative and bespoke health and wellbeing programme developed by an internationally recognised health and performance educator and consultant Richard Sutton. The firm recognised the importance of implementing workplace health and wellbeing initiatives and committed to creating a culture that supported and encouraged employees to build resilience to the harmful effects of modern workplace stress.
Sutton, who has advised top athletes and Olympic teams, created a tailor-made health and wellbeing resilience programme for the firm that aimed to enhance overall employee well-being, help in the management of a variety of mental health and general wellbeing issues, and build employee resistance to the adverse effects of stress.
The resilience programme was introduced incrementally and in order to make the most of the programme and provide an accurate benchmark, it started with employees completing an anonymous online stress and performance questionnaire. This was followed by a series of group forums and roundtable discussions with employees.
During the introductory phase of the programme, Sutton hosted a workshop on the health and performance implications of stress. Sutton’s aim in this initial discussion was to remind employees that, with the right knowledge, stresses can be turned into strengths, and that individually and collectively employees could build confidence to tackle challenges that were once found to be daunting.
During the initial workshop, Sutton also introduced employees to his innovative on-line tool, which included a tailor-made Baker McKenzie Stress Code App, designed to promote and maintain positive lifestyle changes and facilitate successful stress management. He also trained employees on how to conduct a pre- and post-intervention resilience tests, as well as how to measure their resilience scores. Information on rebuilding and repairing the brain and body, as well as a section entitled "cracking the stress code" (a model for stress resilience) was also shared at the workshop.
Regular health podcasts, specifically recorded for Baker McKenzie by Sutton, were produced for the firm’s employees. The podcasts focused on performance hacks (in the area of cognition and behaviour) including NRF2 and BDNF that can be augmented through strategic lifestyle choices. The podcasts are regularly updated and available for employees to access online.
Once the results of the online stress questionnaire had been analysed, Sutton presented his stress and resilience trend reports to specific groups in the firm, as it was found the stressors and trends picked up in the online survey were different for different groups of employees, and therefore required unique interventions. Sutton spoke to employees about the specific stresses affecting their roles in the firm and the solutions that could support them their resilience journeys.
During a further resilience session, Sutton spoke about the importance of diet and how the right nutrition could make all the difference to performance - mentally and physically. Following this presentation, in-house discussions with the onsite canteen, Mastrantonio, led to the provision of healthier, performance-driven food choices and snacks for employees. Taking Sutton's advice on board, the firm partnered with Mastrantonio to introduce a new offering called the “Chef special' meal, endorsed by Sutton Health. These meals focus on detoxification, mood enhancement, cognition and reducing inflammation, and they are now on offer alongside the usual menu. The firm offers each member of staff one meal per day free of charge.
During his talk on the importance of diet, Sutton also emphasised the value of consuming good quality water, and as such the firm worked with a water company to secure discounted rates on their domestic water purification products for employees.
Due to the immense value of physical exercise in promoting wellness, health and performance, the firm further decided to introduce a small fitness centre to the office in early 2020. The end goal is to have a complete offering that includes cardio, free weights and functional training equipment and the gym will open on the 31st of January. Further implementations of the resilience programme included offering 30-minute on-site stress reducing massages to all staff to reduce cortisol to further promote physical wellbeing.
To further entrench the principles of the resilience programme, numerous copies of Sutton’s recently published best-selling book, The Stress Code, were purchased for the in-house library and are available for all employees to read. The book drives home the strong message of resilience - offering a wealth of practical tools and skills to buffer the adverse effects of stress and enhance functionality and health.
There is no doubt that people are the most valuable asset in any business and in the modern workplace, it is essential that they feel appreciated and valued. Stress in excess and when poorly managed can do a great deal of harm, however, when stress is well managed it can actually enhance performance and productivity. The Johannesburg office of Baker McKenzie is hoping that their resilience programme results in a happy, healthy and thriving group of employees and that it can serve as a blueprint programme for building stress resilience in other jurisdictions/work environments.