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Is Stress Killing Productivity? Here's How Leaders Improve Efficiency & Wellbeing

One emotion that often defines work is stress. It can be productive, motivating you to innovate, or draining, leading to burnout. Recent evidence suggests that five in ten employees are experiencing significant negative impacts from long-term workplace stress. Stress is an emotional contagion. Given the significant challenges increased workplace uncertainty poses, from decision-making and strategic planning to employee engagement and personal well-being, leaders need to reduce stress proactively. The good news? Now is the perfect time to get started. Here is how to begin.

Why you need a workplace stress reduction strategy

Managing long-term stress can lower your risk for conditions like heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, and depression. According to a study by the Mayo Clinic, the personal and organizational side-effects of executives experiencing long-term stress and burnout include:

  • broken relationships

  • substance abuse

  • depression

  • decreased customer satisfaction

  • reduced productivity

  • increased employee turnover

Employees are stressed out. A global study of 14,800 knowledge workers across 25 countries revealed:

  • 49% of leaders and 42% of non-managers are struggling with anxiety

  • 74% of those surveyed are looking to company leadership for help dealing with workplace stress.

The costs of workplace stress and burnout are severe for individuals and organizations. Manufacturing organizations like General Motors report spending more on healthcare than they do on raw materials for their products.

A recent study, in an effort to quantify the costs of workplace stress, found that workplace stressors in the United States account for more than 120,000 deaths per year and approximately 5-8% of annual healthcare costs.

Also, we are more connected to each other than we may recognize, and stress is an emotional contagion. Evidence suggests that co-workers can spread stress within a workgroup. For example, someone on your team who is feeling down enters a meeting. Within a few minutes, the entire team's emotions begin to mimic their behaviors and non-verbal expressions.

The following short NPR video discusses how emotions are contagious.

How gratitude makes a difference

Grateful leaders experience less stress, and expressing gratitude helps both the giver and the receiver. Gratitude is a positive emotion that balances a negative mindset. Many studies link gratitude with improved health, increased happiness, and decreased feelings of anxiety and depression.

An interesting recent study found that those who wrote gratitude letters showed greater activation in their brain's medial prefrontal cortex when they experienced gratitude in the fMRI scanner three months later. This evidence indicates that simply expressing gratitude may have lasting positive effects on your brain.

Similar to the saying, you are what you eat. If you allow only negative thoughts and feelings into your life, it is harmful to your well-being. Consider the negative emotion of envy. It is impossible to be both envious and grateful at the same time. Gratitude helps create a barrier to negative thoughts and feelings.

The following short video explains some of the science behind why gratitude matters.

Feeling appreciated is linked to well-being and employee performance. A study involving over 1700 working adults revealed that those who feel valued by their leader are more likely to report higher levels of physical and mental health, engagement, satisfaction, and motivation than those who do not.

What is gratitude?

According to the American Psychological Association, gratitude is a sense of thankfulness and happiness in response to receiving a gift, either a tangible benefit given by someone or a fortunate happenstance.

"Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues but the parent of all the others." – Cicero.

Gratitude consists of an affirmation of goodness and a source outside of ourselves. Gratitude involves both the ability to acknowledge the good in your life and feeling a sense of thankfulness. Empathy, kindness, and love are closely related to the virtue of gratitude.

Take the following six-question survey to determine and benchmark your likelihood of experiencing gratitude.

The following video is from Robert Emmons, the creator of the survey. In it, he addresses what gratitude means.

Getting Started Step #1: Cultivating Your Attitude of Gratitude

Cultivating an attitude of gratitude is something we can all do and is a healthy leadership habit. The best way to get started is to make gathering and giving gratitude easy and gradually increase the practice. is an app that makes getting started easy. I have used it for a few years and found it effective in cultivating an attitude of gratefulness. The app will send you a simple daily prompt asking you about what you are grateful for, and it stores your responses in a private online journal. What you record can be as simple as what comes to your mind or a purposeful reflection on something good that happened that day and why you felt good. I find scrolling through my journal very encouraging, and it also serves as a way for me to track my progress.

Stop. Look. Go. The following video explains how to get started practicing gratitude. It begins by getting quiet, looking through our senses, and then taking the opportunity presented.

If you are feeling stuck about how to get started or have tried to cultivate an attitude of gratitude, executive coaching can help. Coaches work with their clients to foster a mindset shift and implement practical strategies toward meaningful goals, including those related to gratitude. Through thought-provoking partnerships, coaches guide clients to reflect on achievements and strengths while deepening awareness and appreciation.

Getting Started Step #2: Expressing Gratitude to Others

Giving gratitude reduces your stress, makes you happier, and improves relationships. After listing what you are grateful for each day, take a few moments to practice giving gratitude. Not only will the act of reflecting and journaling what you are thankful for make you happier, but giving appreciation will multiply the positive effects on your emotions.

Simply send a thank you note or, better yet, deliver the thank you note and say thank you in person. Here is a simple template from Mental Health America.

Key Summary Points:

  • Given the increased complexity of decision-making in a crisis-driven workplace, leaders need to be proactive, or stress can harm physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health.

  • The costs of workplace stress and burnout are severe for individuals and organizations.

  • Grateful leaders have less stress.

  • The best way to get started is by making gathering and giving gratitude easy, then gradually increasing the habit.


Adecco. (2021). Resetting normal: Defining the new era of work 2021[PDF]. The Adecco Group.

APA. (2012). APA survey finds feeling valued at work linked to well-being and performance.

APA. (2023). 2023 Work in America Survey: Workplaces as engines of psychological health and well-being.

Goh, J., Pfeffer, J., & Zenios, S. (2016). The relationship between workplace stressors and mortality and health costs in the United States [PDF]. Management Science.

Harvard Medical School. (2021). Giving thanks can make you happier. Harvard Health Publishing.

McCullough, M. E., Emmons, R. A., & Tsang, J. (2002). The grateful disposition: A conceptual and empirical topography. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82(1), 112-127.

The Gratefulness Team. (2021). What is Gratitude? A Network for Grateful Living


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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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