Cortisol Control and the Symphony of Happy Hormones in the Workplace

Understanding the balance between stress and well-being is crucial in today’s fast-paced work environment.

According to HSE, a record-breaking 17 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression, and anxiety in 2021/22.

Workplaces that reduce stress will benefit their employees and thus the business – but it’s easier said than done.

This article explores how to promote a low-stress workplace environment that promotes well-being.

The Stress Hormone: Cortisol

Cortisol, often termed the ‘stress hormone’, plays a fundamental role in the body’s stress response.

It’s produced in the adrenal glands and is integral to metabolism and the immune response.

However, prolonged elevation of cortisol levels, commonly seen in high-stress work environments, can lead to anxiety and a depleted immune system.

Stress not only causes anxiety and depression – it also vastly increases the risk of other illnesses. Reducing stress also means reducing absence, not just from stress-related disorders, but from physical illnesses.

The Happy Hormones

In contrast, the ‘happy’ hormones – dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphin – are critical for maintaining mood balance and a sense of well-being.

  1. Dopamine: Known as the ‘feel-good’ hormone, dopamine is associated with pleasure and reward. In the workplace, it boosts motivation and attention, driving employees to achieve goals and feel rewarded for their accomplishments.
  2. Serotonin: This hormone impacts mood, emotion, and sleep. Adequate serotonin levels are essential for feeling calm and focused, making it easier to handle workplace challenges with a positive attitude.
  3. Oxytocin: Often referred to as the ‘love hormone,’ oxytocin plays a role in building trust and relationships. In a professional setting, it can foster team bonding and improve collaboration.
  4. Endorphin: Known for its pain-relieving properties, endorphin also contributes to a sense of euphoria. It can help people cope with stress and physical discomfort often arising from long work hours.

Cortisol vs. Happy Hormones: Balancing Them in the Workplace

The imbalance between cortisol and happy hormones can significantly affect workplace dynamics.

High cortisol levels can lead to burnout, reduced productivity and a toxic work culture – workplaces are slowly realising that stress can be the root of various absences and other issues.

Conversely, a workplace that promotes wellbeing should confer a domino effect of positive impacts, including fewer absences, higher employee retention, engagement, and so on.

But how is that achieved practically?

1. Stress Management Training

Implementing stress management training, such as the NEBOSH/HSE Workplace Stress Course, is fundamental. These courses equip employees with practical skills to manage stress, fostering a healthier work environment.

Techniques like mindfulness, time management, and conflict resolution are covered, helping in lowering cortisol levels.

2. Promoting a Positive Work Environment

Encouraging a positive work culture that values achievements and social interactions can boost the release of happy hormones.

Recognising accomplishments (dopamine), fostering a supportive community (oxytocin), and ensuring work-life balance (serotonin and endorphin) are key.

3. Physical Activity and Relaxation

Regular physical activity and relaxation techniques can lower cortisol and increase endorphin levels. Employers can facilitate this by providing gym memberships or organising wellness workshops and team-building events.

4. Diet and Nutrition

A balanced diet rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals can regulate cortisol and support the production of happy hormones. Workplaces should emphasise the importance of healthy eating options.

5. Environmental Factors

A comfortable and stimulating work environment can enhance mood and productivity. Natural light, ergonomic furniture and relaxing spaces can make a huge difference. For outdoor or on-site environments, ensure there’s warm, well-lit and comfortable spaces to relax in between shifts.

Final Thoughts

Building a low-stress work environment is challenging, particularly in dynamic, fast-paced, higher-risk industries and workplaces. However, it is possible.

Firstly, building a fundamental understanding of stress, how it arises, and how it should be managed throughout the organisation is vital.

Workplace safety, supported by NEBOSH courses, including the fundamental NEBOSH General Certificate, are an excellent means of boosting overall workplace wellbeing by creating a safe and secure environment.

This should accompany measures to adopt policies aimed at reducing stress, including fostering a supportive, collaborative community that doesn’t push people beyond their bounds. That will inflict burnout and ultimately lead to absences, downtime and lost productivity.

Explore our NEBOSH HSE Certificate in Managing Stress at Work for more insights and strategies to create a balanced, low-stress workplace.