Reducing Workplace Stress the KOAN Way: Creating a Kind, Open, and Adaptive Work Environment

Reducing Workplace Stress the KOAN Way: Creating a Kind, Open, and Adaptive Work Environment

Apr 5, 2022

By: Roma G. Velasco

April is National Stress Awareness Month. What better time to reignite conversations about workplace stress than this month? Joseph E. McGrath (1970), social psychologist, defined stress as “a substantial imbalance between demand (physical and/or psychological), and response capability, under conditions where failure to meet the demand has important consequences”. Furthermore, McGrath (1970) identified four stages of stress:

When it comes to coping with stress, according to human performance psychology, there are two recommended types of cognitive appraisals. Primary appraisal is when a person evaluates the importance of the event. Secondary appraisal involves the evaluation of coping responses that a person can utilize to manage the demands of the event (Nicholls, A.R., Polman, R.C.J., 2008). We can differentiate our behavior between responding and reacting when faced with stress. Responding, as the ideal coping approach, involves the primary and secondary appraisal where our response is aligned with our core values. Here we consider the long-term consequences of our actions. Reacting is more instinctive and instant. When a human reacts, they rarely consider the long-term consequences of their actions.

How do we help our teams respond to, versus react to, stress at work?

It’s one thing to equip teams and organizations with stress management and coping skills through training, workshops, and other resources. It’s another to provide and create a kind and inclusive environment where stress reduction is part of an organization’s strategy and not an afterthought to burn out. So, how do we reduce workplace stress through kindness, openness, and adaptiveness?

Two years ago, Integrated Work launched the KOAN Constitution. KOAN stands for Kind, Open, Adaptive, Network. The KOAN constitution was formed and established through our commitment to building a more inclusive world where human-first principles and a devotion to transparency and curiosity are front and center. Stress reduction, as a preventive measure against burnout, is one of the human-first initiatives Integrated Work is continually working on as an organization. We apply our KOAN principles to reduce stress in our workplace daily, and will share the principles below along with some examples of applications.

Kind: Everything we do is run through the filter of kindness and we approach challenging situations with empathy and compassion.

Workplace application: To start, when assigning work, consider projects and tasks that energize and grow your team. And when challenges arise, treating those challenges as an opportunity for growth can promote “good stress“ instead of “bad stress.” [read more on good stress vs bad stress here].

For example, how do you approach a team member who misses a deadline for a client project? When giving feedback to a team member in this case, consider taking a growth-focused approach where you explore what happened and what could go better in the future. Recognize and treat every team member as a whole person. They are not just a job title or a role.

Open: Provide transparency on projects, priorities, metrics, expectations, and other key factors to help build trust.

Workplace application: Transparency helps to build trust. When there is trust among team members, openness comes more easily. Being transparent about our expectations is a good thing; providing human-centered and realistic expectations is better. Human-centered expectations could mean setting work standards that inspire innovation, improve team and client experiences, and help to grow and develop people.

Adaptive: Respond instead of react to messages, requests, challenges, and issues. Operate in a way that grows and supports you and the team in service of amplifying the organization’s collective impact.

Workplace application: For example, when you receive a request for a project and you know you’re over capacity, or the project does not energize you, how might you respond to the request? When choosing to say “no”, can you consider offering an alternative or finding other ways you feel comfortable helping? Taking this approach is a way to support a project while also reducing stress for yourself and your teammates.

Network: Foster a network of activities such as meetings, requests processing, and set priorities and deadlines in an intentional, kind, and inclusive way. Provide a psychologically safe space for people to connect and discuss work-related challenges.

Workplace application: We often hear that organizations have too many meetings and that team members need to work after hours to complete tasks. How can we be more intentional and purpose-driven when scheduling meetings, setting priorities, and deadlines? Consider offering a day or two a week that is “no meeting” days.

Additionally, identify work and conversations that can be accomplished asynchronously so that projects can progress without a meeting. Having autonomy over one’s work schedule and priority projects during the week can help relieve workload anxiety and stress. And, having some meetings that are expressly for the purpose of relationship building can create a human-first network of support and safety.

We hope you find these tips helpful to your organization. If you want to learn more about KOAN and how we can partner with you in growing teams and organizations, contact us here.



McGrath, J. E., ed. 1970. Social and psychological factors in stress. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.