The solution to reducing stress at work exists!

For the majority of workers, the end of vacation marks the inevitable return of stress. Too busy days. Overflowing messages. Is this inevitable? Not if you listen to science. Will the bosses be convinced? Stimulating discussion with neuroscientist Sonia Lupien.

Sonia Lupien has given herself a very noble mission, not to let all the knowledge about the stress that her brain overflows with before dying be lost. Lucky as we are, the neuroscientist excels at capturing interest thanks to a developed sense of the formula and her obvious desire to popularize research.

His most recent book on work-related stress is a clear illustration of this. The brick may have 507 pages and 73 chapters, but it can be devoured even faster than a good novel.

Whether we are interested in the functioning of the brain, productivity, history, the vision of bosses, the effects of teleworking, the way offices are designed, the impacts of technology or all of this at the same time, Sonia Lupien feeds our curiosity with a host of captivating examples. We quickly realize when reading Stress at work vs. work stress (Éditions Va Savoir) that science has long been interested in the workforce and its gray matter.

However, the information does not seem to have reached employers. Otherwise, how can we explain that they continue to repeat the same mistakes that stress workers?

“It’s the thing that frustrated me the most in my life,” Sonia Lupien told me. That’s why I started doing a lot of knowledge transfer. Because what fascinated me the most is that it is the taxes of workers who pay for our studies, but it is very rare that the government or other employers come to ask us if what we have found can be useful for something. »

The tragic result of this lack of information dissemination is a society in which burnout, anxiety and depression are pervasive. Every week, 500,000 Canadians miss work due to stress-related mental health issues. Too often, this affects children who absorb this stress like sponges, which is not without consequences. It is also for the “ti-prouts” that the researcher is so keen to reduce the stress level of adults.


Sonia Lupien in interview with our columnist

With the way we ask our brain to work, we have saturated it. We won’t go further than that. This is what created the mental overload.

Sonia Lupien

The current organization of work is to blame, but it does not blame companies and their bosses. The researcher from the University of Montreal knows only too well that in science, implementation, that is to say “the transfer of knowledge so that it is useful for something”, is always a challenge. Access to scientific studies is not free, she laments, you have to know where to look and be able to decipher sometimes indigestible texts.

Workspaces without partitions between employees are one of the best examples of this phenomenon. Even though it is scientifically proven that this type of layout is harmful in many respects, it continues to be adopted by companies.

“I remember when I saw this fashion coming,” Sonia Lupien tells me. I told myself that they were going to reduce performance by 20% by increasing stress. It was sure, because it’s very, very ignorant of the brain to think that humans can work like that without having fragmented attention and the stress that comes with it. »

When you are constantly bothered by emails, colleagues, messages on Slack, social media notifications, noise, text messages, Outlook reminders and what not, our attention is fragmented. This is what causes our stress to soar and our productivity to drop, since each interruption wastes a lot of time.

Good news: the antidote to stress exists.

To calm down, the brain needs to focus on a single task and complete it. You can weed the vegetable garden, play sudoku or write a strategic plan, it doesn’t matter. “When we progress, the brain thrives! », summarizes Sonia Lupien. This is called “deep” work or “cognitive engagement.”

This state is calming, but a study has shown that those who spend the day in front of a computer only work in depth… 72 minutes per day.

We therefore cannot be surprised by the epidemic of stress that afflicts us!

The unfortunate paradox is that this in-depth work is not what instinctively attracts us. “Humans don’t like to think, it’s hard,” explains Sonia Lupien.

Additionally, bosses and colleagues value employees who respond to all their messages in record time. The performance indicators of our century unfortunately do not encourage anyone to turn off WiFi or notifications for hours on end.

This is exactly why teleworking hasn’t made us as zen as a yoga teacher, despite what we predicted.

Certainly, at the beginning, staying in pajamas with dirty hair all day and doing loads of laundry between two meetings Teams seemed like the miracle solution to eliminate work-related stress. But are we more focused on our tasks than before? Are we less interrupted all the time? Not at all, notes Sonia Lupien. We even have to engage in virtual meetings which exhaust our brain, which is more or less capable of decoding the non-verbal behind the screen.

To return to a more acceptable level of stress, less damaging to our mental and physical health and more in line with the expectations of young workers, the scientist directly suggests reorganizing work weeks.

Some days at home should be dedicated to in-depth work, while those at the office should be used to hold meetings, chat with colleagues and respond to emails. An employer could also reorganize the days differently, with fixed blocks during which communications are prohibited and the servers are turned off. The dream, right?

There is no universal magic formula. The important thing is to experiment and make changes gradually to give both bosses and employees time to get used to them.


Sonia Lupien wants the knowledge she has acquired throughout her research career to “be useful for something”.

For her book, Sonia Lupien read no less than 840 scientific studies. She quotes half of them, always in a very accessible and catchy way. This work as a monk required three summers of work “7 days a week, 12 hours a day”, intense periods during which she tested the e-mail leave by activating an absence message. She can therefore personally testify to the benefits of the method she suggests.

“We’re going to have to make a major change with running backs in the companies. It takes determination from above that will be flawless and a huge reorganization of the manager’s work. I don’t know if it will work, but at least the writings will be there. You can’t say you didn’t know, right! »

The 507-page message is not only clear, but necessary and very tempting.

Who is Sonia Lupien?

  • Sonia Lupien has been studying the mechanism of stress, its effect on performance and memory for three decades. In addition to research, she has written three books, lectures and often shares her knowledge in the media.
  • Holder of a doctorate in neuroscience from the University of Montreal, the 58-year-old researcher also did postdoctoral studies at the University of California at San Diego and at Rockefeller University in New York.
  • Founder and director of the Center for the Study of Human Stress (CESH) at the University Institute of Mental Health of Montreal, she is a full professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Montreal. From 2017 to 2020, she served as president of the International Society of Psychoneuroendocrinology (ISPNE).

Other scientific facts about stress

Email wreaks havoc

It is a weapon of mass destruction of the well-being of workers. We spend hours reading our messages, responding to them and sorting them. We must also wait for answers. This management gives us a feeling of efficiency, but harms our productivity, or the time spent creating new information. The fact that it is an asynchronous mode of communication – unlike the telephone where the exchange of information is instantaneous – increases stress.

Women even more stressed

Work does not stress women more than men. But as soon as the couples set foot in the house, it’s something else! Women’s stress levels then skyrocket because of family organization (dinner, shopping, children). In addition, caregivers are most often women. All this stress fueled by the personal sphere inevitably follows them to the office, which should encourage employers to be accommodating.

The personalized work solution

To reduce stress at work, Sonia Lupien suggests that companies embrace personalized work, a model that allows each employee to adjust their schedule – face-to-face and teleworking – according to their personal situation over the years. The needs are not the same at 24, when you have two young children, and on the cusp of retirement. To avoid the feeling of injustice, a company could suggest custom work and hold a referendum.

Pressure on bosses

Managers will be very stressed in the coming years, the researcher predicts, because the world of work is changing and each transition is a stressor. They will have to modify performance indicators, manage teleworking, hybrid schedules, and avoid the feeling of injustice as much as possible. The transition is inevitable, because young people are not going to stay in companies that do not take care of their mental health.


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