By: John Bonoff
If there is any silver lining to be found as businesses continue to navigate the gauntlet of COVID-19, it may be that the mental health of employees has never been more squarely in the spotlight. The history of stress among American workers is about as long as the history of Americans working. Only now, amidst constant financial uncertainty and the clash of work and home life, are we starting to prioritize the mental health of workers across the board. Of course, stress and related issues are not solely a U.S problem. The World Health Organization estimates that depression and anxiety alone cost the global economy about $1 trillion a year in lost productivity, and that’s pre-pandemic. As a leader, both you and your team members are facing new challenges, and a short amount of time to adapt. Helping them to stabilize when you don’t have all the answers is a tall task, but again, work stress has been prevalent for a while. Because of this, most common sources of stress, listed below, have corresponding measures you can take to keep stress levels down. There has never been a better time to implement them.
Source of stress: Employees don’t feel secure
One of the most stressful feelings we can experience, inside or outside the office, is a loss of control over our own fate. An unstable, unpredictable environment is what produces the stress-inducing cortisol and adrenaline in our brain. And with as many unknowns as there are right now, it can be difficult to find a sense of control or agency at work. “Will I become ill?” “Will my family become ill?” “Are my finances in jeopardy?” These are questions companies can’t answer, but companies can give employees the tools to deal with uncertainty themselves. 80% of workers feel stress on the job, and nearly half say they need help in learning how to manage stress. Oftentimes, the mental health and wellness of employees become the sole responsibilities of HR instead of managers and leaders, but the responsibility should be shared.
Action to take: Empower team members
As a leader, understanding the EAP or wellness programs your company offers will help you in educating your team members as to how they might make use of them. If they’re open to it, hold meetings or workshops to help employees build their skills in time management, prioritization, and delegation, so they can more easily overcome feelings of being overwhelmed. Consider leveraging your internal communications platform to distribute mental health resources and tips. Giving employees the tools to tackle their own stress in these areas will give them a better sense of control, which is proven to reduce stress levels. Finally, boost employee empowerment by working to establish a connection with team members that will allow them to speak honestly about their wellbeing. Dr. Richard Citrin, an organizational psychologist who writes about managing stress in the workplace, says, “I’m not a fan of social distancing. We need physical distancing, but not social distancing. We should socialize and reach out and make connections… [w]e need to be more socially connected now and not more isolated.” Keeping personal connections healthy creates a safety net for times when stress puts strain on communication.
Source of stress: Employees don’t understand the company’s plan
Even if leaders are constantly consuming and distributing new information about COVID-19 and the potential impacts on their business, employees will still be largely in the dark about what the future holds. We all are. But that doesn’t mean that a sense of transparency and awareness is out of reach. One major disconnect between employees and their leadership is how exactly changes in the market affect their daily work. Only 39% of U.S. employees strongly agree that their employer has communicated a clear plan of action in response to COVID-19A lack of answers about job stability can make stress management difficult, which will of course eat into productivity, communication, and many other areas.
Action to take: Be transparent
You might not be able to speak to the future, but you can still be open about the ways in which the company plans to shift in the new climate, and what that looks like for each department and team. Managers will clarify the details one-on-one, but it’s important that employees know how these grander changes affect them, and vice versa. What will their new focus areas allow the company to do? What larger purpose do their individual actions serve? Answering these questions fosters trust, which leaves employees with less stress at work. And, according to a list of proven employee motivation strategies, employees whose accomplishments are reinforced by their leaders’ praise and positive feedback will remain motivated to continue achieving goals. Don’t miss an opportunity to speak clearly and gratefully to your people in this new era, and how they will allow the company to move forward in the best way possible.
Source of stress: Company culture rewards over-working
Long before the times of grown-out haircuts and regular pet cameos on Zoom, our country’s work culture has praised an obsessive work ethic. 8 out of 10 employees work when sick. The more time you’re willing to put in, the higher up you climb, and there’s really no limit. Of course, one instance of collateral on this journey is the climber’s mental health. According to a stress-at-work survey, job stress is more strongly associated with health complaints than financial or family problems. Some stress at work is unavoidable, but there is a lot leaders can do to transform the work culture of their company.
Action to take: Embrace boundaries
For starters, embrace a need for actual time off, especially in the form of sick leave and mental health days. As work becomes increasingly remote, home and work lines blur, and technology enables these changes, employees are more likely to stay online late into the evening, check work email on the weekend, and become less likely to formally disconnect from work. These are all signs that boundaries need to be established in order to keep the stress at work from building up. If employees are noticing that their physical or mental exhaustion is affecting their work, they should feel comfortable having a conversation with their manager, and taking a break. Managers need to respect these boundaries at all times, and practice effective communication with remote workers. Encourage and even mandate clear boundaries during non-work hours and be very clear that employees need to take care of themselves when they are feeling run down. Make sure this also comes with the necessary delegation of tasks, so employees know they can really disconnect.
Source of stress: Leaders are more stressed than ever
Leaders are usually promoted due to their efforts as individual contributors. Once they become leaders, their personal effort is no longer the measure of their success, but rather, they are professionally defined by the outcomes produced by their team. Getting others to perform well when the stakes are pay, promotions, and even job security, can be stressful, especially at first. Mid-level managers are often the most stressed, as they have to balance the needs of senior leadership with the needs of their own team. This can result in them failing to prioritize their own mental wellbeing. When leaders can’t manage the effects of stress in the workplace, it rubs off on employees and can quickly become an organizational hazard.
Action to take: Re-equip leaders
To remedy stress among leaders, equip them with the skills and knowledge of which tasks can be delegated, which can be pushed out, and which need to be prioritized. With these skills, they will avoid suffocating under a stack of assignments, and stay focused on what matters. They should also make these priorities known to their teams and senior leaders, so that others know what they’re up against, and will think twice before asking them to take on additional tasks. Like all employees, leaders need to set boundaries, and stand up for themselves when senior leaders and employees continually request their involvement. By focusing on themselves and the tasks that really matter, leaders can overcome stress in the workplace to better serve the company and get the best results with their team.
Although most employees would admit to experiencing stress in the workplace, few take steps to mitigate it. Half of workers in low-paying jobs say their job has a negative effect on their stress levels, and 4 out of 10 working medium- and high-paying jobs report the same. Maybe they think some employee stress just comes with the territory, that other people are just as stressed out, or overall, that it’s not really that bad. But stress is a slippery slope. We often wait until stress manifests in visceral ways before trying to prevent it, and by then, workplace stress management has become a taller order than we can handle. Notice the ways that stress factors into work life and the lives of those around you, and don’t ignore it. Once you have a better understanding of how it develops, you can start to accept it, interrupt the behaviors that induce it, and work toward rooting it out. Empower others to deal with stress at work, connect with them, help them build skills to overcome it, and make your company a place where mental health is a priority, no matter what shape the world is in.