Four Ways to Support Team Members Dealing with Stress
April is UK Stress Awareness Month #choosehope
It’s been a tough couple of years, and workplaces continue to deal with a broad range of challenges on top of the “normal” demands of high-paced business environments. As a leader, you not only need effective tools for managing your own stress, but are called on to role model sound stress management, create a work culture that doesn’t increase stress unnecessarily and proactively help employees turn down the heat and focus on priority tasks. Otherwise, health problems, poor performance, burnout and high turnover are likely to result.
Every April since 1992, the United Kingdom has marked Stress Awareness Month to call attention to the causes of stress, engage in candid conversation and to encourage actions that can improve physical, mental and emotional well-being. This year, the Stress Management Society is promoting the theme #choosehope as a key method for moving through challenges and inspiring action.
Consider these ideas to lead the way for your team and colleagues.
- Tune in to the invisible demands facing women and people of color. One of the best ways to support your team is to recognize multiple stressors in their work and personal lives. Research shows that women continue to carry more than their fair share at home and at work. The Center for American Progress reports that working moms often return home to face a second shift of unpaid housework and caregiving. Fathers report having more leisure time than mothers do. And, the Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey & Company documents that male senior executives are far more likely than women at that level to have a stay-at-home partner.
Women also perform more emotional labor at home and at work. That might include serving as a sounding board for family members or volunteer activities at work that are often unrecognized and uncompensated. For example, McKinsey found that women are twice as likely as men at their level to dedicate time to DEI-related tasks at least weekly. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and focus on social justice in 2020, women were also doing more to support people on their teams struggling to meet challenges at home and at work, as well as those feeling threatened by racial tensions.
Which brings up the important point that people of color experience more stress on a daily basis than their white peers. A recent study reported in the journal Science found, “There’s clear evidence that racial discrimination negatively affects the health of people of color over the course of their lives.” It’s associated with depression, anxiety, psychological stress, increased blood pressure and a weakened immune system. Microaggressions, such as being mistaken for a service worker because of their race, increased study participants’ cortisol levels, and experiencing racial discrimination, such as being called by a slur, doubled cortisol levels detected even the next day.
- Set realistic expectations. You can help lower workplace stress levels with realistic expectations regarding deadlines and by providing the support to accomplish tasks calmly, on time and with high quality. You’ve heard the expression, “Your lack of planning is not my emergency.” But, in the manager-subordinate relationship, a leader’s lack of foresight does become an employee’s stress-inducing emergency. Some things are unpredictable, but for many aspects of work, leaders who give employees lead time and leeway to complete projects in a reasonable time with a degree of personal control will lower the temperature in the workplace.
- Be it so they can see it. When you model effective stress reduction techniques, others feel empowered to engage in similar practices. That includes working a reasonable number of hours per day and per week and not bragging about, or rewarding others, for logging exhaustive time at work. Avoid sending emails in the evening and on weekends and holidays, or use the delayed-send option to work when convenient for you but without interrupting the off-work hours of others. Let people know you’ll text in a real emergency. Take lunch, use your vacation time, and talk about interests you have outside of work.
You can also lower stress levels with humor and a positive attitude, by making it clear that you have people’s backs, and by encouraging team members to take breaks. You might surprise folks by bringing in a fruit platter or inviting everyone to join you for an outdoor staff meeting if the setting is conducive. Offer direct reports the option of seated or walking meetings with you. When you model self-care and calm presence, you can become a powerful stress reducer yourself.
- Ask people what they need. Ask directly what is most frustrating in a team member’s job right now, what causes the greatest stress, and what support would make a difference. You don’t have a magic wand or endless resources, but you might learn that what someone really needs is no interruptions for two hours every morning. Or not to travel for more than two nights at a time. Or, someone who can get help them get up to speed on Excel. Knowing can help you intervene effectively.
Stress has many sources, from health conditions to fear of failure, boredom, unrealistic demands, mismatched communication styles and scheduling that makes daycare pick up a high-stakes race. When you tune in to the unique stressors facing team members, share your own stresses, model effective stress-reducing behaviors and set reasonable expectations, you will help people perform their jobs more effectively and enjoy greater health.