Manage Your Organization's Stress Better
Would you like to help manage your organization’s stress better? The feeling’s mutual. This desire ranks quite highly among our own clients. After employee engagement surveys close, we send our clients a satisfaction survey where they tell us what “materials” they are interested in. For the past year, stress has stubbornly held its place at number 4 on our report. With this in mind, we gathered our consultants to discuss why companies still struggle with stress, how it shows up in the workplace, and how to work through this persistent issue.
Are Companies Getting Better at Managing Stress?
As we look at our data from 2015 to 2018, we only have 65% favorability on, “The level of stress in my job is manageable.” This problem persists across our clients. Companies try to get as much from their employees as possible because that’s profitable for them. But this starts to create a transactional relationship. Employees start to feel a little bit of a grudge and become less engaged in their work. And so, we talk about engagement as wanting to give discretionary effort. When you’re in a state where your work is appreciated, and your feelings are considered, you freely invest more of yourself.
How is the Problem of Stress Manifesting and Affecting Engagement?
For healthcare organizations that I work with, if patient care is suffering, they can often link it back to stress and workload. In healthcare, you don’t want to have negative patient interactions. Their life can’t depend on the fact that an employee might be having a bad day.
Stress starts to affect growth, a driver of employee engagement.
- Employees ditch training or shy away from projects that might expand their capabilities
- Opportunities dissolve
- Creativity suffers, and people stop trying to innovate
- People may be afraid to speak up or lack proper channels to voice concerns
Employees ultimately become frustrated and disengage.
Learn to Identify Stress Triggers
1. Stress from Growing Pains
While an organization’s growth is wonderful, it can pose some challenges. Managers may struggle with a couple of things:
- Leading growing teams with inexperienced employees
- Training employees at the pace of growth
Employees may be excited about the growth of the organization. However, they gain new responsibilities and heavier workloads. You must manage these changes or their excitement will fade to burnout.
2. Stress Caused by Misalignment
If I go back to the engagement model, I can easily see how stress affects “impact.” If you aren’t having the impact that you want, it may be because you’re overwhelmed and pulled in too many different directions. To get back on track, ask yourself these questions:
- What am I responsible for achieving?
- Is there misalignment around my priorities and where I’m spending my time?
- What am I not going to do?
- What tasks can I delegate?
Listen as Dan talks about a time where the expectations of his manager created stress for him.
3. Stress over the State of the Company
There’s the stress in your everyday job and with your manager, but there’s also the stress of, “How are we doing as an organization?” Look at how senior leaders communicate and how they convey the company strategy. This may affect how employees feel about the company and where the company is going.
Listen as Thomas shares how one company tackled this issue.
How to Work through Stress at Your Company
1. Figure out if the Stress is Temporary and Which Departments are in Danger
When we look at scores about stress with clients, we’ll try to understand if it is just temporary. Is it because your company is in a high growth mode? Are you trying to get a shipment out for an important customer? Sometimes a low score on stress doesn’t surprise leaders. Still, they show concern if it shows up for certain departments. Maybe your engineering department scores low around stress. It could lead to missed deadlines and deliverables and impact their engagement and likelihood to stay with your organization.
2. Identify Key Influencers before They Burn Out
Your key influencers are often under more stress than others in the organization. If you looked at a social network map, you find that people internally and externally go to them for information or advice. If you lose those people, it takes a big toll on the whole organization. Productivity and communication suffer.
And so, we need to identify who in particular is experiencing high levels of stress. One of the ways we do that at DecisionWise is through org network analysis. We can then coach key influencers to delegate more effectively, prioritize, and negotiate deadlines. This coaching helps them manage their stress and avoid burnout.
3. Work on Stress Solutions with Your Manager
Everybody needs to learn how to manage their own stress. Have a conversation with your manager and work through solutions together. My own manager and I recently discussed my heavy workload. I proposed that I go burn some stress at the gym mid-day. Although it’s a bit unusual for our work culture, he decided that was a good option. I come back after my session refreshed and ready to complete the day’s work. I’ve heard it said that people don’t get burned out because of what they do. They get burnt out because of why they do it. Keep an eye on workload scores in your survey results and get ready to act if they start to sink. Analyze those scores with the meaning items on the survey. You have a problem if workload scores and meaning scores drop at the same time. Meaning and purpose often soften stress for employees, even if their workload is heavy.
I remember when I was asked to be on a merger and acquisition team, specifically due diligence within the HR realm. I didn’t even really know what due diligence was. Errors and recalculations happened and there was so much stress in my life that it made me physically ill. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. But when I started to look forward with a growth mindset, I was able to appreciate an intense learning experience. That light at the end of the tunnel tied with a dramatic growth experience became a defining experience in my career. Leaders need to do a better job of helping employees see an endpoint and valuable purpose to the stress.
Listen as Thomas tells us about his time as a manager and how he helped ease the stress of employees.
The Balance of Stress and Burnout
One of the questions we use in our employee engagement surveys is: “The level of stress in my job is manageable.” Some people think, “I might have a high workload, but I’m able to manage my stress and my workload appropriately.” Others don’t feel as empowered to manage random projects thrown at them.
Let’s consider the two types of stress. One is the bad stress that we typically associate with high blood pressure and anxiety. The other is eustress, which is good stress that you feel when you’re trying to accomplish something or grow. We don’t want to see this survey item score too highly, because people won’t feel challenged enough. But if that item scores too low, stress can lead to burnout, and that’s an employee engagement killer.
In regards to purpose, is your company vision compelling enough for employees to get behind? People sacrifice an incredible amount and dismiss stress when they care more about accomplishing a certain goal. I experienced this when I was working at Oracle and doing a PHD. I had this goal of designing a transformational executive program, and I was working with the University of Michigan and their key thought leaders on positive organizational change. And even though it was really hard, I was so interested in what I was doing, it didn’t seem like as big of a burden. I still felt tired, but I loved what I was doing and what it accomplished.
How do You Coach Clients on Stress?
Listen as Charles shares how department leaders added to their employee’s stress.
I tell clients to train managers on how to have an open dialogue around stress. Help them figure out how to give employees more meaningful work and accommodations during tough periods. Organizations should define their expectations and employees should tell the employer if they can’t meet all of the requirements. Middle managers should advocate for their teams and push back on upper-management when necessary. They can also help upper-management re-frame their expectations.
I also recommend making time for fun! Even in a stressful time, you can take a little time to have fun with your colleagues: show each other funny videos, or have lunch together. When you have relationships with people, you are more resilient. You also build trust, which results in more support from others in tough times.
When I’m working with clients, I ask them three questions.
- Are you okay with your scores? (It’s important to calibrate how they’re feeling.)
- What internal resources and support mechanisms do you have to help individuals with high-stress jobs?
- How can you make their stress more manageable with these resources?
We know that if we’re on this uphill trajectory we will need resources to help employees stay engaged.
It is important to consider the job types at your organization. For example, if you’re a restaurant chain, you have various positions with different turnover rates. You may have a passionate kitchen staff excitedly pursuing their culinary career. On the other hand, you may have wait staff trying to earn money for the next step in their life. As a manager, you have to help those people connect the dots between their long-term plans and their current role. Help them find that meaning in the moment and how it contributes to their growth.