About a year ago I received one of my favorite perks. It was peak season for us – my workload was heavy, and support was limited. This meant late nights in the office with the stress that so commonly follows.
As my supervisor and I were talking about what could be done to address my stress, I brought up exercise. I hadn’t been going to the gym regularly for the past few months. Most nights, by the time I left the office, I was too tired to complete a fulfilling workout, and I’ve never been a 5 AM workout warrior (and don’t want the massive caffeine addiction it takes to become one). So, I asked my supervisor if I could take off late afternoons, get in a workout, and return later to finish my work. That was a little culturally unusual for our team, but he agreed without hesitation.
Within days of switching to a more flexible schedule, my stress levels decreased significantly despite no change to workload and even later nights. It cost my company nothing, only awareness and an open-minded supervisor.
What Survey Data Tells Us About Stress in Your Organization
Many organizations struggle to help their employees manage stress. Our research has found that an individual’s level of stress in their job is one of the top five most frequently reported areas that needs attention from executive teams. Our firm, DecisionWise, has amassed more than 50 million employee survey responses from more than 70 countries throughout the world. Each year, we consistently find that perceptions of stress and workload generally rank within the lowest 10 employee survey items for most organizations.
Surprising? Probably not, when you consider for many, your job may actually be “killing you.” According to Jeffrey Peffer, PhD of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, some workplace conditions may contribute to premature death. The impact of these stressors may actually be “as harmful as secondhand smoke,” according to Pfeffer’s research.
Our DecisionWise survey findings seem to support the fact that workplace stress is out of hand, particularly given the current economic and health concerns inherent in the pandemic situation we are facing today. Even prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, only 65% of Employee Experience survey respondents provided favorable ratings to the statement, “The level of stress in my job is manageable.” This closely aligns with responses to “The amount of work I am expected to do is reasonable,” which scores 67%. For context, a typical engagement survey’s overall score is 73% favorable.
Why Do Leaders Struggle to Help Their Teams Manage Stress?
The challenge for most leaders is that stress is subjective – it varies greatly across roles, cultures, and personality types. Many of the factors that contribute to an employee’s stress levels fall out outside of an organization’s influence. But there are several things a manager can do to help minimize employees’ stress levels.
My aim is to help you understand the science behind stress, and arm you with tactics for addressing it in your teams. To accomplish this, I’ve selected four stress theories from the disciplines of physiology and psychology. I have also included specific recommendations related to each theory.
Four Theories to Help You Evaluate Stress
1. Homeostatic/Medical: Stress is a physiological response to ensure safety.
The term “fight-or-flight” was originally coined by Walter B. Cannon as a way of describing the body’s natural response to environmental demands that threaten our safety and homeostasis. Stress is a natural response that helps us quickly address or avoid a threat so that our health and safety remain secure i. These threats can be physical, such as safety hazards or a dangerous work facility. They could also be psychological threats, such as harassment, fear of retribution, or discrimination. Each of these can trigger the fight-or-flight response in the workplace.
Tips for Managers
- Ensure worker physical safety through adherence to safety policies.
- Be mindful of potential psychological safety issues. Address harassment and discrimination issues quickly and thoroughly.
- Promote diversity, equity, and inclusion by ensuring employees on your team feel respected, valued, heard, and feel they have equal opportunities for growth regardless of their age, ethnicity, or gender.
Worker safety, discrimination, and diversity are topics that extend beyond the scope of this article. If you’d like to deepen your understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion, here’s a well-researched article to get you started: Are Your Diversity and Inclusion Efforts Only Skin Deep?
2. Cognitive Appraisal: Stress is a result of our perceptions.
Introduced by Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman in the 1980s, this theory emphasizes people’s perceptions of stressors. How we perceive stressors can alter the amount of stress we feel. This means that stress can be managed by either addressing the stressor or the emotions and perceptions of the stressorii. What’s stressful to some may not be stressful to others. A few items that impact the degree of stress we feel include:
Different personality types might perceive certain tasks to be more stressful than others. For example, employees with high preferences for introversion may find tasks such as client interactions to be more stressful than employees with extroverted preferences. Employees with low levels of neuroticism are less likely to experience stress compared to others. Neuroticism and extroversion are two personality traits assessed by the Revised NEO Personality Inventory (or NEO PI-R).
Culture significantly impacts employees’ perceptions of stress. One study found that American employees are more likely to experience stress from a lack of job control and team coordination. In comparison, Chinese employees are more likely to experience stress from job evaluations and work mistakesiii. Either way, an employee’s cultural background has a clear impact on stress.
Tips for Managers
First, listen to your team. Try to understand their stressors.
- Identify the major causes of stress for your employees, whether as a group or individually.
- Identify when (time of the month, quarter, or year) stress will be worst. Consider such factors as “peak season.”
- Write your ideas down and review them in your next team meeting. Ask for further insights.
- Talk to your Learning and Development or HR department if you would like to obtain a deeper understanding of the personality profiles of your team.
Second, address the problem.
- How can you adjust tasks across your team to minimize stress?
- How can you share the load with other teams in the organization? Are there ways to address processes that will improve efficiency and therefore decrease workload and stress? If so, implement them, or talk to your manager about getting the appropriate approval needed for changes.
- For predictable periods of increased workload, investigate staffing and outsourcing options. Can you bring on seasonal interns, work with a temp agency, or outsource entire projects?
Third, address emotion.
- You may not be able to control the cyclical nature of the demands on your team, but you can lift spirits by grabbing pizza for dinner (on the company’s dime) to occasionally make the burden of staying late lighter. Not only does it provide a much-needed meal and break, the gesture also says, “hey, we get it, and want you to know we are right there with you.”
- If circumstances allow, arrange for flexible schedules, or let employees work from home occasionally during periods of extreme workload. This doesn’t address the quantity of their work, but extra autonomy may help them feel more relaxed.
- When things are slow, invite employees to go home early. If they feel measured by how long they’re tied to their chairs, they’ll hold you accountable for violating that social contract when they’re forced to put in extra hours.
Be emotionally intelligent in your approach. Don’t prolong employees’ stay at the office through “stress-relieving activities.” Avoid creating the perception that the team is getting pizza in exchange for an extra 10 hours of work this week (unless your workers are all teenage boys, who might just consider the deal a “win.”) Instead, tie this treat to the gratitude you feel toward your team.
3. Person-Environment Fit: Stress is a result of unclear expectations or poor job-role fit.
Psychologist Robert L. Kahn’s ideas of stress focused on the importance of roles and expectations. When people’s skills and abilities match what’s expected of them, stress is minimized. Ambiguous expectations or expectations that conflict with people’s skills and abilities in social roles lead to stressiv.
Tips for Managers
- Work with HR or recruiters to make sure that job listings for your team are accurate and represent the skills needed on your team. Clearly describe which skills can be developed on the job, and which aptitudes are prerequisite to success on your team. Better yet, instead of letting HR try and find the talent you need, become an active participant and lead the charge.
- Clearly define job roles and expectations. Provide stories and examples of exemplary performance when possible.
- Recognize employees for successful performance in key areas.
- Schedule regular time to train employees who are lacking skills in key areas.
- Consider what skills your team members have that aren’t being used in their job roles. Are there other opportunities for them to use those skills, e.g. on cross-functional teams or committees?
- Consider the clarity of expectations where performance issues exist. If expectations are unclear, redefine them. Avoid holding employees accountable to unclear expectations.
- Before extending invitations for new roles, do your best to set employees up for success by helping them understand the inherent challenges that come along with the role.
4. Psychoanalytical: Stress is a result of a gap between who we are and who we want to be.
The psychologist Harry Levinson applied concepts of Freudian psychology to stress, and believed that stress is the result from misalignment between our ego-ideal (who we’d like to be) and our self-image (who we believe we are now)v. Our careers are instrumental in helping us progress toward our ideal self. If employees struggle to see how their job connects to their aspirations and long-term goals, they will likely feel stressed and disengaged.
Tips for Managers
- Know your employees on a personal level: their values, interests, and who they aspire to be.
- Help employees connect the dots between their work and what they aspire to be. If their current job role doesn’t clearly align with their future aspirations, show them how it will help them achieve success later in life. For example, their current job might fund an education that will allow them to pursue their true passion after graduation.
- Help employees understand the vision, goals, and values of the organization. Show them how their work helps accomplish that vision.
- Highlight the progress you’ve seen employees make. This might not be apparent to them.
Stress During a Crisis
During the time of this writing, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted economies worldwide. Economy-altering crises such as pandemics, stock market crashes, or political unrest can create uncertainty, threaten employees’ sense of job security, and lead to high levels of stress. Work and money are the most mentioned sources of stress for Americans. According to the 2019 Stress in America report by the American Psychological Association:
Note that stress levels were 23 points higher following the financial crisis of 2008 than during the economic boom of 2019. Here are a few tips on how to mitigate stress as much as possible amid a crisis.
Tips for Managers
- Keep your employees informed. This is one case where the adage “no news is good news” couldn’t be more wrong. In the absence of information, employees will spin their own stories. Control the story by proactively sharing pertinent details with employees regarding the steps that are being taken to ensure job security.
- If your organization is helping the world through the crisis in any way, emphasize and share that message with your team. Employees will hopefully see themselves as part of the solution to the crisis rather than a victim of it.
- Listen to your team. Find out what is going on behind-the-scenes, which you may not be aware of. Ask them how they’re doing. The chance to share your own concerns may help them. Help them understand that you are here to support them.
As mentioned previously, stress is a common factor inherent in most organizations, regardless of size or industry. If this is an issue for you, you’re not alone. However, you as a manager hold the power to shape the experience of your employees.
iCannon, W. B. (1932) The Wisdom of the Body. Norton.
iiLazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984) Stress, Appraisal, and Coping. Springer Pub. Co.
iiiLiu, C., Spector, P.E. and Shi, L. (2007), Cross‐national job stress: a quantitative and qualitative study. J. Organiz. Behav., 28, 209-239.
ivKahn, R. L., Wolfe, D. M., Quinn, R. P., Snoek, J. D., & Rosenthal, R. A. (1964). Organizational stress: Studies in role conflict and ambiguity. John Wiley & Sons.
vLevinson, H. (1978). A Psychoanalytic View of Occupational Stress. Occupational Mental Health, 2, 2-13.
viAmerican Psychological Association (2019). Stress in America: Stress and Current Events. Stress in America™ Survey.