The dangers of stress
Not all stress is bad and small amounts can contribute to high performance. However, persistent negative stress is harmful not just to our overall health but our productivity and motivation.
It can lead to more chronic illnesses, depression, or burnout. Some estimates say 60-80% of all doctor visits are for stress-related complaints.
Spot the symptoms of stress
Stress can show up differently for different people. However, the main symptoms are quite common and normally easy to recognize:
- Feeling irritation, anger, or in denial
- Feeling uncertain, nervous, or anxious
- Lacking motivation
- Feeling tired, overwhelmed, or burned out
- Feeling sad or depressed
- Having trouble sleeping
- Lacking confidence
- Loss of interest at work
- A sudden shift of focus or trouble concentrating
- Complaints of constant headaches
Common sources of work stress
The main causes of stress are workload, followed by working with others, work/life balance, and job security.
Stresses can be big and small - from ongoing stress on a project or in our personal lives to “micro-stresses” that can pop up throughout our day working with others. We’ve listed some ideas on how you as a manager can reduce stress-related to each cause.
Instead of assuming you know the cause, be sure to check in with your employee, be curious, and offer your help. When they know your intentions are coming from a good place, they will be more likely to accept and want your support.
Set clear (or clearer) goals for your team members
Ambiguity is dangerous for the brain and can contribute to stress and anxiety. Don’t let your employee wonder what success looks like on a project, goal, or for their role in general. Clear goals provide focus and a sense of progress when achieved.
✔️ Try this: At your next 1-1 make sure you are aligned on your employee’s goals for the next month (at least).
Give your employee more control over their work
Research says stress is greater when employees have a ton on their plate but little control over it.
A recent study found that jobs with low control and high demands are not just more stressful, but may also shorten employees’ life expectancy. Empower your direct reports by giving them greater autonomy and decision-making authority.
✔️ Try this: State a clear end goal, but allow your employees to choose the best method to accomplish that goal including where and when they work. Use more open-ended questions to provoke your employee’s thinking.
Help them do a “challenge-versus-hindrance” appraisal
Reactions to stress are often a matter of perception.
When employees view stressful situations as a challenge, they tend to exhibit greater motivation and performance. But when those same stressors are seen as getting in the way of their goal (a hindrance), motivation and performance tend to suffer.
✔️ Try this: Help your employee reframe their stressors as a challenge and an opportunity for them to grow, develop, and help others – instead of a hindrance. At the same time, do your best to eliminate any headaches that make it more difficult for them to do their job.
Choose a Single Source of Truth
How often do your employees have to scramble to find the information they need? Are they frequently challenged by needing to monitor progress on projects, or track down the latest communication or update? Make sure your team knows where to find what they need when they need it. Not only can this delay their work but it can also cause unnecessary stress.
✔️ Try this: Make documentation your best friend. When you make a decision or complete a task, write it down, and clarify why you chose to do things in a particular way. Take good notes, and keep them until the project has been completed, evaluated, and followed up on.
Working with others
Uncover and solve micro-stressors
Much of our stress from working with others is due to micro-stressors: smaller stresses that tend to come from the way we routinely communicate and collaborate with others.
They tend to fall in 3 buckets:
- Micro-stressors that drain our capacity (the time and energy we have available to handle life’s demands). They generate additional work or reduce our ability to do what we already have on our plates. Examples:
- When others don’t deliver reliably
- Poor communication norms
- A surge in responsibilities in workload
- Micro-stressors that deplete our emotional reserves, such as:
- Tough conversations
- Managing others and feeling responsible for their well-being
- Others who spread a lot of stress
- Micro-stressors that challenge our identity and values.
- When someone undermines your sense of self-worth
- The pressure to pursue goals that don’t align with your values
✔️ Try this: The next time an employee comes to you with frustrations or complaints, try to help them identify what kind of micro-stress it is and act on the source of the stress. For example by having an awkward-but-crucial conversation, by pushing back on unreasonable demands, or by strengthening the network of people who can help shield them from negative interactions.
Watch your stress level - it’s contagious
Emotions, like common colds, are contagious. If you’re stressed, chances are so are your employees. Watch and monitor your reactions to stress and develop your action plan to help yourself. When you know what your stressors are and how you improve, this may help people around you. Model good behavior.
✔️ Try this: In addition to making sure your employees are taking adequate time off, model good behavior by doing the same. Find an outlet for your stress that is not your employee. Whatever you do, don’t dump your stress on them.
Reduce ambiguity by communicating openly and honestly
Information sharing is often seen as an indicator of trust, so managers who are more open are also likely to be seen as more credible and trustworthy.
✔️ Try this:
It’s ok to not know everything - but share what you do know. By being more transparent and discussing worst-case scenarios, managers not only help reduce stress but also other dysfunctional outcomes, like increased gossip and decreased commitment, which often occurs when employees are faced with ambiguous situations.