If you are a manager reading this, you might think, “on top of everything I need to do, how on Earth am I supposed to deal with that too?”. It’s a legitimate question. And, if you think that it’s mostly HR’s job to ease work-related stress, you’re right.
However, as a manager you are also responsible for your team's wellbeing. This article is not about making employees feel better, offering spa vouchers, counseling or personal development opportunities. I’m going to focus on the things that are under your control and have the power to decrease stress factors. Think of it as a plan to prevent your team members from desperately needing all I’ve mentioned above.
What is work-related stress?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO),
“Work-related stress is the response people may have when presented with work demands and pressures that are not matched to their knowledge and abilities and which challenge their ability to cope. Stress occurs in a wide range of work circumstances but is often made worse when employees feel they have little support from supervisors and colleagues, as well as little control over work processes.”
Also according to WHO, 48 percent of employees say that stress is caused by a lack of participation in decision making, while 44 percent agree that there are issues related to their supervisors.
The stress hazards identified fall into two categories:
- Work contents - monotonous tasks, lack of autonomy, no flexibility for working hours, unclear (or unfair) appraisal systems, unrealistic goals, complicated processes;
- Work context - job insecurity, unclear job requirements, negative company culture, poor communication, bad relationships with co-workers, lack of clarity on company objectives, an uneven work-life balance.
What are your team's stress factors?
The lists above are by no means exhaustive. Furthermore, the items are very general. The first thing you need to address the stress issue in your team is to find out what the most pressing stress factors are.
To do so, you’ll need to create a positive communication climate and give all assurances that people can speak their mind without fear of reprimand. Everybody is under a lot of pressure these days. There is anxiety basically pouring out of the news, social media, official communications and many people around us. It’s a globally stressful time. That's why, as a manager, you need to generate a positive (and if at all possible, relaxed) atmosphere in your team.
You can’t change what is going on in the world or what team members are exposed to, but you can create a temporary safe haven in your team. If you manage to do that, you’ll easily learn your team’s stress factors.
What can you do about it?
Once you have identified the main stress factors, you’ll probably find some you can easily fix, and some you’ll have to take to higher management. They’ll also be some that neither you nor other executives can solve.
The first step is to fix what you can. If your team members fear for their job security, for instance, give them assurances that it’s not an issue (if that’s the reality).
As for the items you are unsure about or know for a fact you can’t address, it’s important to communicate that to your team. It’s essential to be forward and honest as a lot of stress comes from uncertainty. Putting things on the table, as they are, may not solve them, but at least people will know where they stand and that they can count on you to trust them enough to tell them the truth — even when it’s not what they would like to hear. Building trust is the first step towards alleviating the harmful effects of work-related stress.
What can you give team members?
The short answer is: what they need to have an easier time reaching their objectives. The needs may include flexible hours, encouragement of self-direction or learning opportunities so they can master essential skills.
Furthermore, many times you’ll find that what employees really lack are the tools and resources to facilitate their jobs. Take a look at your processes, assess the efficacy of the systems in place, and decide what’s to be kept and what needs an upgrade.
For instance, a big automotive company had significant issues with a car assembly line. Employees simply could not be as efficient as management required, and frustration levels were high. On closer analysis, they found that one type of adhesive needed to be kept in a special metal container. The workers had to go back and forth to get tiny amounts of it. Once they got special small containers that held the adhesive and could be attached to their wrists, productivity skyrocketed.
It’s not always going to be as easy as that, but I’m sure I’ve made my point.
What can you do for yourself?
Managers often place so much focus on what they can do for their team that they lose sight of the importance of seeing to themselves. Repeat the process I’ve described above: figure out the stress factors, look at them with clarity, and decide what you can fix and what you have to accept. Try to identify the tools you’ll need to deal with everything better.
Whether it’s self-care, learning opportunities or some specific tools, reach for them. There’s a wise saying that goes, “you can’t pour from an empty cup,” and it’s highly applicable for managers, especially in today’s troubling times.
Work-related stress is not new, nor will it simply disappear if you address it. Ignoring it, however, has the potential of bringing about catastrophic results. It’s important to look at what your team is concerned about, have an honest talk and provide the right tools for the job. It’s also essential to manage your own work-related stress.