Hints & Tips Blog

Dealing with the ‘S word’: A practical guide to reducing workplace stress – part 2

The second part of our guide to reducing workplace stress focuses on how Managers and Leaders can reduce, not add to, the stress levels experienced in our businesses. So if you’re noticing signs of pressure or anxiety in your teams, here are a few things to bear in mind.

Tips for Managers

There is no doubt that the way we are managed can have a huge impact on how we feel about our job, and on our level of stress. As a Manager it’s important that we constantly remind ourselves of this, and remember the potential impact we can have on our team, positively or otherwise.

Taking time to understand our team members and treating them as individuals is key – as is learning what motives them, and equally what demotivates and stresses them.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Uncertainty and ambiguity are stressors for many. And remember very few people, if any, will complain that you communicate too often.

People who are left in the dark tend to imagine a worst case scenario, and this is more pronounced when they feel stressed. At work there is no place for the adage ‘no news is good news’.

Whether it’s updates on company plans and progress, sharing how your team should prioritise their tasks, or giving feedback on individual efforts, performance and progress, one of your key roles as a Manager is to ensure people feel informed and included. The methods you use may be varied, but communicating regularly, consistently and identifying the way that works best for your team should be one of your key priorities. And making the time for individual updates and check-ins is critical too, some people will not want to ask questions or share their worries in an open forum.

Regular, effective, and tailored communication will reduce uncertainty and the stress that can cause. And remember, if people are already feeling the effects of stress, what is ‘known’ is better than what is ‘unknown’. If we are honest, the reasons we sometimes don’t communicate enough are often more about us – we don’t have time, we’re not sure how people will react or we don’t want to worry them, we shy away from a difficult conversation. But even if the news is not good, talking about it can generate alternative strategies that not only reduce uncertainty but increase a sense of control. Both of which can alleviate stress.

Active listening

Alternatively called ‘intentional listening’, active listening is when the listener is not only paying attention to the words used, but also the meaning behind them, and what the speaker is truly saying. The listener gives their full attention and is completely focused on the speaker, actively engaged in order to hear the conversation from the other person’s perspective. It allows you to better understand what the underlying issues are, and start to understand what the person really needs from you, not what you think they need.

Active listening is critical for building trust, it helps you build rapport and a connection with the other person, as well as helping understand them better, all of which are important if people are feeling stressed. We all know if we feel we’ve been listened to, given time to be really listened to, and understood, not only makes us feel more valued, but it also makes us more likely to accept a decision that has been made, even if we don’t necessarily agree.

Make time for the person – not just the role

Being approachable is key. This does not mean you have to be available 24 hours a day, leading to constant interruptions and increasing your own level of stress. That will not help you, or them. But it does mean that people know you will make time for them when they need it, and that you are interested in and care about them as an individual, not just as part of the headcount.

Investing in relationships and seeing each other as human beings, as well as work colleagues, will reap many benefits and, in terms of stress prevention, will be one of the best investments you can make. Building a relationship with them that enables them to trust you means they are more likely to share their fears. This means if they are starting to feel overwhelmed they are more likely to ask for help earlier, before it becomes a more serious problem. Plus, they are more likely to feel able to share when mistakes have been made or things might be going off track, again allowing earlier and more effective interventions.

Avoid mixed messages

This sounds easy right? But in today’s complex workplace, when you’re juggling competing priorities and pressures, the reality is less straightforward.

For example, you want to encourage your team to show initiative, you try to empower them to come up with their own solutions and be creative. But you also, potentially unwittingly,  convey the importance of getting it right, not making mistakes. The result? You have created more stress and uncertainty. People will feel pressure to deliver, but are unsure about where their boundaries are, and are worried they will be blamed if things go wrong.

So try to assess if there are any mixed messages in the way you work – if you say you trust someone to deliver, this is undermined if you then check in more than was agreed, or go around them to give yourself confidence things are on track. So encouraging your team to speak up when they are unsure will help them feel able to let you know when you give mixed messages, and allow you to clarify what you really mean.

Keep an eye out for pressure points

Heavy workloads are often a source of stress. Juggling competing priorities, additional tasks and unrealistic expectations all take their toll. And beware of assuming your best performers will always perform. We can be guilty of giving more and more to our team members who always deliver, rather than to someone you know will need more input and support from you. The result? We overload and burn out our best people, or lose them when they understandably become stressed or resentful. So keep a watchful eye on workload across your team: Is it fairly distributed? Are there potential pressure points likely to arise? Or are there any potential areas of conflict between team members you can see simmering?

Tips for Leaders

Finally, here’s a few tips for how Leaders can help reduce work-based stress in their companies. But remember, before anything else, we can’t ‘pour from an empty jug’. So we need to make sure we recognise and manage our own stress, to ensure we don’t pass it on. We need to look after ourselves too, and once you’ve got your own stress levels in hand, you’ll be in a better position to support others.

Provide clarity and direction where possible

When people are worried, even if that’s about events outside of the business, it can help for them to feel they have clarity and confidence at work. And while Managers can provide this in terms of their day to days roles, Leaders too have a part to play.

Sharing the longer term vision and direction for the business, and helping to remind and reconnect people with future aspirations and aims, will help provide a sense of longer term focus and stability beyond any current uncertainties, within or beyond the business.

Your vision and mission are the key foundations that underpin your business. While external events might mean the route map to achieve your goals may have changed, and your plans and approaches need adaptation or reinvention, your overall vision and belief in what your business stands for and what you want it to achieve may well be unchanged in the long term. Alternatively, if the longer term plan has changed, making sure people are aware of and included in this is also important. Feeling part of the journey, and understanding their role in this and how they can contribute, can help people feel more in control, part of something bigger, and give them a sense of focus and security.

Understand your own impact – be the right role model

If you’re a Leader, people will look to you to set the tone, to demonstrate ‘how things should be done’, whether you’re having a good day or not. Your day-to-day behaviour has a huge potential impact on making people feel positive, engaged and increasing their wellbeing, or creating a feeling of stress and anxiety. And consistency is key. Even those that don’t report to you will notice what you do, so make sure you’re setting the right example.

Sharing when you’ve made mistakes, asking for support from others and admitting you don’t have all the answers all the time, can all help to create an environment where people feel more confident about being open and asking for help. When we’re feeling stressed we tend to put up walls, isolate ourselves and retreat. By illustrating you’re not infallible, and even you need help sometimes, will make it easier for others to open up and ask for support.

Make sure you’re not part of the problem

On the flip side, some Leaders view themselves as a benchmark for the performance of others. If you declare that you ‘eat stress for breakfast’ not only does it send a message about what you expect from others, but it also means you are less likely to consider how to support those who might process things differently, or be less able to cope. And maybe you will find that you can eat stress for breakfast…until you can’t. No one can permanently operate well in a high-stress state without it having an impact long term. So even if you are good at dealing with pressure and stress, it might still be wise to assess if you really need to, or can afford to, continue in this way, or whether there are changes you can make now to prevent future burn-out.

Create opportunities to notice things

If you’re a Leader you may not have much regular day-to-day interaction with most people in your business. However, it’s worth investing time in ‘taking the pulse’ of your company. That might be via employee survey, it might be walking around the office or popping in to see teams you might not ordinarily visit – no agenda, just chatting, asking questions and getting a feel for the atmosphere or level of energy. If many of your people are still working remotely, popping in on a team Zoom might be useful and will also allow people to see that you’re present, interested and happy to answer questions.

If we never spend time with ‘the troops’ it’s difficult to get a true sense of morale, or to notice the little things that might actually be having a big impact. The fact you are not managing the teams day to day can give you a different perspective, and allow you to notice things that pressured Managers may take as the norm.

It’s important not to ‘tread on toes’ – that will not help your Managers’ stress levels! But finding a way to ‘test the temperature’ can help you understand which of your plans, policies and strategies are working well on the ground, and which are creating unintentional and unnecessary frustrations and stress.

Our team at BHP Consulting have all successfully run businesses. So we understand that while every business is unique, workplace stress is not, and can have a huge impact on Leaders, Managers and employees alike.

Our practical approach to supporting our clients enables us to share our real-world experience to help you create solutions, not just for workplace stress, but in many other areas that will positively impact on the performance of your business. To arrange a call or an exploratory face-to-face meeting, please click here.