Hints & Tips Blog

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

We all know that employers looking after their teams’ mental health has never been more important. And arguably we’ve never faced such a perfect storm of world events that could potentially have a negative impact on our levels of anxiety, uncertainty and wellbeing.

The shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, the devastating and heart-breaking events in Ukraine, the spiralling cost of living and a potential recession looming, all combine into a continued and persistent stream of negativity and worry into our psyche. Within our businesses too there are pressures and challenges to face; supply chain disruption, some continuing post-Brexit challenges, ‘The Great Resignation’, ever evolving employee expectations and for some a dip in resilience and engagement coming out of the pandemic.

While we can’t control world events, nor can we mitigate all their effects on our employees, there are things we can do to support their mental health, and one key way to do this is to work to reduce the level of stress people experience at work. There are of course many origins of stress that may not be work related, but reducing stress and anxiety in the workplace can be a key factor in supporting our teams, not only to be able to cope better with their other sources of stress, but also help them to be more effective, motivated and productive at work.

With April being ‘Stress Awareness Month’ we’ve put together a range of practical ideas for individuals, Managers and Leaders to think about, to help them manage their own, and their teams’ stress levels.

One size does not fit all

Before we look at specific tips for individuals, Managers and Leaders, we must acknowledge there is no sliver bullet, no simple or single solution – why? Because we’re all different.

What is stressful for one person, might be invigorating for another, and this comes down to our personality, our life experience and how we are wired. The key is to understand ourselves and those in our teams, take the time to understand key drivers, stimuli and stressors, and acknowledge these will be different for each of us.

For some people enforced working from home in the lockdown suited them well. They found they were more productive if they had a quiet working environment with none of the usual distractions and interruptions of office working, and more opportunity to take initiative and find new ways of delivering. These people might be keen to continue working from home and feeling pressured to come back to the office environment may be a stress trigger for them. Alternatively, for others, who need more face to face interaction, social stimulation and more readily available support to hand, home working was stressful.

And personality also influences how people respond to the way they are managed. Some want clear instructions and objectives, a well-defined list of tasks and deadlines, and clarity about when they will report in and how they can access any support they need. Not getting these things can mean they start to feel stressed or anxious. While for others, too much structure, a lack of opportunity to take the initiative, or not being given space to be able to work towards a goal in the way that they prefer, will be the source of stress.

So before anything else, take the time to assess, and ask, what do your team members need from you?

Managing your own stress

Know yourself

While others can help us deal with our stress levels, change our workload or offer support, ultimately the person who can really make the difference about how we feel about things, and how we deal with things, is ourself. So take time to assess the things that you find difficult or stressful, and then put in place strategies yourself, perhaps with help from others, to mitigate these.

For example, if you find having to juggle competing priorities stressful, try listing all your tasks, their level of importance, the time they are likely to take and the deadlines attached. Then schedule the order in which you need to complete them. If you find there is genuinely too much to do in the time available, it means you can ask for help ahead of time, or check in about what’s really most important, rather than waiting until a deadline has passed and it’s created a problem, for you and others. Equally, worrying about ‘letting people down’ can be a key stress trigger that can lead people to push themselves too hard and be susceptible to ‘burn-out’. Thinking ahead and identifying genuine pressure points that enable solutions to be created before it’s too late, can help you feel that you are contributing to preventing a problem by flagging it, rather than ‘letting people down’.

Monitor what’s influencing you

Many people are becoming aware that a constant barrage of news, social media and emails is contributing to their stress. At the best of times being constantly bombarded with information can lead to overload, and feelings of being overwhelmed. When much of that information is negative and anxiety inducing, the impact is even greater.

So choose the channels you get your information from wisely, and perhaps try limiting your exposure. For some people reducing the frequency of accessing worrying news headlines, or negative or combative social media feeds can help. And making sure they balance these by exploring other, more positive channels, as well as having periods when they ‘disconnect’ entirely, can provide a much needed respite. Again, different things will work for different people, some will find relief in social interaction, others in losing themselves in a hobby or interest.

Ditch multi-tasking

We need to remember why we feel the need to multi-task, and for many it stems from a feeling there is just too much to do and not enough time. That starting point, combined with the reality of splitting our focus in too many directions, can lead to us feeling frazzled, not effective. The imagined benefits of multi-tasking – delivering twice as much progress in half the time, is often never achieved. Generally we are less productive, and end up doing everything half as well, leading to further frustration.

Instead, try ‘chunking’ – split your day down into specific tasks you want to really focus on. Many studies have shown that for most people it can take about 10-15 minutes to really hit your stride when dealing with a task, especially one that’s not straightforward. But you can’t hit your stride if you’re constantly checking emails, looking at your company’s WhatsApp group or Teams channels, answering a call, preparing for your next meeting and generally switching frequently between tasks. You’re doing lots of things, but probably not very well. But if you take the time to fully engage in a task, you hit your ‘flow state’, you become far more productive and get better results, which leads to a greater sense of achievement, and consequently you feel less stressed.

Reappraise negative thoughts

If we feel stressed it can affect how we respond to things, how we feel about things. Some things we may ordinarily enjoy, suddenly feel like an additional pressure, and we can start to look at things through a negative lens and question ourselves and our abilities. We’re more likely to jump to negative conclusions with little or no evidence, assuming we’re not doing a good job so we won’t be valued, or that our boss thinks we’re not delivering.

It can help to notice when we have these negative thoughts, and try to assess where they are really coming from? Has your boss actually said or done anything that suggests they are unhappy with your work? Or are you projecting your own fears or frustrations onto how you think they feel? Try to analyse what’s really happening. It may be they are not giving you enough positive appreciation or feedback, but this is not necessarily always about you. They may have time pressure or stresses of their own. But by sharing how you feel with them, asking the questions, it allows you to either make them aware you need more encouragement from them, or they can share what else they need from you. Either way, you have removed the doubt and can move forward more positively.

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.

As outlined above, 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 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-in 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 which 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 does it 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 you 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 share when mistakes have been make 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. People 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 to others. You have to look after yourself in order to look after others, so it’s just as important for you to consider the tips in the first section, as it is for your teams.

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 a 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 needed 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.