When you want to help ease stress in the workplace: 3 main areas of focus
Over the last two weeks, I have shared my thoughts about managing stress for ourselves and our teams. Stress is not a monolith nor easily removed with just a few tricks. Alleviating stress can mean allowing yourself to feel what you feel (and eating ice cream while binge-watching bad TV), connecting with others, and even seeking professional help if you are really stuck.
As we look at the role of the leader and organizations in our current workplace environment, what is their responsibility with stress and burnout?
According to a recent UKG study of more than 2,200 workers in 10 countries, 69% said their managers played a significant role in their mental health. This is more than the percentage who said their spouse played a role and even more than the 41% who said their therapist helped with their mental health.
With so many people relying on their managers for support and help with stress and mental health, this almost creates an obligation for leaders and organizations to do something about it.
Stress management used to be a problem for each of us individually to solve. Back in the day, this wasn't even discussed in the workplace. If you couldn't cut it, you either quit, "quiet quit" aka disengaged, were let go, were re-shuffled in the organization, or even retired or moved to another career path altogether. I knew several people who quit the sales life even though they made tons of money to do something completely different, like caring for animals, arranging flowers at a florist, or becoming a real estate agent.
The "just rub dirt on it and get back in the game" mentality is not working anymore. Certainly, generations coming into the workforce expect more than that tough love sentiment; they expect reasonable scopes of work, continuous feedback and development, rewards, mental health benefits, flexibility, and on and on.
We simply can't go back to long, unproductive commutes every day, answering emails from 6 am to 12 am, missing dance recitals, parent-teacher conferences, little league games, and time with our aging parents all for the sake of our job. We all altered our lives to try and achieve the balance we hadn't felt before, and I believe many did this successfully without sacrificing productivity, engagement, and results.
We are in a different time where organizations need to provide some systemic, cultural elements that can help people drive results for the business, have time in their personal lives, and be able to sleep at night.
So, what can we do from an organizational level to support the mental health of our employees? Here are three main areas we can focus on from a well-being perspective:
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Train people, and not just managers
Many of you know that I am passionate about equipping managers to be successful. And, indeed, training and supporting managers to recognize signs of stress and shore up their team is important. But I think we miss the boat a bit if we don't help everyone recognize stress and how to handle it for themselves and how to help their peers. We should be having these conversations with the most senior leaders in the organization as well. Those in the C Suite are not immune from feeling untold amounts of stress, which can impact not only them but their families and their entire organization. Stress and emotional intelligence (EI) go hand in glove for me. The more emotionally intelligent or in tune you are, the more you can recognize someone who may be experiencing a lot of stress. I think EI and stress management should be core to some of our learning strategies.
Ensure people know about your programs and benefits
Organizations can also put programs and benefits into place, but just having them available alone won't help. Studies have shown time after time that Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) are the most underutilized resource a company offers. There may be a stigma about using them. There might be a fear that a personal situation may get back to the employer. Or, people simply may not know about the programs and all the facets it offers. If you have implemented an EAP, wellness apps, flex time programs, etc ., make sure everyone knows about them and how to access them.
Put actions behind words
Sometimes organizations have great intentions and provide a wide array of benefits and flexibility for people to manage their time appropriately but people don't feel they have permission to take advantage of them. I know of several people who had wellness days every quarter as part of their benefits but people were too afraid to ask to use them. Leaders can put some effort toward business continuity planning to make sure people use the benefits. Another vital step leaders can take is to lead by example. If you tell your people to use their vacation, take their wellness days, and earmark a Yoga session every week but you don't, they start to question whether they should. And, don't forget, leaders are people too. They also need breaks and time to decompress. Use your scheduling feature in Outlook to send emails during reasonable work times. Schedule your own wellness day and lead the focus on well-being by your example.
These are just three ways organizations can demonstrate the importance of managing stress or preventing it in the first place...at least at work. Leaders have a responsibility to promote the right mindset and culture to inspire innovation and productivity, but not to the detriment of people's mental and physical health. There is a point of diminishing returns in terms of effort and the number of hours someone works. Set clear goals, check in, train others, and lead by example.
Next week, we will tackle the topic of prioritization and decision-making, which when done well, can help alleviate stress for some of us