Healthy, short-term stress helps us avoid danger, complete that lengthy project on time, and stay motivated to care for ourselves and our loved ones. Chronic stress, on the other hand, leads to decreased productivity, increased conflict, employee turnover, mental and physical illness, increased insurance costs, and more. Stress has become an epidemic that is hurting both workplace culture and the bottom line.
Leaders have an obligation to provide the tools for their employees to combat unnecessary stress in the workplace. Here are five steps that we can all take.
1) Embrace self-care
The saying “you can’t pour from an empty cup,” couldn’t be truer for leaders. We invest in our teams and departments day in and day out, often wearing exhaustion as a badge of honor. While there will always be periods of intense focus and effort, giving 110% without refilling our cup is not sustainable.
Intentional self-care can combat stress and help fill your cup to support your work. This buzzword is most often associated with chocolates and spa days, but it is quite individual and requires some experimentation. Try recalling the last time you completely forget about work, even for a moment. Was it during an exercise class, a day on the water, volunteering, socializing with friends, or a creative hobby? Once you have a few ideas, brainstorm how you can plug very small pieces into your weekly schedule. If the beach is your happy place, can you practice five minutes of meditation a day to the sound of ocean waves? If exercise helps slow down a racing mind, can you take a ten-minute walk at lunchtime? Start small!
Self-care also looks like taking care of your whole self. This involves getting sufficient sleep, daily physical movement, and eating healthily. The mind-body-spirit connection means that disregarding one aspect of our health can impact the others, so holistic self-care is imperative for effectively managing stress. Choose one or two very small changes you can make today. The time you invest in yourself will pay you back in dividends, allowing you to better serve your team.
2) Learn to identify signs of stress and burnout
Like an athlete who overtrains and ends up injured, leaders need to be on the watch for mental overtraining – burnout. While stress often feels like a roller coaster of panicked energy, burnout tends to be a more constant feeling of exhaustion. Warning signs to identify in ourselves include trouble relaxing or sleeping, struggling to concentrate, forgetfulness, irritability, depression, general fatigue, or a lack of interest or motivation in projects or hobbies we use to enjoy.
Identifying these signs in others can be trickier, but leaders can pay special attention to any major changes in employee behavior. More frequent breaks, an increase or decrease in socializing, a drop in productivity, poor attendance or tardiness, or overall lack of engagement can all point to potential burnout signs. Since stress and burnout can lower immunity and cause aches and pains, an increase in sick days might also be a warning. Leaders concerned about these signs should speak to the teammate in private and be especially cognizant of coming from a place of true caring, not reprimand.
3) Have an honest conversation with employees
Since every industry and environment has a unique set of stressors, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to workplace stress. The first step is to understand the top stressors that your employees are facing. It may be inflexible work schedules, unreasonable deadlines, or a colleague who’s prone to long political rants, all of which require very different solutions. It may even stem from good intentions; for example, more introverted teammates or those who don’t drink might feel unnecessary pressure to attend monthly happy hours.
Since these topics are often personal and sensitive, its best to discuss them in private one-to-ones or provide a method for employees to share anonymously.
4) Review employee benefits
Next, it’s important to ensure your employee benefits are conducive to a culture of mental wellness:
- Paid time off – is an appropriate amount of time given? Are employees comfortable unplugging; do they have backup support to handle emergencies while they are out of the office?
- Health insurance – do employees feel secure with their coverage and comfortable with their deductibles? Are mental health benefits included with the plans offered? How about alternative treatments like massage, acupuncture, or other therapies?
- Financial stability – can employees save for their retirement and invest in life and disability insurance? Is paid leave available if an employee or their loved one requires extra care?
- Wellness incentives – are any health, fitness, or mindfulness incentives or stipends included in the benefit package? How about fitness challenges or other health-based contests?
- Pay and performance reviews – do employees know exactly how to succeed at their job? Do managers support professional development and keep teammates challenged? Is compensation and performance reviewed frequently to ensure employees are paid competitively?
- Work environment – if feasible, are flexible work arrangements allowed? Do employees have an appropriate amount of autonomy in when and where they work? Does the physical office promote peace and wellbeing: comfortable and ergonomic furniture, a breakroom to step away, tidy common spaces, natural light, calming colors and décor?
5) Lead by example
The best possible benefits package and flexible work environment goes to waste if employees are not comfortable taking advantage of the benefits. Each year, employees in the US leave millions of unused vacation days on the table. Teammates are far more likely to use their PTO, take advantage of workplace perks, and contribute to a wellness culture if they see their company executives leading this charge.
Teammates will also become more comfortable discussing stress and mental health in the workplace if a leader is willing to share authentically themselves. Consider sharing your personal struggles, how you notice your own warning signs physically, or your favorite forms of self-care. Creating a safe space for employees to talk about their stressors can help teammates bond, leaders to better understand cultural issues, and overall help reduce the stigma around mental health.
The shift begins with leaders.