How to Manage Workplace Stress
By Judith Mewhort, Managing Partner, Montridge Advisory Group Ltd.
Stress and anxiety are omnipresent in our lives and the pandemic has only increased its intensity. As an employer, supporting your workers’ mental health is of paramount importance to the success of your business. However, given the many causes of employee stress, you may feel that your ability to help is limited. The truth is that the root cause of stress for many employees can be improved or resolved through changes in the workplace.
Companies that help their people be the best version of themselves, reap the rewards of lower rates of burnout, absenteeism, and employee turnover while experiencing higher rates of productivity and profitability. Unfortunately, many organizations, although well intentioned, simply respond to employee stress by prescribing self-care. While exercise, meditation, and cognitive behaviour therapy improve well-being, they do little to identify and resolve the root causes of negative emotion.
Common Sources of Workplace Stress
The most common causes of workplace stress stem from:
- Inflexible or overly demanding working hours
- Relationships with supervisors and co-workers
- Organizational culture
- Career development
- Working conditions
Even before the pandemic, too many of us were working outside of regular hours. Now with so many of us working from home, the lines between work and home have become so blurred, they’re almost erased. Emails and text messages arrive in the evenings and on weekends. No one actually takes a vacation because they can’t travel and even if they could, they worry about the pile of work upon their return and how it will look to management if they disconnect completely.
Working from home has also disrupted the social aspect of work and created feelings of loneliness. It’s difficult to connect with co-workers, and communication with your peers and supervisors is less fluid. The goodwill that builds up from casual conversation is diminished as is the ability to seek and receive immediate feedback.
And while the current pandemic has increased stress, many of the factors were present prior to the spring of 2020. In fact, since Milton Friedman declared that the only purpose of business is to maximize shareholder value, organizations have tried to do more with less. Reducing the workforce and asking those who remain to work longer and longer hours in a bid to increase profitability. But this short-term focus is having long-term consequences. Employee presenteeism, absenteeism, and turnover is increasing and with it many associated costs. However, there is good news. Organizations that truly put their people first are rewarded in many ways—including increased profitability.
How-To Create a Healthy Work Environment
So how does your company create a people first culture that provides career development and favourable working conditions? It starts with leadership. Senior management sets the tone around working hours, provides the training and equipment needed for people to do their jobs, helps those not suited to be part of the organization to move on quickly, encourages and provides purpose for those who wish to stay, and ensures a safe and healthy working environment.
People often feel adrift and unsupported or micro-managed. And if one person is struggling, others feel the added burden. As Seth Godin, entrepreneur and author, states “when one person doesn’t contribute, the entire system loses impact. There’s a cost when we’re stretched too thin to lead, train and motivate new colleagues or veterans.” Given that the number one reason people leave an organization is due to issues with their immediate supervisor, it is incumbent on all levels of leadership to pay attention to the patterns of who needs your help and when. Regular check-ins with your people will yield valuable information. Find time to walk your leadership through your observations and offer recommendations to lift your entire team.
Communicate company policy clearly and note any exceptions. For example, the enforcement of work hours must come from the top down. One approach is to have your leadership team make a display of not working outside of core hours and make it clear that they’re not checking emails on the weekend, after work, or while on vacation. Of course, this isn’t always possible. Executives are busy and sometimes working long hours and on weekends is part of the job. In those cases, the leadership team can make it clear that just because they are working such hours doesn’t mean their employees should do the same. Make it a policy that executives or team leaders include a note in any emails sent to staff outside of regular hours stating that the email was sent at a convenient time and that there is no expectation of an immediate reply.
Flexible working hours also require leadership. Many managers fear a loss of control if their people are not working a structured schedule. Help front line supervisors to develop the attitude that as long as the work gets done, when it gets done is less relevant. Provide employees with the autonomy to set their working hours within a prescribed range. For example, employees with young children may prefer to work from six to eight in the morning, take an hour to get the kids ready for school, and then work from nine till three.
Ensure that your people feel that they are contributing to the success of the firm and that they have the opportunity to grow and learn even within a small organization that may have a very flat structure and few levels of promotion. Organizations grow and change, or they die. This means that roles within a firm must also grow and change providing your people with new skills and new duties.
Lastly, working conditions must be safe. Covid has created a whole new level of concerns in the workplace. Fortunately, most businesses have managed to adapt and comply with the public health regulations. But beyond the pandemic, workplace safety concerns are likely to continue. Pre-pandemic concerns such as ensuring workplaces minimize hazards and provide necessary safety equipment will now also give rise to managing Zoom fatigue and poorly designed home offices. Incorporating walking meetings, regular breaks for exercise, and providing sufficient time for a healthy meal while on the job site should all be considered part of our workdays moving forward.
Modern work environments show that the employee-employer relationship isn’t zero sum. Rather, it’s possible to create a dynamic where both parties benefit. These days, part of running a successful business involves a work environment that relieves stress and gives people a proper work-life balance. Make it easy for your team to show up to work everyday. In return, they’ll give you their best. No more absenteeism or presenteeism due to burn out or mental health issues. Your employees are happier, and your business is more efficient. It’s truly a win-win.