To some extents, stress is a perfectly natural part of everyday life. It motivates us, inspires us, and helps us to perform.
Too much stress, however, can be hugely damaging to our health — not to mention impact upon our ability to focus at work.
But what steps should employers be taking to combat stress in the workplace? And how can they identify it in the first place?
Today on the RotaCloud Small Business Success blog, we're tackling this thorny issue head-on, offering up advice for managers on how to help their beleaguered employees out and foster an environment that prevents burnout to begin with.
Signs Your Staff Are Stressed
Before you can begin to make life easier for your stressed-out staff, you'll need to know what to look for.
Being able to spot signs of stress amongst your employees is useful not just because it will allow you to come to their aid, but because you'll be able to nip problems in the bud before they become too serious.
While this is by no means an exhaustive list, common identifiers of stress in the workplace include:
Frequent use of sick days. Look out for sudden spikes of absenteeism in your team. People often start taking sick days when they’re stressed or unhappy at work — either as a means of escape or simply because the pressure they’re feeling is causing them to fall ill.
Tiredness and lethargy. Does someone on your team look especially tired recently? Do they complain about feeling sleepy despite getting plenty of rest? Stress can severely impact the quality of the sleep we get, leading to feelings of fatigue even when we head to bed at a sensible hour.
Irritability. Being stressed causes our fight-or-flight response to kick in, resulting in short tempers and more extreme reactions to trivial, often completely unrelated issues.
A sudden increase in mistakes in their work. Stress can be a double-edged sword at times: you’re feeling the pressure to perform, but that same pressure is causing you to make mistakes. A sudden uptick in the number of errors in your staff’s work can be an indicator that things are getting to them.
Forgetfulness and disorganisation. Is a member of your team dropping the ball a lot lately? Are you having to chase up work that should have been completed days ago?
Low self-esteem. Is a previously confident or outgoing member of your team suddenly reluctant to speak up at meetings? It could be that the stress they’re experiencing is making them doubt their own ability.
How to Help Stressed Employees
If you've identified a member of your team who is struggling, then it's time to take action. Whether you take on that responsibility personally or involve a third party will depend on a multitude of factors, from the size of your business to your relationship with said employee.
In general, however, one or a combination of the following approaches should be considered.
Let them vent
The simplest solution is often the best one — give your employee a chance to get what's troubling them off their chest.
Arrange to meet in a quiet location where you can talk openly. Assure them that the content of your conversation won't go any further without their permission, and encourage them to speak candidly.
Left to stew on our problems, we tend to fixate on them and they start to appear bigger than they really are. By simply letting your employee vent, there's every chance that they'll come out the other end of the conversation feeling a million times better.
It's a good idea to take notes while listening to your employee's tale, even so. That way, you can build up a clear picture of the situation and can formulate a strategy should action be required on your part.
Examine their workload
It's rare for an employee to refuse to take on a task when asked by their manager. Saying no to your boss isn't easy, and we tend to worry that admitting to being overstretched will dent others' confidence in our abilities.
There are times, however, when we simply have too much on our plates, and the addition of even the smallest task can tip us over the edge.
Build up a list of your employee's main responsibilities and the tasks they have currently have assigned to them. Is their schedule too full, or should they be able to manage their workload? If it's the former, consider whether some of their work could be taken on by others.
Working hard is one thing, but asking your staff to juggle too many tasks at once (more on that later) is a common cause of stress and anxiety in the workplace.
Provide additional training
But what if you feel that your employee should be able to manage their assigned workload without it affecting their health? If so, then it may be necessary to offer further training or guidance on how to prioritise their tasks better.
Is there a particular task that they often struggle with or tend to put off because they lack confidence? Consider allowing your employees to shadow a more senior member of their team or spend a little time each day brushing up on specific skill — not only will they gain key abilities that will make their lives easier, but they'll appreciate being nurtured and will be more likely to stick around in the long-term.
Observe the dynamic of their team
Teamwork makes the dream work — or so the corporate adage goes.
But a team is only as good as the sum of its parts, and when one or more members fail to pull their weight, it upsets the balance entirely.
Even if your stressed-out employee is reluctant to say so (none of us wants to tell tales, after all!), it's a good idea to look beyond the individual themselves and observe the dynamic of the team they're a part of.
Is the individual you're talking with the only one struggling, or is their stress a symptom of a much larger problem? Furthermore, is everyone doing their fair share of the work, or is just one person having to pick up their slack?
Coming to the aid of your employees during times of crisis is important, but even more so is ensuring that they have a strong support network around them. If a single member of a team is being overburdened — or their work negatively impacted by those around them — then it may be time for a reshuffle.
Provide access to counselling services
As much as we like to think that we'll always be there for our staff, sometimes it pays to bring in a professional.
Whether the stress your employee is experiencing is work-related or a more personal matter, providing them with access to counselling services can make a world of difference.
Make all new employees aware of the support networks you have in place as a part of your onboarding process. Check that every member of your workforce knows who they can turn to if they are feeling stressed or overburdened, including any useful phone numbers or email addresses - you should include this information in your employee handbook.
Finally, it's worth bearing in mind that the cause of your employee's stress might be related to an another mental health issue.
The subject of mental health can be an intimidating one for inexperienced managers to broach, but it should never be ignored. If you're concerned that a member of your team is experiencing mental health problems and are unsure of what to do, then it might be worth reaching out to a specialist and asking for advice. Check out Mind's advice to managers and business owners [PDF] if you're unsure where to start.
Tips for Building a Low-Stress Workplace
Far easier than helping your employees through stressful periods is preventing that stress to begin with.
Fostering a low-stress environment is easier than you might think. Spend some time considering the following points and look for ways to tweak your current setup to make life easier for your team.
The first thing to consider if the physical environment your staff are working in.
Consider the layout of your office and the location of your individual employees' desks. Does everyone have enough space to work? Does the layout of your office facilitate easy communication without denying your employees a degree of privacy? Is it clean and clutter-free?
There might not be much you can do about the size and shape of your office, but ensuring that it's a generally pleasant place to be will have a profound effect on the general happiness of your employees.
Studies have shown that too much exposure to noise can be a major cause of stress and affect our ability to concentrate. The same is true in the workplace.
None of us wants to work in a silent, joyless office, and most bosses will encourage a bit of workplace banter, but it's important to keep background noise levels to a quiet hum so that people can concentrate.
Being able to prioritise tasks is essential in almost any working environment. The ability to perform two or more at once, however, is rarely something that employers look for.
As much as we may like to kid ourselves that we're getting more work done, multitasking has been proven time and again to result in more errors and lower quality work. It also raises our stress levels and makes it harder to focus.
Encourage your staff to work on one task at a time, organising their day into distinct chunks based on the urgency of the tasks they're working on. Taking one task at a time is a far less stressful way to work than chipping away at two or three in unison.
Promote a healthy lifestyle
Physical exercise has been shown to help lower stress, boosting our immune systems and improving our moods.
You'd be forgiven for not wanting to lead meeting room yoga classes every morning, but there are numerous ways you can encourage your staff to look after their physical health:
- Offer to part-subsidise gym memberships
- Promote afterwork sports clubs (also a great way for people to make friends)
- Provide sit-stand desks for those who want them
- Encourage regular breaks and insist that staff move away from their desks to eat lunch (this removes the temptation to take care of minor tasks)
- Make sure your staff leave on time and make full use of their annual leave.
For better or worse, employees have a habit of following their boss' lead. Be the example in your workplace and encourage your staff to strike a healthy balance between work and play by doing so yourself.
Offer flexible start times
Often, the cause of your employees' stress isn't so much the work they're doing as the things they're having to juggle around it.
Allowing your staff to start their day an hour earlier (or later) than the usual 9 o'clock will make it easier for them to do things like taking their kids to school or caring for elderly relatives, cutting down on stress and enabling them to focus on their work.
Head off stress early
Simply by taking an interest in your employee's life outside work, it's possible to head off stressful situations entirely.
Does a member of your team have a major life event coming up? Perhaps they're buying a house or expecting a child? Maybe there has been a death in the family or they're going through a divorce.
Keeping abreast of these things can be enormously helpful to managers, who can offer a little extra moral support and be on the lookout for those telltale signs that they're feeling under pressure.
It would be unrealistic to attempt to build a working environment completely void of stress. A degree of stress can be hugely motivational for both employers and employees, giving us an incentive to meet challenges head-on, and providing the kind of buzz that gets our grey matter working.
But there are good kinds of stress and bad kinds of stress, and it is the boss' job to know when their staff are exposed to too much of the latter.
As an employer, you are in the unique position of being able to shape the environment that your team works in. The way that you conduct yourself, too, will have a profound impact on the attitudes and behaviour of your employees.
Be sure to lead by example, and look out for the telltale signs that your employees are feeling the pressure.
Check out the Staff Management section of the RotaCloud Small Business Success Blog for tips on everything from resolving disputes between staff to building trust in the workplace.