Supporting Employees in Times of Stress

by Allan Peretz

It goes without saying that supporting your team is in your best interests as a leader. In the unlikely event that you needed convincing, it's been shown that companies who actively support employees enjoy a 12% increase in productivity over those that pile on the pressure.

There's also a worrying link between employee stress levels and occupational injuries. A 2005 study showed that overworked employees were 20% more likely to make mistakes on the job. Not an ideal outcome for anyone!

So, what causes employee stress and how can you avoid it?

What causes employee stress?

It's an inevitable fact that at some point in your career, you'll have to help an employee deal with and manage stress. This can be caused by any number of things, but here are some of the most common:

  • Long working hours
  • Tension with co-workers
  • Tight deadlines
  • Unclear expectations
  • Health issues
  • Personal problems outside of work

There are issues within this list that you'll be able to actively assist with, and some which you really can't directly solve. Either way, it's part of your role as a leader to help your team manage stress (or support them while they deal with their own stress) so they can move past it.

But how can you tell if your employees are feeling stressed or overworked?

Signs of stress:

It's understandable that an employee may not want to come forward and admit that they're being defeated by their own stress, especially if they perceive this will be received as a sign of weakness to a senior member of staff.

Learning how to identify the signs of heightened stress within your team members is critical because it will allow you to be the one to initiate that conversation and support employees in a more proactive way.

Here are some easily recognizable signs of stress:

  1. Behavior problems, like aggression, poor decision-making and a lack of creativity. You'll miss seeing  behaviors you once valued from the employee
  2. Changes in physical appearance including grooming or sudden weight loss / weight gain
  3. Fatigue caused by sleeplessness

Of course, stress manifests itself differently in everyone, but these signs are common and will give you a good indicator that your employee may need help.

How to support employees in times of stress:

Now you know what to look out for, here are some ways that you can offer support to your employees when they're going through times of stress, either professionally or in their personal lives.

1. Keep an open dialogue

If something isn't working, your team should feel like they can grab a quick word and let you know about it. Take the time to show that you value your employees' feedback.

Drop by to visit with your employees - if you don't, you'll miss symptoms of stress that would otherwise be obvious.

Most importantly, ASK. When asked, most employees will feel empowered to tell you how they're feeling, what they need, and how you can help.

2. Encourage regular breaks

Are your team skipping lunch breaks and coffee breaks to try and meet deadlines Employees tend to be more productive working in 90 minute chunks with 20 minute breaks in between, so encourage them to head out for a walk around the block or a 5 minute chat at the water cooler.

Encourage use of vacation time as well... An employee needs time away and time with family to be able to contribute at their best.

If you have onsite fitness facilities, don't discourage reasonable use during company time. Employees will likely make up the hours elsewhere and a lot of the best ideas come to people when exercising.

3. Be more flexible

In today's connected world, work can happen anywhere. When employees are sleeping badly, suffering from health complaints or having trouble in their personal lives, committing to the normal 9-5 can add more stress. By allowing them a more flexible schedule or the opportunity to work from home, you'll give them the freedom they need to rest, deal with issues and manage the situation in their own time.

4. Set clear expectations

There's nothing more stressful than a lack of clarity in a role, a job brief or work expectations. Help to clear up the situation by letting your team know what the company goals are and how they contribute to them. Let them also know what's NOT needed (or what can be treated as "low priority").

5. Show appreciation for hard work

Sometimes there are big projects to deliver on or larger workloads dumped on single members of staff. It happens.

If you've delegated tasks and working hours as fairly as you can to limit stress within the team, keep them motivated by showing them that they're appreciated. You can do this with thoughtful gestures and even just by saying 'thanks'!

The benefits that come from being a supportive leader are huge, so next time you see the signs of stress in your own team members, take these active steps to help them through it.