80% of American employees indicate feeling stressed by at least one issue at work, and one-third report they generally feel stressed during their workday. Subsequently, only 35% of employees state they received adequate resources at work to manage their stress. Source
Employers play an undeniable role in identifying, managing, and solving stress in the workplace. But this issue is far more complex than generic prescriptions for self-care or healthy boundaries.
Many employees are burnt-out, resentful, and fantasizing about quitting altogether. This cumulative stress often represents a top-down problem. As a manager, it’s essential to advocate- and model- sustainable approaches to work.
Embrace a Mental Health-Forward Culture
On paper, tangible mental health perks sound nice. Maybe your company, for example, offers gym subsidies or vouchers for massages. Perhaps you’ve brought in yoga teachers or conducted company-wide relaxation retreats.
And while these perks aren’t insignificant, they don’t speak to the overarching need for a sustainable working environment. If work inherently feels stressful, a bubble bath or on-site gourmet chef won’t fix the problem.
A mental health-forward workplace aims to be innovative and inclusive. It’s a broad term, but the general themes focus on some of these more existential questions:
Work-life awarness: How do you ensure that your team maintains healthy boundaries? Do you encourage a clear and distinct separation between their work and home life? What messages do you send about taking time off or going on vacation? How do you respond when employees have personal emergencies or get sick?
Connection and inclusivity: How do you embrace community within the workplace? Are you aware of any problematic cliques or bullying? Does your team generally seem to enjoy spending time with one another? Do they feel they can turn to their colleagues and supervisors for support and guidance?
Productive resources: How do you ensure that your team has the resources it needs to succeed? Do you regularly focus on professional development? Have you cultivated a workplace that embraces ongoing learning? Do you recognize the need for continuous training and education?
Autonomy and growth: How do you support your employees’ professional growth? How do you empower people and ensure they complete their work without micromanaging? In what ways can you delegate or assign more responsibility to people who want it?
Positive connotations about work: When times are stressful, how do you maintain a sense of inspiration and joy about the work? Do you look at your company with a critical eye and approach your own superiors about ways to grow or change?
Prioritize the Notion of Constant Evolvement
The average company looks much different today than it did twenty, ten, or even five years ago. Furthermore, how we work has subsequently changed. As we become more reliant on technology, the workday will continue evolving.
Even the average employee has new motives when it comes to work. People regularly job-hop, engage in side hustles, and try their hand at entrepreneurship. There’s a running joke that company loyalty is essentially dead, and that phenomenon speaks to employees wanting respect and feeling confident using their skills elsewhere if they don’t receive it.
The fixed rules that once dictated employment no longer seem to be the case today. Ineffective employers resist or deny these inherent changes. They get mad at employees or throw their hands up in a state of helplessness. Successful employers recognize and make room for change. They know the changes, in many ways, are bigger than they are.
Take, for example, the COVID-19 pandemic. Many companies were forced to create fully-functioning remote workplaces overnight. These adjustments posed significant challenges, but most people saw the change as extremely temporary.
And yet, a few years later, research shows that this trend is here to stay. Data projections indicate that approximately 25% of all professional jobs will be remote. What’s more? Many people are resisting the ‘return-to-work’ pressure. They don’t want to go back to a traditional office.
In management, you will see that change isn’t always positive. You might not like how certain changes affect your company or team. But refusing to be open to them- or pretending they don’t exist- only causes more stress for everyone.
Encourage Open Discussions About Mental Health
In the past, employers typically responded to mental health concerns by outsourcing. At the first sign of distress, they referred people to HR or encouraged them to get in touch with EAPs. Vulnerable conversations about mental health were largely taboo and discouraged.
These gestures naturally came across as somewhat dismissive. In many ways, it seemed that employers skirted around the issues- they probably worried about saying the wrong thing or offending people altogether.
But the landscape of mental health continues to change. Younger employees, in particular, are more expressive about their feelings than ever before. They don’t subscribe to the archaic notion that you need to be a professional robot at work.
And so, it’s important that you maintain an open mind about mental health. This goal may seem overly general, but you can start by focusing on:
- Asking employees how you can promote a healthy workplace for them
- Modeling your own self-care and willingness to look after your well-being
- Compassionately addressing potential symptoms when you observe them
- Seeking appropriate guidance (from HR or another representative) about making reasonable accommodations
- Making actions plans with your employees that set them up for optimal success
Prioritize Ongoing Training and Support
Stress often accumulates when people feel like they don’t know what they’re supposed to do. It can also build when employees feel overwhelmed by all their assigned tasks.
People want to feel competent and prepared in their work. But if they lack tools, resources, or knowledge, they may feel scattered or afraid. They might try to “guess” what you want to keep you appeased, and this guessing can create problems for everyone on the team.
Prioritizing training and support means:
- Asking your employees directly what they need from you
- Offering consistent and specific feedback on their performance
- Providing training materials for completing new tasks successfully
- Encouraging mentorship within the team
- Praising and positively reinforcing people for asking questions during team meetings
Build a Culture of Gratitude and Appreciation
People want to feel adequately compensated for the work they provide. But along with earning money, they also value feeling like their work matters.
Unfortunately, many employers overlook the basic benefits of genuine compliments and recognition. They might assume their team knows how they feel.
But research shows that high-recognition workplaces have better performance outcomes and less employee turnover. Feeling appreciated can mitigate stress and boost confidence.
Make an effort to engage in public recognition. If someone does a great job, highlight it in a company-wide email or during your next team meeting. While there’s no need to go overboard, regularly thanking people for their hard work can maintain a positive and productive environment.
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Advocate for Inclusivity and Safety
Marginalized groups are at a heightened risk of feeling stressed at work. They’re more likely to face discrimination and hostility from both employers and other employees. They’re also more likely to have lower salaries, and financial stress undoubtedly coincides with workplace stress.
But diversification isn’t just a trendy buzzword. Genuinely inclusive solutions entail overhauling outdated, racist, sexist, transphobic, or other discriminatory systems. It also entails an equal approach to representation.
For example, if the entire management team consists of heterosexual, white men, marginalized communities may feel like their input doesn’t matter. They may assume they aren’t eligible for leadership. These messages- even if management doesn’t conscioously subscribe to them- can create problematic trickle-down effects.
You can aim to promote workplace diversity in several ways, including:
- Highlighting diversity on your job boards or website
- Offering specific internships or scholarships to underrepresented communities
- Facilitating diversity trainings
- Regularly inviting employees to share their own values, traditions, and cultures
- Advocating for diversity within the recruitment process
- Responding immediately to discrimination accusations
Reassess Your Team and Expectations Regularly
Managing stress isn’t a one-time situation. It’s an ongoing task for employers- it’s not a matter of if employees experience stress. It’s a matter of how they reconcile and process it.
With that in mind, it’s important for you to remain reflective and curious about your team’s development. After a particularly busy week or important event, devote the time to check in with people and see how they’re coping. As you check in, here are some essential strategies to keep in mind:
Actively listen: As much as possible, aim to give your employees your full attention when you talk to them. Don’t type away on the computer or scroll through your phone. Make eye contact and commit to truly listening to what they say. If you don’t understand something, ask clarifying questions.
Don’t make assumptions: Let your employee tell you what’s going on- don’t speak for them, interrupt, or draw your own conclusions. This kind of behavior often comes across as egotistical or ignorant, and it can cause people to act guarded around you.
Embrace problem-solving together: Don’t just tell an employee what you can do to make things better. Try to come to those terms together. For example, you might say, I really hear that you’re feeling pressed for time. Let’s talk about a reasonable deadline. If Friday can’t work, what’s a better option?
Maintain confidentiality: Don’t ever gossip about employees or use what one person says against them to someone else. Not only is this unprofessional, but it can damage the entire integrity of your company. Employees need to know they can trust you when they’re vulnerable with their feelings or needs.
Follow-up again: If an employee discloses feeling stressed, don’t just have a single conversation about it. Make sure that you touch base again in a few weeks. This demonstrates that you care about their well-being and are devoted to providing support to them as needed.
Challenge Your Own Biases, Stigmas, and Weaknesses
What preconceived notions do you have about stress and productivity? Do you, for example, assume everyone should “hustle and grind” as hard as you did? Do you consider it “weak” if someone takes a mental health day? Are you someone who hesitates to hire someone with a known mental health condition?
You aren’t inherently a bad manager if you hold such stigmas. Everyone has internal messages, and these messages are often subconscious. But you risk creating a toxic workplace if you refuse to examine, challenge, or confront them.
Furthermore, you should spend some time reflecting on your own weaknesses. For example, are you more conflict-avoidant, causing you to be passive with your team? Do you struggle with letting go of control, resulting in you avoiding delegation, even when it’s necessary?
Every boss has weaknesses, and chances are, your employees can readily identify yours. That said, successful employers actively commit to improving theirs- even if it feels comfortable.
Some stress is unavoidable in any career. Likewise, some stress isn’t a bad thing. When harnessed appropriately, it can motivate people to take action, and it can be a driving factor for creating necessary change.
But it’s important that you don’t ignore or discredit how your employees feel. They fundamentally need to know you see them. They also need to know you inherently respect their needs and value their role in the company. The more you actively aim to meet those needs, the happier (and more productive) your team will be.