How to help employees – and yourself – deal with stress

Stressed woman leaning against couch
Man pointing to image to the right


"The truth is that stress doesn't come from your boss,
your kids, your spouse, traffic jams, health challenges,
or other circumstances.
It comes from your thoughts about these circumstances."

... Andrew J. Bernstein

Stress can be debilitating or energizing.
Sometimes, we can determine which of those it is.

This is NOT an article just about COVID-19; we all have sources of information we trust (or don't) on that topic.

This is an article about how to handle stress, and COVID-19 has definitely contributed to the stress of everyday lives for all of us.  But COVID-19 is not the only thing causing stress in people's lives.

So how do you, as a leader, help your employees deal with stress. Oh yes, and while you are at it, how do you help yourself deal with stress?

This was the topic of a CEO Peer-to-Peer group recently and the answers that came back to that question were beautiful in their simplicity. We will talk about how to manage the stress level at work, but first, let's understand stress and what options we have.

Let's be clear about one thing. We are NOT trying to eliminate stress. Up to a certain point - and that point is not the same for everyone - stress is a good thing. It actually makes us more productive, more creative and it produces better results. As Frank Long said:

"Stress can actually help you focus better and can be positive.
Having small amounts of stress can stimulate you to think.
Being able to manage your stress is key."

Or, if you prefer an analogy, Donald Tubesing compared stress to spice:

"Stress is like spice.
in the right proportion it enhances the flavor of a dish.
Too little produces a bland, dull meal; too much may choke you."

So do not set yourself a goal to eliminate stress, but rather, determine what is the optimal level of stress.  Keep in mind, that level is different for different people - and help your team (and yourself) deal with stressors that exceed the optimal level of stress.  Keep a balance between what works for the individual and what works for your business.

As one of our CEOs said:

"Fair does not mean everyone gets the same thing.
Fair means everyone gets what they need."

Kind of puts a different perspective on things doesn't it?

Sounds easy, right? Of course not. But there are some things you can do to deal with stress.

First off, put it into context. Like Hans Selye said

"It's not stress that kills us, it's our reaction to it."

Stress is usually an outside force.  When we let that force determine who we are, or what we do, it then has the potential to stress us. There are numerous cases of people facing life-threatening situations who respond calmly, maintaining their perspective on what is happening around them. If they can do that, we can handle the things life throws at us ... right?

But what happens when our lives get caught in that "perfect storm" where many things in life each create stress, leaving us feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope.

Sometimes, the trite advice received on how to handle compounded stress actually makes things worse.

According to (similar lists from other sources), there are life events that can be predicted to add to your stress level. These include:

  • Death of a loved one
  • Getting divorced or separating from a partner
  • Getting married (no comment)
  • Starting a new job
  • Pressures of work (workload, fear of losing job, poor management, lack of control, ...)
  • Financial problems
  • Moving (residence)
  • Health concerns
  • Retirement
  • Changing life status (teen -> adult)

How many of your employees have these life events affecting them?  COVID-19 has exacerbated at least 4 of them. And that is on top of the business and personal stressors that already existed for you and your team.

Anger bombAnd of course, the duration of stress is a factor in how severe the impact of stress is on us. Continual stress has been medically proven to create serious health issues, including reduced immune systems, cardiac events, and many more. Going through more than a year of a pandemic has not made it easier on anyone.

Maybe that is why employees seem unable to deal with stress right now. They are way past their optimal stress level in both number and duration of stressors; they just cannot handle any more right now.

The fact that people are not able to even start, let alone finish things they had planned to do, is certainly adding to the stress level for many. In the words of David Allen"

"Much of the stress that people feel
doesn't come from having too much to do.
It comes from not finishing what they've started."

Ring a bell with you?

And let's not kid ourselves. When the pandemic is "over" and we return to a new "normal, it will NOT be back to what we knew as normal before the pandemic. See
Not knowing what the work situation will be like after the pandemic has cleared, is actually increasing the unknowns for people, which of course increases their stress level.

There are some that would propose a different perspective is all you need:

"In a year you'll barely remember why you felt so stressed,
so why stress about it now?"

But there are many more that say we are way past that kind of simplistic solution.

There are many organizations that expect down the road some form of work-from-home arrangement will be maintained, so this could be a long-term scenario for some.

So what can we do to help our team - and ourselves - deal with stress?

There are numerous proposed solutions, some from very credible sources, available via a Google search, including:

A common theme involves a multi-pronged approach:

  1. Physical - be active, do something, stay physically fit (the neck bone IS connected to the foot bone)
  2. Mental - Prioritize, be self-aware, gain perspective, practice relaxation techniques
  3. Emotional - Deal with feelings (don't bury them), stay positive (without dismissing legitimate concerns)

For 1), suggestions included:

  • Enable employees to have proper office equipment so while they work virtually, they benefit from the years of experience in making productive work environments. This includes ergonomic workstations and chairs, good-quality, high-speed internet, and reasonable computer equipment.
  • Host "wellness" discussions to encourage some form of ongoing physical activity. Possibly assist employees in acquiring home exercise equipment.
  • Ensure Zoom meetings have time limits, so people are not just sitting still for hours on end. Inject 7th-inning-stretch breaks intoZoom meetings that do have a long duration.
  • Provide recommendations, and maybe even occasionally meal-at-home deliveries to encourage healthy eating habits

For 2) suggestions included:

  • Establish some business rhythms to bring some sense of "normalcy" to the workday. Have scheduled meetings (when they are useful). Publish meeting schedules in advance so people know what to expect. Have some business routines that are maintainable virtually so people can plan accordingly and actually have something to focus their attention.
  • Acknowledge the uncertainty while eliminating as much of it as possible. If your company is committed to maintaining employment, say so. Share, within your organization's confidentiality policy, the financial health of your company and affirm your ability to stay operational.
  • Update (as required) and publish your company's sick day policy. Some company's are saying that since you are working from home, you don't need sick days anymore. Reality is the opposite. Constrained living creates its own issues and people do need to go "off the grid" sometimes to refresh and recuperate. MAKE SURE you apply this concept to yourself as well.
  • If you have staff whose job requires them to be on customer premises, give those staff permission to make on-the-spot decisions about their safety, up to and including leaving the customer premises if deemed necessary - and support their decisions.

For 3) suggestions included:

  • Allow extra time at the start of virtual meetings for socialization. We are social animals and need that personal connection to feel fulfilled and connected. Zoom meetings have been demonstrated to create more focus on the topic, which can be good. But it restricts the human factor, something we need to maintain.  There is nothing wrong with enjoying SOME time by yourself, but when that is imposed on your for an extended period of time, the result is rarely good.
  • Acknowledge that business "norms", while useful, cannot always be honoured when working from home. Some people are not fortunate enough to have a space in their home they can dedicate to a home office. So yes, that child running past in the background, or the noise of another person in the home is part of the wonders of virtual meetings. So is the cat on the keyboard sometimes.

As leaders, it is our duty to think of the future, but as the quote below indicates, there are also times (like now) when you really want to deal with what is happening right now and not allow unknowns about the future to dominate our thinking, or our mood.

Think of the words of Najwa Zebian, who said:

"These mountains that you are carrying,
you were only supposed to climb."

Person on Mountain

So how do you put these things in place for your team - and yourself - to help deal with stress?

Posted in General Leadership, Human Resources, Team Alignment.

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