Work is stressful. People accept this fact as gospel truth. They are unable to imagine a workplace that is relaxing, productive and successful. Why is that?
The answer is that leaders can’t help asking for more. They see employees reaching goals and wonder: Can I get just a little bit more? That might lead to more productivity. But the thing is, asking for more just leads to more stress. And leaders are doing little to counteract that reality.
A November 2017 survey Bridge by Instructure, Inc. of more than 1,000 employees found that only one-third of those respondents were encouraged by their employers to take more PTO. Worse, just 11 percent said they were encouraged to take "mental health days."
Unfortunately, leaving to find a less stressful job isn’t usually an option -- the search itself is hard. A January CareerBuilder survey illustrated this. The survey, of nearly 3,700 full-time American employees, found that 69 percent described their job search as “highly stressful.”
So employees are left between a rock and a hard place. Do they stay at a stressful job? Or do they take on an overwhelming job search?
The good news is, there are other options. And that's a relief because it’s time for leaders to step up and start reducing stress instead of causing it. Here are four ways to create a healthier work environment:
End the stigma.
One of the biggest reasons stress gets out of control is that mental health itself is a taboo topic. People are scared to say they need help. Leaders need to start a conversation so employees are comfortable admitting mental health issues.
Bench Accounting is a Vancouver-based online bookkeeping service. When the company launched five years ago, it made mental health a priority. But, as the company grew, leaders realized they also needed to destigmatize the issues. “We created the Bench Mental Health Guide, a 26-page document full of tangible and practical advice for managing day-to-day stress, setting goals and dealing with difficult co-workers,” vice president of operations Emily Key told me by email.
Gestures like her company's one are especially valuable because they reassure employees that they are not alone. Employees see that their leaders care about their stress levels and want to help.
What's key, however, is to provide resources before issues arise. That way, employees have the time to look over descriptions of the resources available to them while they’re in a good state of mind. Then, if things do get out of control, they can reach out for support without feeling ashamed.
Get to the root of the problem.
In 2017, Optimity, a San Francisco-based digital health coaching platform, quadrupled its number of clients. While this signaled success for the company, it put a lot of pressure on the team. “Our stressed business team members meant poor quality client services and sales numbers; and on our tech team, it meant more errors in the code,” CEO Jane Wang confided via email.
To find out what was going on, she said, the company's leaders took a step back. They met with employees to look at internal operations and found that during the expansion period, roles lost clarity. In response to that finding, Optimity leaders spent the next two months removing the overlap that existed between roles.
“Once there was improved clarity, our 'business stress symptoms' went away, and people were happy again,” said Wang. “It meant more sales success, higher client NPS and improved velocity for the tech team.”
The lesson here is that it’s worthwhile to stop and determine the stressor causing the problem in the first place. Even if that investigation means putting other goals on hold, in the long-run,tracking down the problem will create a better, healthier workplace.
Start by allowing employees to vent. Give them a safe space to air their grievances. Then boil down those complaints to the common denominator that needs to change.
Hammer in management training.
“Nothing causes stress to an employee like poor management, so providing proper training to supervisors on employee management is important,” Jay Starkman, CEO of the Hollywood, Fla., HR services company Engage PEO, told me.
When managers lack communication and leadership skills,employees become frustrated. This is especially important when it comes to their expectations. Managers need to recognize each employee's capabilities. This will help them set obtainable goals that motivate instead of intimidate.
And don’t think that participating in a management training seminar once is enough. There are always new research, new ideas, that change the notion of "best practices" to follow. Provide up-to-date training on a regular basis so managers can support -- rather than stress -- employees.
Everyone relaxes in his or her own way. A one-size-fits-all stress relief program won't work. But, having leaders listen to their employees and ask for their input can be effective.
Megan Driscoll is the founder and CEO of the New York branding and PR company, EvolveMKD. She encourages her staff to suggest activities that will help them manage stress. "We recently had a senior staff off-site meeting,’” she said. “To unwind after a full day of goals, budgets and projections, we did a group yoga session before a rooftop dinner.“
As it happened, the yoga was an employee suggestion, and that may be the reason why it was a highly successful one. Everyone was able to get together as a team and enjoy a relaxing evening.
Without breaks like this, Driscoll went on to say, stress can wreak havoc in your workplace. But, when individuals are self-aware of their needs -- and given a chance to voice them -- everyone is happier.