Workplace stress looks different than it did two years ago when much of it was prompted by layoffs and negative business news. Today’s leaders might say, “The good news is we won new business, and the bad news is we won new business.” Meaning, a predominantly jobless economic recovery has produced a reduced workforce, which when combined with returning sales translates to significantly more work being done by fewer people. This creates a more stressful workplace.
Some stress can be positive, creating a more lively and engaging workplace. However, when there is too much stress, employees may disengage and become inefficient.
Distress often starts with leaders, as employees pick up on a manager’s emotional state, no matter how well hidden. In fact, a boss’ attitude and stress level are contagious. Learning leaders should recognize the dangers of stressed-out leaders and offer development opportunities to ensure stress doesn’t get out of hand and infect team or organizational dynamics. To determine stress levels:
1. Have leaders self-assess. Leaders should conduct periodic self-checks to gauge their stress levels. Are they anxious? How many deadlines do they have? What are their daily and weekly priorities? Putting work aside for a few hours every week to organize, prioritize and focus on strategic goals can help leaders work on what really matters. Leaders should first learn to lead themselves, then work to master leading others, even in stress management.
2. Get a handle on stress. Like attitudes in general, stress is contagious. Sometimes the best thing leaders can do is stay away from team members until they can clear their thoughts and get a handle on their own stressors. Find tasks that do not involve interacting with others until stress is manageable.
3. Offer transparent communication. Managers must take the uncertainty out of employee communication. Communication skills are central to a manager’s influence. The more critical or potentially stressful the situation the more managers should regularly connect with their employees. Uncertain employees assume the worst. Employees want clear expectations for their roles, the company’s direction and how the two fit together. While managers may not be able to share everything, the more open they can be with staff, the more trusting and engaged the workforce, which can reduce stress.
4. Ensure reasonable workloads. Leaders should know how much their direct reports can handle and set reasonable expectations. Leaders also should take time to meet with employees to understand what’s on their plates and help them prioritize. In these conversations leaders should make sure employees understand they are looking out for them and doing what they can to offer the right assignments in terms of skills required as well as volume. Staff members — especially Generation Y — see their managers as career coaches. Many organizations offer learning to ensure leaders not only understand generational differences, but how to effectively lead a multi-generational workforce. Simple conversations about workload balance can lead to meaningful coaching opportunities. Organizations can realize significant benefits by investing in managers’ coaching skills.
5. Pay attention to relationships. As important as a leader’s relationships are with direct reports, they also need to pay attention to relationships among team members. If there are conflicts, leaders should think about conflict resolution coaching and team-building activities. Leaders must create an environment where a team can best work together, and they must learn to monitor the workplace’s emotional environment. Managers should constantly ask themselves if their leadership practices encourage cooperation or competition among staff members.
Tom Daniel is senior vice president, PDI Ninth House. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.