Leadership & Professional Development

How leaders can reduce stress for employees instead of adding to it

February 22, 2021 5:02 pm

Jill Geisler

The actions and attitudes of leaders help determine whether employees are at risk of getting overwhelmed by stress to the point where their productivity and possibly their health suffer.

Stress is a part of life in every workplace, but it varies in its frequency, intensity and toxicity. In its milder iterations, it’s an uneasy feeling as we approach a deadline (especially if we’ve been procrastinating and know we need to buckle down), or it’s the occasional client, customer or patient making unreasonable demands that we have to tactfully navigate. Our tension rises but soon subsides.

But there are other, more serious stressors that can lead to tense work settings and unhappy, even unhealthy employees. These include:

  • Roles and responsibilities that are unclear
  • Responsibilities combined with a lack of sufficient authority or autonomy to make decisions and accomplish goals
  • Priorities that shift arbitrarily and without consideration of all stakeholders and the unintended consequences
  • Workloads that increase incessantly or substantially without an analysis of capacity
  • Managers who pit people against each other
  • Bullies at any level whose behavior is unchecked
  • Feelings of “otherness” by people who are underrepresented (e.g., based on gender, ethnicity, age) in the workplace
  • Fear of failure or public humiliation

Leaders sometimes contribute to the problem

Some leaders view themselves as a benchmark for the performance of others. If top managers boast that they “eat stress for breakfast” or that “pressure makes diamonds,” they may be closed to the idea that others process things differently. They may telegraph to the staff that they have no interest in — or tolerance for — concerns about stress in the workplace.

Leaders who are disorganized and unpredictable create stress. If they are volatile and vindictive, they guarantee it.

Leaders also do smaller things that add stress to others. They may send emails at odd hours simply because they have an idea or request that they want to distribute. They don’t recognize how easily the recipients may see a midnight message from a manager as an expectation that they should be working at that time, too.

Managers may routinely assign additional tasks and problem-solving responsibilities to the most reliable people on their staff — which is a workaround that can ultimately cause stress and frustration for the very people we want to reward — rather than requiring underperformers to raise their skills.

Leaders also may roll out change initiatives without a thoughtful plan that involves staff, leaving them feeling unsure and insecure as they scramble to learn the new and let go of the old.

Leaders also can be part of the solution

The best leaders combine high standards with empathy. They consider the consequences of their decisions.

They expect their deputies to distribute work equitably, and when they add new duties for their team members, they do so with a clear understanding of what those demands entail. They don’t add without determining whether something needs to be subtracted. Jobs change and responsibilities shift, but managers need to see the work and workloads through the eyes and experiences of their employees.

The best leaders also do what I call “empathetic shopping” when considering new hardware or software. They don’t just look at what’s available from the lowest bidder. They always consider the “user experience” and get input from those for whom the equipment will be a daily help or a headache.

Most of all, they model behavior that reduces stress. They are calm in the storm. They praise in public and criticize in private. Their difficult conversations — and leaders have to have them — leave the other person’s dignity intact.

Stress-related resources are available

In the pandemic era, it’s more important than ever to be sensitive to the pressures that are affecting people. They may be isolated from friends and family. They may be experiencing the roller coaster of on-again, off-again home-based education for their kids. They may be grieving the loss of people dear to them. They may even be putting off self-care for their physical and mental health while COVID-19 remains the dominant issue in the healthcare system.

Leaders need to tell people that they understand and empathize with these pressures. They should make it comfortable for employees to tell their supervisors if they’re struggling. They should establish an understanding that these are exceptional times and that in such times, we look for constructive solutions to support people.

Among those solutions are HR departments and your Employee Assistance Programs. Encourage people to use them because the empathy and support you provide may not be enough. It may need to be coupled with professional counseling.

If your organization offers programs on stress reduction, don’t just spread the word about them. Attend one with your team. Your presence sends a message that can put others at ease.

Minimizing stress in healthcare is more important than ever

Unchecked stress can lead to an unrelenting sense of hopelessness and powerlessness, which are risk factors for burnout.

The National Institutes of Health shared an article describing these signs of burnout: exhaustion (beyond the normal end-of-shift tiredness), alienation from work-related activities and reduced performance in everyday tasks, including a failure to concentrate.

As a group, frontline medical professionals undoubtedly are at a higher risk than ever before of burnout and, in severe instances, post-traumatic stress disorder. COVID-19 has wracked their vocation. They deserve every bit of support we can provide, as do those whose work supports clinicians.

In our role as managers, we can’t personally tackle the pandemic that clinical workers are battling, but we can remove every possible needless source of stress from their path.

They deserve nothing less.


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