Stress is a natural biological response that motivates us to meet the demands of life, whether that be work, study, a major life change, our finances or our relationships. While often referred to negatively, stress is not inherently harmful. Even high levels of stress can be beneficial, driving performance, engagement, and creativity. To gain these benefits, the situation must be viewed as a brief and achievable challenge. The person must feel capable, including having the appropriate supports and adequate time to recover between tasks.
Stress becomes unhealthy when life’s demands pile up beyond what we feel we can cope with. This can lead to changes in sleep and diet, challenges with mood and anxiety, withdrawing from others, difficulties with concentration and memory, and physical symptoms such as headaches or an upset stomach. Living with too much stress can feel never-ending and there are often reciprocal impacts across our lives. When the responses to stress begin to impact our relationships, motivation, or lead to work-life conflict, this can increase our stress even further.
In the workplace, job stress can arise from the workplace culture, environmental factors, or imbalances between the demands of a job and the resources a person has to meet those demands. Work related stress can lead to diminished performance and productivity, poor morale and relationships, increased presenteeism, absenteeism, or turnover, or high accident and illness rates.
As a People Leader, you can have a big impact on how your workers experience stress. Here are five key ways you can help:
1. Be proactive. The best way to protect employees’ wellbeing is to minimise unnecessary stressors in the first place, before they become a problem. Common stressors are unrealistic workloads, interpersonal conflict at work, blurred work-life boundaries, and work environments where people don't feel comfortable raising issues. The best way to know what stressors are being experienced is to ask your people directly. You can then introduce strategies to minimise these. Partnering with Clearhead to take an evidence-based, data-driven approach to managing workplace stressors is a great place to start.
2. Lead a culture that prioritises mental health and psychological safety. All the research points to the same thing: What you say and do as a people leader sets the culture. Normalise everyday conversations about mental health and help-seeking, as this will impact how comfortable employees feel asking for and accessing support. Talk openly in individual and group settings about what you are doing for your own wellbeing, including when you have sought support from others. A 2020 review completed by US researchers also found that leaders who openly shared positive feelings, such as pride, joy, and gratitude, created a more psychologically safe environment for workers. Similarly, being able to non-defensively reflect on others' point of view and seek growth through challenging experiences (also known as growth mindset) can help.
3. Manage your own stress effectively. Stress in leadership is contagious and has been found to have lingering effects on employee wellbeing even up to two years later. When People Leaders can role-model healthy coping and feel confident supporting team members, everyone will benefit. Consider how you are managing your stress at the moment, how you are talking about stress in front of others, and whether there are any additional supports you should put in place. Some leaders have a monthly professional supervision appointment with a Clearhead therapist provider.
4. Foster meaningful, compassionate workplace relationships. Nurture a social climate that embraces meaningful connection, as employees will feel valued, cared for, informed, and a part of a social community. This includes symmetrical communication, where leaders not only give direction but also listen to the opinions and advice of workers, and responsive leadership communication, which involves leaders focussing on the humanity of workers. Employees who feel supported cope better with stress. Positive workplace relationships can also boost employees’ moods. Studies have even found the impact of positive relationships extends to the wellbeing of friends and family at home.
5. Support employees with coping and recovery. It’s important that staff are supported to have sufficient time for satisfying and meaningful engagement with both work and non-work activities, and to expand their repertoire of coping skills. You can highlight the importance of healthy habits, enjoyable activities, and supportive relationships alongside job-crafting and work-life boundaries. Switching off from work and relaxing, and experiencing mastery and control at work support recovery from stress. Working with employees to bring these experiences into their everyday lives will assist with recovery from and prevention of unhealthy stress.
Naku te rourou nau te rourou ka ora ai te iwi.
When we support one another, everyone thrives. [Māori proverb]