Stress is not a 21st century phenomenon, yet it is officially recognised by the World Health Organisation as the health epidemic of our time (eat your heart out COVID-19). It may not kill you directly, but it causes a raft of conditions that will.
Stress, however, does not only make you sick; it also makes you unable to function properly, and this has led to businesses waking up to the reality that stress is not good for business either. There is no way you can get high-performance out of a team that perceives their work, their workplace, or both, as the primary cause of their stress.
Stress is essentially a feeling of overwhelm, when our minds and bodies cannot cope with the demands required by the situation we are faced with. When those situations come hot on the heels of each other, then we get chronic stress. Stress is relative and extremely subjective, of course, which makes some leaders feel that the best advice to their team members regarding stress management is a terse, ‘deal with it!’ Yet, as leaders at the workplace, our responsibility is not just for our team’s performance but also (some might even say, primarily) with their welfare.
So, what can managers do to alleviate stress in their teams? Below are six areas which should have a direct influence on the level of stress experienced by our teams:
As a manager, you should have a clear idea of the workload necessary to adequately fulfill a role within your team. That workload should generally be covered within a normal working week (i.e., 40 hours). If not, you need to increase resources, distribute the workload, or harness technology.
Ambiguity can be one of the worst stressors in the workplace. As a manager, it is your responsibility to organise the team in such a way that meets your goals and objectives with clear and unambiguous roles and responsibilities. This is exactly why we formalise these in job descriptions. While an element of flexibility always needs to exist (particularly in today’s fast-changing markets) this should not be an excuse to be obscure about a person’s role within the team.
Everyone yearns for a degree of autonomy at work, and when we lose control of how we get our work done, we generally get stressed. As managers, we need to know the capabilities and potential of our team members like the back of our hand. When you know your team’s potential, you can set stretch goals for them whilst allowing them appropriate leeway as to how those goals are achieved. The chances are you will also get more ownership of the goals from your team.
This is really the flip side of autonomy. Autonomy without support is lazy leadership. Your team needs to know that you are always at hand to support when they get stuck or need an extra hand, and that you have their back when (not if) they screw up.
When changes at the workplace are simply announced, team members feel helpless and undervalued. You do not have to run every decision by your team, but you do need to be sensitive enough to consider your team’s input in situations that have a direct effect on them before you make your final decision on the matter. If the changes are coming from higher up the chain in command, your role involves representing your team’s position to senior management. Never underestimate the importance of your ability to influence upwards.
This can be broken down into two; the physical and the social. No member of your team should be forced to work in an environment that is unsafe, unhealthy, or emotionally toxic. In particular, you need to be fully aware of any situations where team members are being subjected to inappropriate behaviour from inside (and sometimes outside the organisation) such as bullying, harassment or discrimination. If you detect any such behaviour you need to act swiftly and decisively.
Stress can have a debilitating effect on the performance of your team. A lot of stress can originate from situations that are unrelated to the workplace. In these cases, your empathy and understanding will come in handy. However, there are also countless workplace stressors that you, as a manager, can either curb, exacerbate or ignore. The choice is yours.
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