We live in stressful times, with many of us routinely asked to “do more with less” while on the job. Throw in a pandemic, an unanticipated personal crisis or two, and an already tenuous work-life balance can go sideways in a hurry.
By Bob Goldwater
Far too many of us continue to unquestioningly accept a fallacy that seeks to split us into two people. Somehow our default setting is to think of ourselves in the artificial categories of “me at work” and “me at home.” I don’t find this sharp work/home divide helpful, or even accurate. Those living under intense stressors in their off-work hours can’t help but bring at least some of those emotions with them into the workplace.
While many of our coworkers have become highly skilled at concealing their frayed nerves during the workday, a commitment to sharpening our powers of observation and creating various “pressure valves” can help people better manage stress and create a positive workplace culture.
In 2002, my wife and I went through a high-risk pregnancy. Our triplets were born prematurely at 26 weeks. There were many problems, as you might expect, some of which required feeding tubes, spending much of that first year in and out of hospitals, and searching for reliable information as we did our best to care for them. Our experiences prompted us to launch FeedingMatters.org as a way of helping other parents cope with pediatric feeding disorders.
More than many, perhaps, I can attest to the difficulty of keeping a business up and running during extreme forms of personal stress. Because I’m very open about our history, I often have people ask me questions about managing major life events without having to step completely away from the workplace. I’m eager to share what I’ve learned because I believe the last thing anyone needs during a season of heightened anxiety is to worry about losing a job or suffering other forms of additional, unnecessary harm.
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Top Five Warning Signs of an Impending Stress-Related Meltdown
High-performing workers frequently don’t want to admit that they are feeling stress or that they are nearing a breaking point. They might not even be able to admit this to themselves. On top of that, a lot of people try to cope with grief or other major life stressors by overworking themselves, but this is not healthy. We do everyone in our orbit a favor by being able to spot what it looks like for someone to be suffering from too much stress.
There are obvious physical indicators, of course, but we might not have the kind of close relationship with someone that would permit us to ask about sleep patterns, digestive problems, frequent headaches, depression, lack of focus, or any of the other classic signs of excessive stress. These sorts of issues are best addressed by a licensed clinician but, to that bit of common sense, I would add that we do our colleagues a disservice whenever we engage in speculation. If we notice something isn’t quite right, we need to ask about it.
There are legitimate, work-related categories we can ask about if we suspect someone is faltering under a great deal of stress. When done properly, and with compassion, these questions can kickstart a dialogue that allows an individual to open up in other areas…if they choose to do so. Questions need to be asked carefully, preferably with a third party on hand to observe. Five primary indicators that a conversation about stress management needs to take place are:
- Any abrupt change in established routines and behavior patterns.
- Absentminded behavior that results in missed meetings or deadlines.
- Irritability, restlessness, or perhaps even anger expressed toward colleagues.
- Inability to compartmentalize, dwelling on specific events or outcomes.
- A noticeable decline in the quality of work-related decision-making.
Keep in mind that there could be any number of reasons to explain a variation in work performance. We need to be quick to listen and not read into the responses we get back.
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Balancing Work Demands with Rest and Recovery
If there is an upside to living in an increasingly stress-filled culture, it’s that so many relaxation techniques are cropping up that it’s difficult to add anything new to the conversation. I think one of the best contributions anyone can make to battling back against stress is to share his or her story. My wife and I have addressed this technique as best we can through FeedingMatters.org but I also try to encourage others to share their stories as I’ve found it to be a win-win. Articulating struggles helps people better deal with them and it offers insight to others at the same time.
Entire books have been written about de-stressing in the workplace, so I’ve tried to boil down what I’ve learned into five recommendations that can be adapted into just about any workplace setting. In general, addressing these issues on an everyday basis strengthens your employees to better weather the hard times. These principles are equally applicable to work and home life.
1. Embrace the virtues of clarity, transparency, and accountability.
As with any other desired workplace behavior, modeling provides a powerful tool. If it’s OK for the boss to confess when he or she is having a tough day, that automatically makes it OK for everyone else. I’m not talking about griping, which is unhelpful, but rather just opening up when life gets tough. An example of a single statement that embraces all three of these virtues might be something like, “I know we were supposed to ship this proposal today, and it’s probably my fault we’re behind. Most of you know that my father fell down the stairs earlier this week and that’s made it harder for me to focus. What’s needed to take this to the net?”
2. Be ready to invest on the front end in wellness.
Reducing stress in the workplace can sound like a good idea but meet resistance when we start to see a few invoices. Prepare for that moment by setting a realistic budget for needed improvements to the work environment. Buying lunch for everyone every few weeks or some greenery to brighten up workspaces will incur a cost. Because we incline to want to see results for expenditures, I recommend committing to no less than six months when attempting to foster positive changes in work culture. The improvements you’re looking for won’t all fit neatly into a spreadsheet, but you can start tracking absenteeism, workplace conflict, accidents, etc.
3. Encourage the obvious, everyday physical regimens of eating right, exercise, and getting adequate sleep.
Many businesses have instituted wellness programs that encourage employees to take better physical care of themselves as a way of combating stress and healthcare costs. An employee in good physical shape will be better able to withstand a stressful situation than one who is morbidly obese, sedentary, or stays up late watching TV every night. Employers can’t force their workers to take good care of themselves, but we can offer incentive programs and friendly competitions regularly. Managers who hold themselves accountable for staying in good shape encourage their employees to do likewise.
4. Make sure everyone has “someone safe” they can talk to and that they know who that person is.
This might be tricky to implement, depending on the nature of your business, but I would say it’s absolutely essential. A perceived inability to talk about what’s really going on for nine hours every day adds a tremendous amount of stress to the workday. People are by nature verbal and communal, which means that suppressing persistent thoughts is unnatural. I’m not suggesting that the workplace position itself as a substitute for clinical therapy but rather as a place where people feel free to open up to someone, perhaps an HR rep, without fear of consequences. There may well be times when it’s necessary to recommend counseling or taking a day off to address a serious situation taking place outside the office but the employee may be hesitant to ask.
5. Identify and seek to break bad habits.
This is another category where leadership is crucial. We obviously can’t force anyone else to give up bad habits, but we can model it. The best way I know to do this is to allow your colleagues to catch you trying to break one of your own bad habits. You might place a humorous “swear jar” on your desk as a way of opening up a conversation on your recent decision to stop using profanity in the workplace. Maybe you stop ordering your usual triple cheeseburger at staff meetings and ask for something healthier. Whatever you choose to tackle, do so without a lot of fanfare. Allow others to notice the change and ask you about it.
Play the Long Game with Effective Stress Management
There are many bottom-line advantages to any business for adding a stress-management component to its operational priorities. For starters, one of the more expensive categories for any type of business is unanticipated employee turnover. Whenever someone quits, even under the best of circumstances, it immediately creates a labor and knowledge gap. To fill that gap, the company will need to invest time and money in recruiting, interviewing, hiring, and training a replacement. It’s better to hang onto your veteran, skilled workers if at all possible.
Companies that make provision for those times when an employee comes up against a major life event will foster increased employee loyalty and help create a deeper emotional connection to work life. Well-connected employees won’t want to quit. They tend to work harder, too.
Managers can get so lost in scheduling, inventory, spreadsheets, and other operational priorities that we lose sight of the value of an employee’s emotional attachment to their job. Doing right by your people will, in the long run, make a positive difference to your bottom line. Study after study confirms that workers who feel connected to their workplace are more motivated, less likely to engage in workplace conflict, communicate better, are more likely to meet deadlines, less likely to call in sick, and more willing to speak up when they need help.
No one should feel pressured to choose between a job they enjoy and taking care of a dying loved one, as just one example. I would encourage business leaders to take another look at their organizational resources and make an assumption that every employee will, at some point, come up against a major life stressor. I’m not suggesting that we should view everyone as replaceable, I’m saying the opposite. The right question to ask is not “Who can we get to replace this person?” but rather “How will we continue to keep things flowing smoothly if this person has to be out of the office for an extended period?”