In episode 20 I talked about emotions in the workplace, both positive and negative. And based on our research, we found that the second most commonly felt negative emotion at work is stress. When you feel stressed, at the most fundamental level you feel tension. Emotional tension or physical tension. It’s your body’s way of responding to something that you view as a demand on, or a challenge to, your resources, whether cognitive, emotional, or physical.
It’s important to note that stress technically isn’t always negative. Stress can motivate you, giving you energy or incentive to overcome obstacles or grow in some way. And if you take that stress and frame it in a positive way, that’s called eustress. Like think about a time you encountered a huge problem that you had to solve. If you focused on that problem as a threat, then that was negative stress, or how we typically think about stress. On the other hand, if you thought about that problem as a challenge you wanted to overcome or to show your value in some way, then that was eustress, or positive stress.
But the title of this episode is how to handle stress at work, so we’re mostly going to be focusing on the negative stress that you or your team members might feel. In the previous episode I interviewed Paul Gomez about job burnout. Burnout can be thought of as an extreme response to stress. We don’t want that. You don’t want that. So you can think of this episode as an extension of the previous episode, focusing on ways to minimize stress and avoid burnout.
And note that I didn’t say “eliminate stress.” Because you never can. To eliminate stress would mean removing all challenges and demands from your job, which is pretty much impossible, especially for you as a people manager. There will always be challenges to face and overcome, and there will always be demands to behave or act in certain ways that cause you to feel tension. Because of all that, it’s important to focus on stress management in the workplace, not stress elimination.
In this episode I’ll be going over two mysteries on how to handle stress at work. First I’ll review one method for stress management in the workplace. Then I’ll review some common causes of workplace stress and how you can help your team navigate those issues.
When you think about stress management, it’s easy to think about things like yoga, meditation, stretching, exercising, finding a quiet space. Those are all fine, and I’m not trying to downplay their effectiveness or anything. If those work for you or your team, great. But there is a bit of danger in just prescribing those kinds of generic activities without taking the individual employee’s unique situation and personality into account.
I want to focus more on the individualized nature of stress. Like what makes me really stressed out may not even register with you as a stressful event, and vice versa. Remember that stress is how you respond to and cope with challenges and demands, and we all have different coping mechanisms and strategies. Because of that, in this section I’m going to offer a method for a more a systematic approach that can be applied to anyone.
First, you and your team members need to develop a better understanding of stress. And I don’t mean like reading about the psychology of stress or whatever. I mean, you can if you want – it couldn’t hurt. Instead, I mean a better understanding of your own stress.
This step involves keeping track of your workdays for a few weeks. Think of it like a stress journal or stress diary. Could be digital, could be on physical paper, whatever works best for you. Ultimately it’s about keeping detailed notes about your day.
So what is it that you’re keeping track of? Well, stress. Anything and everything you can think of that may have caused or contributed to you feeling stressed in some way. A meeting, an email, an exchange in the hallway, something your team member did, something you or your manager did. Whatever caused you to feel tense, anxious, on edge, frustrated, annoyed, or inconvenienced. This could also extend to your non-work life. Like anything about your friends, family, home, hobbies, whatever, that may have caused you to feel those negative emotions.
But you shouldn’t stop there. It’s not enough to keep track of the causes, or triggers, of your stress, but also how you respond. Did you roll your eyes? Keep it all inside? Have a heart-to-heart with someone? Cry in the bathroom? All of these responses to stress are important to keep track of.
The more detailed and specific you can be in your stress journal, the better this activity will be. Though it shouldn’t be done half-heartedly. It requires dedication taking notes, making time to take notes, being highly observant and aware of your actions and feelings, and being very honest with yourself. Overall it requires intentionality – that you intend to take this exercise seriously and make room for it in your life for a few weeks.
And you might be thinking – wait a minute, I already know myself. I know what causes me stress and I know how I respond to that stress, so why waste two or three weeks doing something I already know? My response is that people are highly susceptible to cognitive biases. And there are so many out there, a lot of which allow us to believe we’re right. That our version of reality is the correct one.
This exercise of keeping a stress journal is to create data. You’re creating a dataset. There will certainly be biases in what you notice about yourself and keep track of in the journal, but you’re trying to create a dataset that can minimize the impact of your cognitive biases on how you frame reality.
Again, this activity shouldn’t be taken lightly. Because of that, I would recommend you doing this activity before involving your team members so you can kind of be a guinea pig. Test out the best times to track your thoughts and feelings. Test out different formats. And so on. This will also give you empathy for the kinds of obstacles your team members might face if you believe it’s a worthwhile activity, allowing you to better support them.
After two or three weeks of recording your thoughts, behaviors, causes of stress, and responses to stress, next comes step two. This involves analyzing your journal. The purpose of this step is to find common themes among stressors, or you know, things that trigger stress in you, as well as your responses to those stressors.
You might’ve already been finding themes as you were filling out the journal, and that’s fine. One warning I would give though is that it’s easy to fall into a trap of confirmation bias. That once you believe something, in this case a theme for your stress, you latch onto thoughts and behaviors that confirm that theme and ignore other data that don’t align with that theme. So as best as possible, try to avoid theming your stress data until you’re done recording your data.
I’m analytical by nature, so this step is, to me, the most fun part. It’s a journey of discovery. You might find certain stressors that you already knew about it. Cool, now you have data to confirm your suspicions. But you might also find stressors that you didn’t know or think about. Maybe some things cause stress at certain times of the day but not others. Maybe you respond to one type of stressor in one way, and another type of stressor in a completely different way.
Overall, this second step is to make order out of chaos. A journal with your thoughts and behaviors taken over the span of two to three weeks is a huge resource of unstructured data. Applying themes to those data means you’re applying structure. Like one stressor theme might be your relationship with your manager. Another theme might be emails you receive after lunch. And a response theme could be something like walking away, or tightening your fist, or listening to loud music.
After you’ve found a few themes, you can then think about the third step in this activity – developing an action plan. This is when you start to execute on the whole point of this exercise, of getting to know yourself better so you can reduce, avoid, or change how you frame stressors, as well as potentially changing your responses to those stressors.
This step is completely dependent on your themes. The themes themselves are gonna be highly individualized, but this action planning is even more individualized. Like if your relationship with your manager is a stressor, what specific actions is your manager taking that stresses you out? Can you have a conversation with your manager, a very open and honest one-on-one? Does your manager have control over what stresses you out, or is it beyond their control? Should anything be elevated to HR for further assistance? The answers to these questions are going to be specific to your situation and how you approach your stressors and responses to those stressors.
After you’ve gone through all this, and if you believe it was a good exercise, now you can share it with your team. Be vulnerable about your journey. What you found out about yourself and how you worked toward improving your situation. Then you can assign the exercise to your team. You could also develop ways to shorten how much time they spend on the task so it’s not a burden or a huge time sink. Either way, act as a guide, a mentor in their journey to self-discovery. During one-on-ones or in team meetings, you can address and be more mindful of stressors, with all of you working together as best as possible to more effectively manage stress.
The main takeaway from this first section is that I think stress management in the workplace should be more systematic and individualized. I outlined a three-step process to at least start that way of thinking, of being intentionally observant, becoming more aware of yourself, and using what you learn to perhaps improve your—and your team’s—health and wellbeing.
In the previous section I said that stress is highly individualized. And although that’s true, there are still things you can look out for in general. Like even if you and I respond to stress in different ways, we might have similar themes in common among our stressors.
We at Quantum Workplace conducted a study about employee health and wellness, and those results contributed to some of our insights about workplace stress. In particular, we identified nine causes of stress at work, six of which I’ll be reviewing here. Although they can be looked at individually, I like breaking them up into pairs.
The first set of common stressors revolves around poor relationships. In this case, poor relationships with teammates and between team members and their manager. If you don’t respect, trust, get along with, or just flat out don’t like your coworkers or manager, or they have those feelings toward you, then you’re gonna have a bad time. You’re going to ignore them or be ignored. You’re going to have arguments. Or be treated unfairly. Or get caught up in gossip and spreading rumors. Or wonder whether certain tasks or projects will be completed well or on time.
All of those can cause stress, and those can often stem from poor relationships. As a people manager, strive to ensure that you create a constructive culture of openness. Keep team members accountable, and have them tell you concerns so that conflicts don’t get worse. This is similar to episode 7 of this podcast, where I discussed conflict management and how you need to address goals, assumptions, and personalities to bridge the gap between people.
This isn’t to say that you can make everyone get along. You can’t. Some people just do not see eye to eye and never will. It’s less important to make sure everyone’s friends or buddy buddy with each other and more important to make sure teammates treat each other professionally and respectfully. You can do team events, group projects, team-building activities, all in the spirit of tearing down walls and building bridges.
Likewise, if a team member has a poor relationship with you, or you toward them, have one-on-ones with that teammate. Try to be open, accommodating, constructive, and understanding when talking with them or giving feedback. And on that note, give that team member an opportunity to give you feedback about what’s wrong, what you could do to change or support them better, and so on. If after a few one-on-ones you’re just not making any headway, look for mentors in your organization. Another manager or leader who you can talk with to get pointers on how to best navigate your unique situation.
The second set of common stressors is about your job role. Specifically, unhappiness with your career and being unsure of future fit. Those are two separate stressors, but I view them as being pretty intertwined with one another. Like if you’re unsure whether you fit into the organization’s future plans, your career is more uncertain. And if you’re unhappy with your career, you may think that a future with the organization isn’t worth it.
Ask your team members what they’d like to do, if there’s something they’d rather be doing, and what makes them most engaged. Also ask where they think they fit into the organization and its future, as well as where they see themselves in a year or two. Try to accommodate their preferences as best you can within the constraints of what you can do. And it’s important to keep in mind that some employees aren’t a good fit for a certain team within an organization, and they might be better off in another team or department. Sometimes they’re aren’t a good fit for the organization in general. And other times they outgrow what your organization can offer them and their careers.
Keep all those factors in mind when discussing future potential with your team members. Be a coach to them. Clarify both to them and you what the future of the organization holds, what the future of different positions could look like, and then conduct career conversations for maximum individual clarity.
The third and final set of common stressors is about time away from work. Or in this case, work breaks and sleep. In our research, we found that employees are more likely to have lower physical and emotional wellness if they eat meals at their workstations every day, have short meal breaks, or don’t take any breaks at work. People need time to recharge. Period. They can’t be highly productive all the time if they don’t get a chance to take a step back. People are not machines, and their productivity will suffer if you treat them like machines.
Work breaks have a positive impact on engagement and productivity. So as best as possible, you should not only allow and be open to employees taking breaks, but encourage them to do so. Could be surfing the internet for 5-10 minutes, walking around the office or outside, playing a quick board game with coworkers, etc. There’s always a balancing act with this because a common criticism is employees taking advantage and taking tons of breaks. But it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing thing – moderation comes with practice and guidance.
Likewise, good-quality sleep is absolutely necessary for a healthy life. Poor-quality sleep, or not enough sleep, can be disastrous for employees, organizations, and customers. Lower productivity, worse concentration, higher irritability, higher forgetfulness. The list goes on and on.
This was briefly mentioned in the previous episode on job burnout, but one of the most important things you can do as a people manager is to set healthy boundaries. To minimize the need for your team members to have to be tethered to their phones or computers all day. You shouldn’t expect your team to always be on. I mean, yeah, some jobs do require being on call, but that’s not really what I’m talking about here. I’m speaking more around organizations that have business hours that end at a certain time of the day, with little to no critical functions needed afterwards.
You should communicate expectations of health to your employees by not communicating with them about work-related topics after hours. Again, some jobs need advance notice on things for the next workday, or emergencies come up. There will always be exceptions to pretty much anything related to improving work. Regardless of that, try to draw a line to protect your employees from themselves. Most emails and text messages can wait until the next day. Moderate your own sense of urgency by waiting to hit that send button.
The main takeaway from this second section is that even though stress is highly individualized, there are some common causes of stress that you can be aware of and look out for. One is about poor relationships between teammates and then between team members and managers. Another is about unhappiness with your career and being unsure of future fit. Finally, a third set of common stressors is about work breaks and sleep.
As a recap of this episode, I discussed a method for becoming more aware of workplace stress, as well as some common causes of stress. I believe these go hand-in-hand because knowing common stressors can help you better prepare for navigating the specific stressors of your team members. Like starting with broad themes then narrowing your scope when going through a stress journal either by yourself or with your team.
Really this episode is about employee health and wellness, and there are so many topics to consider. Emotional wellness, physical health, financial wellbeing, social wellbeing. This episode didn’t even scratch the surface of everything you could and should be aware of to maximize your team members’ wellbeing. But it is a start, especially around the topic of workplace stress. If you’d like to read more about how to handle stress at work, check out our e-book titled Stress Management in the Workplace.
And that’s it for this episode! Join me next time on Manager Mysteries & Mishaps, where I’ll conduct an interview about performance feedback.