What Managers Can Do to Support Stressed Workers
By Steven T. Hunt, Lin Grensing-Pophal | 11 min read
It was a difficult employment situation that didn’t work out. A sales representative told his company he was struggling to perform his responsibilities due to increased anxiety, including anxiety attacks. As SHRM.org explains the case, the employee asked for accommodations, such as working from home, to deal with the problem. The company’s HR manager and the employee’s manager took steps to determine whether the sales job’s essential functions could be performed from home. They asked for additional information from the employee’s physician about the employee’s disability and possible accommodations. They heard nothing—from the employee or his doctor. And after 22 days, during which the employee failed to report to work and exhausted his paid leave, the employer terminated his employment.
A court upheld the company’s decision, but that wasn’t really a win for either side.
Could this situation have been turned around? Possibly. Looking more broadly, should companies focus more energy on finding ways to help employees dealing with debilitating levels of stress? Most definitely. There is growing awareness of the effect of a wide range of stressors on employees’ physical and mental health and the resulting, and often negative, effect on organizations.
It’s no wonder. In the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, “global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by a massive 25%,” the World Health Organization reported. A 2021 American Psychological Association survey of 1,500 U.S. workers found that 79% of employees said they had experienced work-related stress in the month prior to the survey – a rate higher than 2020 results, which were also higher than what was reported in 2019. The survey indicated that “36% reported cognitive weariness, 32% reported emotional exhaustion, and an astounding 44% reported physical fatigue – a 38% increase since 2019.”
And it’s not just employees. Managers, who often bear the brunt of these rising stress levels among their employees are also struggling, with Gallup reporting that burnout among managers increased significantly in 2021.
Companies cannot run or grow without managers who play an important role in attracting, developing, and engaging talent. Managers need guidance and support for the role they play in helping employees ease work–life balance pressures and creating a climate of psychological safety – all while simultaneously taking steps to address their own needs.
Sensing and responding to employees’ mental health needs
Managers, and the companies they work for, often find themselves in a Catch-22. Managers are people and also bosses. They are dealing with many of the same issues as their employees, but with the added burden of ensuring their teams perform well, says Kelly Hamilton, an organizational psychologist and consultant with CMA Global Inc.
The switch to remote work at many organizations just added more stress for managers, as everyone attended to personal challenges related to health concerns, and family responsibilities. Managers had to “make sure the team is working together and on the projects and goals they’re supposed to, while at the same time checking in with team members as individuals,” Hamilton says. “Managers have to really step back and think about how they can show up in a better and bigger way – it’s not just ‘are we getting all the work done’ but ‘is everyone okay’?”
Managers … should know their employees and they should know and recognize when there’s a change in employees.
- Leslie Hammer, PhD, co-director at Oregon Healthy Workforce Center at Oregon Health & Science University.
Managers aren’t counselors – and shouldn’t step into that role. And yet managers are continually faced with the need to address and support the psychological health and well-being of their employees.
“Managers are not supposed to diagnose – they’re not supposed to even possess any kind of psychological therapeutic knowledge at all,” says Leslie Hammer, PhD, co-director at Oregon Healthy Workforce Center at Oregon Health & Science University, a center of excellence funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Yet, Hammer says, “they should know their employees and they should know and recognize when there’s a change in employees.”
Most managers want to support the emotional needs of their employees, but they lack the knowledge, time, and resources to do it. That puts them under significant stress because they are caught between what they feel they should do and what they feel comfortable and confident doing.
A manager may notice, for instance, an employee’s behavior changes. Such changes could include a decline in work performance, withdrawal, absenteeism, or difficulties with coworkers. When observing those types of behavior shifts, Hammer says, it is appropriate for managers to check in with employees.
“Checking in is a type of supportive behavior – a preventive behavior that has to do with emotional support,” Hammer says. Managers should then help employees find resources, such as employee assistance programs at the workplace, and through community healthcare providers. The referral is a concrete way for managers to offer support.
A sensitive boss can be proactive. Hammer says a manager might say, “I understand you’ve been having a hard time. You’ve had your kids out of school for a long time and it’s easy to be missing a lot of work. You might want to check in with me when you are having such challenges and there are also some resources available.”
Hammer says that a manager’s offering of support is one of three key ways that a company can strengthen the psychological health of its employees. The other two ways are reducing unnecessary demands and giving employees a sense of control over where, when, and how they do their work. This has been particularly evident during the pandemic, as many employees experienced the flexibility of working remotely. In many cases, employees are unwilling to relinquish that flexibility, Hammer says.
Social psychological research backs up the importance of building psychological connections with people as an important health factor, Hammer says. “The missing link is really understanding and supporting the mental health of employees,” she says.
Ways managers can ease the pressure
There are a number of steps managers can take to relax tensions and ease work pressures. The most important is to be clear about job expectations, says Larry Pfaff, an executive and career coach with Pfaff and Associates and a retired psychology professor at Spring Arbor University.
“I know that sounds simplistic but, 40-plus years of management and executive coaching, I have found that most managers in most organizations do a terrible job of clarifying expectations for employees,” Pfaff says. “They make things ambiguous.”
That leaves an employee to worry, he says. When that happens too often, it can lead to psychological and physiological problems.
There are small ways managers can ease work pressures. For example, some companies start meetings at 10:05 instead of 10:00 to build in small breaks.
Pfaff says managers can clarify what they expect from their workers on a regular basis – monthly, weekly, daily, even hourly. He also advises managers to give substantive and specific feedback about performance. What did the employee do well? How will their work effect the organization?
Hamilton says there are additional, seemingly small ways managers can ease work pressures. For example, some companies start meetings five minutes later – for example, at 10:05 instead of 10:00 – to build in small breaks and give employees back a bit of time and space.
Other tactics include established policies limiting, or eliminating, the use of e-mail after hours. And allowing employees to choose whether to keep their cameras on or off during video calls.
In fact, some places have legal requirements for establishing these types of boundaries. In France, for instance, companies with 50 or more employees must “establish hours when staff should not send or answer e-mails.” Ontario has enacted a similar bill, requiring employers with more than 25 employees to indicate “how they will ensure workers are able to disconnect from the workplace after hours.”
Creating a climate of psychological safety
In addition to helping employees balance their work–life needs, managers have a key role to play in maintaining a climate of psychological safety.
Not all employees feel they can bring their whole selves to work; some may fear being bullied or harassed.
There are a wide range of factors related to employees’ personal characteristics that may lead to feelings of stress. For example, they may be members of a historically marginalized racial or ethnic group, older or younger than the average employee, members of the LGBTQ community, or they’re highly introverted.
Whatever physical or psychological traits employees may have, they need to feel valued and safe in the workplace, says Kelly Hamilton. Hamilton’s work focuses on diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts as he helps organizations hire, develop, and retain their employees.
Creating a stress-free culture, leading by example, and encouraging employees to share their concerns is hard when you’re feeling stress of your own.
- Stephanie Naznitsky, an executive director with Robert Half.
Managers need to consider how they foster belonging, to let people be themselves, while also preventing mistreatment, he says. Employees who have an identity that is marginalized have an additional stressor they’re dealing with, Hamilton says, because they may be concerned that they don’t fit in to the group at work. That creates the potential for discrimination or exclusion as an additional stressor, he says.
Building a safe environment is something that April Hoffbauer, vice president of people at the product research platform Maze, has been doing since before the pandemic. With Maze since January 2021, Hoffbauer says that managers – even in fully remote workplaces as she is – can cultivate psychological safety by ensuring that there are “multiple outlets to express ideas, give feedback, and collaborate.”
Managers, Hoffbauer says, need to take time to understand their employees’ motivations, communication styles, and other unique traits. “It takes intentional one-on-one time, as well as a management ritual that focuses more on employees’ development rather than the daily operational needs,” she says.
As managers recognize the role they play in supporting employees, managers must also ensure that they support themselves.
“Creating a stress-free culture, leading by example, and encouraging employees to share their concerns is hard when you’re feeling stress of your own,” says Stephanie Naznitsky, an executive director with Robert Half, a talent recruiting agency.
That makes it important for managers to care for themselves, to address their own work–life balance and other concerns.
Naznitsky recommends that managers:
- Protect their time. “Rather than trying to juggle multiple tasks, meetings, and employees all at once, schedule periods throughout the day to focus on things individually.”
- Take breaks. “Step away from your desk, go for a walk, or stretch,” she suggests. “If you can’t get outside, look away from the computer and focus on a non-work-related activity for a few minutes.”
- Get away to recharge. Time off, Naznitsky notes, isn’t just for employees. Managers, she says, can use time off to catch up with friends or a significant other, or to engage in a hobby. “Try to disconnect completely while away to get the greatest benefit,” she advises.
- Invest in yourself. “Make time for both professional and personal development, whether that be through work-provided training and conferences or personal things that aid in your growth.”
Hoffbauer has found that being attuned to personal needs and taking steps to meet them can help ease the pressure. For example, she has found ways of making a flexible schedule work to her advantage.
Hoffbauer says she fully embraces “a nonlinear workday.” This, she says, means that she’s “taken meetings from some pretty interesting places – golf carts, beaches, cars, basketball games, baseball games, and a kayak.” This occurs not because she works excessively but, she says, “because I’m able to work when and where I feel most productive, which one day might be at a desk and the next day might be somewhere else entirely.”
She has, she says, even missed a Zoom meeting with her CEO while hiking a volcano in Hawaii with no wireless reception. “He didn’t say one word about it because it wasn’t a big deal and we could work just as effectively through asynchronous channels.”
For managers and for employees, the focus on work today is far more on outcomes than process. Whether hiking in Hawaii or sitting in an office in Hoboken, New Jersey, working together to find ways to ease modern-day stressors can lead to healthier people, more productive employees, and stronger organizations.
In the U.S., for example, a survey of more than 2,300 consumers found that 61% were living paycheck to paycheck, according to digital banking company LendingClub.
“The foremost method of helping employees deal with financial stressors is to pay them more,” says April Hoffbauer, vice president of people at Maze. That, of course, is not always possible. But pay transparency and pay parity can be a good starting point, she says. Her team works to ensure, for example, that there are no gender pay disparities.
Another tangible thing that can be done, Hoffbauer suggests, is to offer access “to financial classes to ensure that employees are able to strengthen their financial acumen.”
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