What You Should (and Shouldn't) Be Saying to Stressed Out Employees

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HR Insights for ProfessionalsThe latest thought leadership for HR pros

Monday, May 3, 2021

Stress is a common problem in many workplaces. To manage this issue in a positive and constructive way, first you need to know how to talk to people who are struggling with it.

Article 4 Minutes
What You Should (and Shouldn't) Be Saying to Stressed Out Employees

The various pressures and demands that often arise in the workplace mean stress is a big challenge for employers - one that HR departments should always be striving to manage. This is particularly true in the post-COVID world, with the after-effects of the pandemic likely to be felt by businesses and their employees for several years.

According to the American Psychological Association's Stress in America 2020 report, ordinary people have been "profoundly affected" by the pandemic. The study labeled stress a "national mental health crisis".

It’s also been estimated that workplace stress costs European businesses billions of euros a year.

Ignoring this problem, or failing to come up with a targeted strategy to manage it, isn’t an option for employers. So what can you do to support employees who are stressed?

One quality every manager should have is knowing how to talk to people that are experiencing stress.

Say: I'm listening

Sometimes, a worker who’s starting to feel overwhelmed by the various sources of stress in their job might just need someone to talk to. If this is the case, the most useful thing you or another member of the HR department can do is to provide a listening ear.

Don't feel that you have to recommend a practical solution or give them advice that’ll instantly solve the problem. Just listen, without passing judgment, and provide the time and freedom for the employee to say what's on their mind. The simple act of talking can have a cathartic, pressure-relieving effect that’ll make people feel more positive and able to manage their stress.

Don't say: Just calm down

Encouraging someone who’s stressed to calm down might seem like sensible advice, but for an employee that’s seriously struggling with stressors in their job, it's unlikely to provide much help.

In fact, telling someone they need to calm down can have adverse effects, partly because it suggests their problem can be easily managed and they're just failing to do so. It also overlooks the fact that feeling constantly nervous and being unable to relax could be a symptom of an anxiety disorder.

Say: Breathe

While telling someone to calm down could make them feel more agitated, suggesting physical actions they can take and exhibiting a calm demeanor yourself can be highly beneficial.

Simple breathing exercises can help people to relax and get out of the habit of taking quick, shallow breaths, which can sap energy and fuel feelings of anxiety. Encouraging employees to focus on the act of slowly breathing in air and letting it out can also help them concentrate on things they can control, rather than panicking about aspects of their job that feel chaotic or unpredictable.

Don't say: You're blowing things out of proportion

People who are stressed want to feel that they’re understood and supported by their employer. They don't want to be made to feel like they're exaggerating, overreacting or creating problems out of nothing.

From a manager's perspective, it might seem like apparently minor issues within teams or departments are being magnified, but it's important to empathize with the individual and to show them that how they're feeling is valid.

Say: It's completely understandable you feel this way

Going further than the previous step, it's important to acknowledge that workplace stress is something the business acknowledges and takes seriously. This will help you avoid falling into the trap of dismissing or minimizing how people are feeling.

Try to acknowledge and respect the unique nature of what the individual is going through, rather than making it about yourself by saying something like: "I've been in your position before." While this might be a well-intentioned effort to empathize, it could make the employee feel like their own thoughts and concerns are being overlooked.

Don't say: Other people are worse off than you

This is another comment that can come from a positive place - of trying to add a sense of perspective and help the stressed employee appreciate what they have going for them - but it can make the person feel like what they're going through is trivial when compared to the experiences of others.

The end result can be the worker feeling like their problems "don't count" or are simply not important to their employer, which is likely to lead to more stress.

Rather than comparing their situation to other people's experiences, encourage the employee to speak freely and think about how you can help them identify and manage their unique stress triggers.

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