How You Should (and Shouldn't) Support Stressed Employees


HR Insights for ProfessionalsThe latest thought leadership for HR pros

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

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

Article 8 Minutes
How You Should (and Shouldn't) Support Stressed 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 Institute of Stress:

  • Around a third (33%) of people report feeling extreme stress
  • Over three-quarters (77%) of people experience stress that impacts their physical health
  • 73% of people experience stress that impacts their mental health

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, communicate and aid people that are experiencing stress.

Do 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.

Do 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

Not feeling that you're understood and supported by your employer or manager can be a major source of stress. People 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.

Do say: It's completely understandable you feel this way

Going further than the previous step, it's important to acknowledge that work-related 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 work-related 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.

Do: Respect an employee's time away from work

Respecting an employee's time off work is crucial in supporting their overall well-being, especially if they're experiencing stress. By providing adequate time for employees to detach from their work environment, employers can help them recharge and maintain a healthy work-life balance. Encouraging regular breaks throughout the day is also essential in preventing burnout and promoting productivity.

When employees are given the opportunity to take time off, they can focus on their mental and physical health and personal relationships, which are all vital components of managing stress. Regular breaks during the workday allow employees to briefly step away from their tasks, reduce mental fatigue, and return to work with a clearer mind.

Additionally, respecting an employee's time off work sends a powerful message that the organization values their wellbeing and understands the importance of self-care. This can strengthen the employer-employee relationship and foster a supportive work culture where employees feel comfortable discussing their needs and seeking assistance when necessary.

Do: Match stressed employees with colleagues and coworkers

Matching employees with colleagues and coworkers who can provide support and guidance is a valuable strategy for combating the signs of stress and mitigating its negative consequences. By fostering strong interpersonal relationships within the workplace, organizations can create a culture that prioritizes employee wellness and encourages open communication about stress-related concerns.

When employees are paired with colleagues who are experienced in recognizing the signs of stress, they can be more proactive in addressing these issues before they escalate. Early detection of physical symptoms such as fatigue, headaches and muscle tension can help employees take the necessary steps to manage their stress levels and maintain optimal health. Furthermore, colleagues who have experienced similar stressful situations can offer valuable coping strategies and provide empathetic support during challenging times.

In addition to addressing the physical symptoms of stress, matching employees with coworkers who can offer emotional support can significantly improve overall mental wellbeing. By fostering a sense of camaraderie and belonging within the workplace, employees are more likely to feel comfortable discussing their stressors and seeking guidance from their peers. This open dialogue can lead to enhanced problem-solving skills, improved teamwork and a greater understanding of the various stressors that employees face on a daily basis.

Don't: Fail to recognize their hard work

One factor that can contribute to unnecessary stress is the lack of recognition for their hard work and dedication. When employers and managers fail to acknowledge and appreciate the efforts of their employees, it can have a detrimental impact on their ability to cope with work-related stress.

Recognition is an essential component of a healthy work environment, as it helps employees feel valued and motivated. When employees feel their hard work isn't being acknowledged, it can lead to increased levels of stress and a decline in their overall job satisfaction. This lack of support from management can exacerbate any existing stressors they may be experiencing, causing employees to feel overwhelmed and unable to effectively manage their workload.

Furthermore, when employees do not receive recognition for their hard work, they may feel a sense of isolation and a lack of connection with their organization. This can result in feelings of disengagement and a decrease in loyalty to the company, which may further intensify their stress levels.

In order to effectively support employees who are experiencing work-related stress, employers must prioritize recognizing the hard work and dedication of their team members. By doing so, they can help alleviate unnecessary stress and create a more positive work environment.

Do: Avoid booking in too many meetings

Reducing the number of work meetings can help employees maintain a healthy work-life balance. By attending fewer meetings, employees can allocate more time to fulfilling their personal commitments and interests, which ultimately contributes to lower stress levels. Furthermore, employees who have more control over their schedules tend to be more engaged and productive.

Another advantage of cutting down on work meetings is that it encourages more efficient and meaningful communication among team members. Instead of relying on numerous meetings to disseminate information and make decisions, teams can adopt alternative communication channels such as email or instant messaging platforms. This approach not only reduces the time spent in meetings but also allows employees to process information at their own pace, decreasing the likelihood of feeling overwhelmed or stressed.

In cases where meetings are necessary, organizations can opt for one-on-one meetings instead of large group gatherings. One-on-one meetings provide a more personal and relaxed setting for employees to discuss work-related stress, concerns or challenges, allowing for better understanding and support from their managers or colleagues.

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