Workplace stress: How to manage it

As the UK starts Mental Health Awareness Week, Hedda Bird offers some practical advice to managers on recognising and handling stress

Are you feeling stressed? Is that a problem?  

We know that stress is part of daily life. Indeed, if we had zero stress in our lives, we might fail to get up in the morning. Feeling some kind of stress or pressure is what makes us active, it is normal.

We are also used to some weeks that feel relentless, as if they will never end, and others where we feel we are making good progress. In other words, stress is an everyday part of life, and we are all accustomed to our stress levels varying through the day, the week and the month.  

So, there is a huge temptation for managers to ignore complaints about stress on the basis that everyone is stressed at times, and stress is normal. Unfortunately, that is not an appropriate response in a workplace situation, and managers need to respond in a more structured manner. Stress becomes a problem when it increases to a level such that rather than be a useful driver of activity, it becomes over-whelming and begins to stop us functioning as well as we might.  

When a colleague comes to you talking about feeling stressed you need to stop and listen. Sometimes that will be enough

Here are some key steps you might follow if a colleague expresses concern about their levels of stress, or you notice that they seem much more stressed than usual leading to performance problems.

First and foremost, when a colleague comes to you talking about feeling stressed you need to stop and listen. Sometimes that will be enough. Your colleague may simply need to be heard. Managers can worry about having this sort of conversation, feeling that they may hear things that they don’t know how to deal with. Remember, in this first meeting, the only requirement is to listen, and do your best to understand.  

Explore the full situation
One of the main drivers of excess stress is multiple challenges coming together at the same time. You may not be able to alleviate all the stresses your colleague is facing, but you need to get the full picture before working with them to try to manage the situation. Very simple questions such as ‘tell me more about that’ or ‘anything else?’ or ‘what impact is that having?’ will help your colleague to think through the situation they are facing.

Relieve immediate pressure
If appropriate, you may be able to relieve some immediate pressure on your colleague, while you both think through the longer-term situation. If you can do something, from take away a particular piece of work to giving them some time off, that will help straight away, then that can be a useful start. It will communicate to your colleague that you take their concerns seriously and want to help. Note that people who are very stressed will often reject short term help as ‘not really changing anything’. You might want to explore this carefully: yes, if they have the rest of the week off, they will still face the same work challenges next Monday. But they will hopefully be less tired and have had some time to think about other challenges facing them. If your colleague rejects offers of help, it maybe because they are frightened of appearing to fail at their job which would create more stress. Again, reassure them you are on their side. Alternatively, it might be that you have not really discovered the true causes of the stress, and the help you are offering doesn’t seem relevant.   

Long- or short-term issue
When you have explored the situation, and maybe offered some immediate help, you need to think about the longer-term challenges. Is your colleague dealing with a stressful situation that is unlikely to resolve anytime soon, or is it about hanging on for a period until the situation will change? Remember that your perspective on what might relieve the pressure may not be the same as theirs.  You might feel tempted to say something like ‘we all feel like that at times, it will pass’. Be wary, just because you dealt with stress in a particular way does not mean others will.  

Agree with your colleague what the future looks like from their perspective, even if they are particularly pessimistic at the moment. 
If the challenges seem to be genuinely short term, then providing you do what you can to support your colleague and help them manage their stress you will have done a good job. You may need to make some short-term changes to how they work and what they are expected to deliver. Be sure to agree review dates for any changes and set expectations that they will be able to return to more usual patterns of work in future.

If your colleague is dealing with situations that look like they are going to be a long-term cause of too much stress, you may need to have a different conversation. Perhaps they need an extended period of time off sick. Statutory sick pay is less than most people earn, so unless your employer offers better sick pay terms, being off on long-term sick pay might cause financial stress in addition to other challenges your colleague is facing.  Make sure they understand any financial implications of the choices they are facing.

Your colleague may be dealing with a situation that means they cannot really do their job for the foreseeable future. In such a situation, it is far better to have an honest conversation about what that means, rather than endlessly pressure your colleague into trying to return to work. If they are ill enough to be signed off work by their doctor, then this is no different to being signed off for any other illness.  
Thankfully, most people who suffer from stress severe enough to take time off work, do recover.  Just as they do from other illnesses.  Keep this is mind when you are talking to your colleague, and you should be able to support them appropriately.

Hedda Bird, CEO of 3C Performance Management Specialists and author of The Performance Management Playbook: 15 must-have conversations to motivate and manage your people


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