Scientist and best-selling author Hans Selye wrote: "Stress is not necessarily bad for you; it is also the spice of life." A certain amount of stress is actually a good motivator. Without stress about deadlines, we would probably procrastinate. Without the stress of maintaining client relationships, we might say everything that was on our minds -- without a filter. And without the stress of achieving agreed-upon metrics, we would probably accomplish way less.
But too much stress is unhealthy. When employees are stressed, they can be distracted, unfocused, and miss deadlines. They can have challenges collaborating and communicating with colleagues and clients, and they can engage in unhealthy behaviors that further undermine their productivity. And all of that can undermine yours.
So, if you're managing an employee who is experiencing stress, how should you accommodate their needs while still meeting your own work objectives?
Here are three overarching guidelines:
1. If your employee has a diagnosed mental health disorder, they are likely legally entitled to specific workplace accommodations. These vary by country, company size, and a number of other factors, so reach out to your human resources department to learn more.
2. Make it safe for your employee to let you know if their stress is impacting their own work quality, speed, accuracy, or any other variable. This means responding with some version of "Thank you for telling me. Let's figure this out together" rather than "I'm sorry, but not getting this project done on time just isn't an option." Your reaction shouldn't be an additional source of stress for your employee.
3. It's clear that your employee's work impacts your work -- and you'll likely need to let your own manager know what's going on. Have a conversation with your employee about what they're comfortable with you sharing with your own boss. This way you can make sure that you can get the direction and support you need. Perhaps frame it as, "In order for me to best support you right now, I'm going to need some information, direction, and advice from my manager. To do that, I'll need to share some of what's going on with you so that I can get support for both of us. Would that be OK? And if so, what are you comfortable with me sharing?" If they say yes, honor the agreement you made about what to disclose on their behalf.
And if they say no, you may need to let them know that this could limit your ability to help (not in a threatening or manipulative way, but in a matter-of-fact way) -- and ask them for their suggestions.
Once you've considered these guidelines, here are three tips for helping your team members manage their stress without putting your own productivity at risk:
1. Ask your employees what they need.
Invite them to reflect on and share what's contributing to their stress at work. And while you may not be able to accommodate every suggestion, let them know that you'll do your best to be flexible where you can. One question to ask is, "If time or money weren't concerns, what would help you feel less stressed?" Let's say someone responds with "I would be at a five-star resort in Hawaii for the next three months!" While they may not actually be able to do that, listen for underlying themes like "time off" or "working remotely" -- and see what you can accommodate.
2. Optimize your employees' time.
According to Frances Frei and Anne Morriss, the authors of Unleashed: The Unapologetic Leader's Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You, "Assume you don't know everything that's draining your team's time or all of the latest tools that could help. Remove any non-value-added work." When you raise the standard on what's considered truly important, you lower the risk of people feeling overwhelmed. They're also less likely to wonder whether what they're working on really has an impact.
And if the work truly feels important, use this as an opportunity to sharpen your delegation skills. Find someone on your team who would consider a task or project a learning opportunity, a challenge, a stretch, or even a vote of confidence.
3. Offer "boundary control."
Research from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign shows that those employees who have greater "boundary control" over their work and personal lives are better at creating a stress buffer. And you, as a manager, have a role in promoting an "always-on mentality" -- or giving people your encouragement, support, and explicit permission to turn work off.
Don't email your employees at night, on the weekend, or on vacation. Or if you do, tell them clearly and directly that you don't want or expect a response until they're officially back at work. Don't praise their co-workers for working incessantly -- it sends the wrong message. And consider modeling good boundary control for yourself. Turn your own phone and computer (and mind) off to show that, yes, you can be an effective, productive employee while still taking care of yourself.
Your employees' stress levels can and will impact your own. So, promote good habits and open communication to reduce the negative impact for them and for you.