Leaders are responsible for motivating their teams. While every leader wants to be surrounded by go-getters, nobody will care about a company like its head honcho does. Executives highlight how employees will benefit from the company's success, and they try to make their enthusiasm for the company infectious.
Unfortunately, other leader attitudes are also contagious. A 2017 Mental Health America and the Faas Foundation survey revealed that most employees aren't happy at work -- and 71 percent want to leave their jobs. Besides a lack of recognition, they cited stress as the biggest factor behind their unhappiness.
That hurts employers, too-- significant stress results in decreased productivity and increased absenteeism. Research from Harvard and Stanford universities indicates it can get worse: Overwhelming workloads and unreasonable demands from employers are two reasons more than 120,000 workplace deaths occur each year.
So how can you as a leader stop fueling employees' stress and stop letting them absorb their own? Here, four easy ways:
1. Distinguish what's 'normal' from what's not.
While we used to consider 40-hour work weeks the norm, the average workweek is now 47 hours. We've added nearly a full day. While technology has streamlined and automated tasks, we keep finding new ones to replace them.
That means we've bumped up our expectations of "normal" to include expanded workloads and additional responsibilities. What used to seem like high stress now seems typical, but that's not necessarily a good thing.
James Lenhoff, a certified financial planner and the author of Living a Rich Life, says the problem is that stress incrementally creeps up; "normal" is 60 hours, then 65, then 75. "And when leaders shift their normal," he explained to me, "everyone else's normal is expected to shift with them. If a leader works 65 hours per week, his team's not going to leave because they're afraid he'll think less of them. And once the whole team shifts that way, it's hard to give up that ground because it costs you something."
That's how companies end up asking an employee to take on the work of three people "temporarily" and never find the other two-- it's clearly possible for one person to do it all. Whether it's sustainable is another question.
2. Be careful of the signals you send as a leader.
By ratcheting up their own capacity to work or absorb stress, leaders send silent signals that they expect employees to do the same. "Do as I say, not as I do" doesn't work: Smart employees know leaders want to promote and empower people who act like them.
3. Embrace limitations.
Lenhoff told me that it's good to remember that once you-- or your employees-- do something, a precedent has been set. If an expectation can't be met over the long haul, it's best to call that out early or avoid setting the expectation altogether.
If you're asking an employee to work late, make it clear it's an isolated request. If a client's asking for special arrangements, ask questions to determine why. Is it reasonable? Are you afraid the client will take a mile if you give an inch? Think about how this special treatment will impact your team, and respond accordingly.
One of the businesses I started was seasonal; some weeks demanded more than 50 hours of work. My team appreciated the heads-up when those periods were approaching-- and the flexibility I could offer when they weren't.
4. Develop a solid routine.
Part of getting stressed-- and leaking it on the people around us-- has to do with how we begin and end our days. If we check email first thing and wrap up our evenings by the glow of the smartphone, we're never letting ourselves come down from workday stress.
Instead, create margins by preparing for what's to come. Get up earlier than the rest of your family to think or read in silence. Start a gratitude journal. Go on walks to start your day with some literal fresh air. When the day's over, do the same thing: Turn off your notifications. Give yourself permission to experience something beyond work.
I didn't start with a morning routine. After years of going at it hard, I embraced meditation and journaling to stay grounded through high stress.
Leaders embrace motivating their teams, but they can't delude themselves that their bad behaviors don't have equal influence. By decreasing your own stress and keeping your expectations realistic, you can help employees see their jobs as fulfilling-- not stress-inducing.