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Employee stress affects productivity. Here’s how the experts handle it

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Employee stress affects productivity. Here’s how the experts handle it

Most U.S. employees are stressed, and it’s wrecking their work performance, personal relationships, and mental health.

To cultivate a more positive work environment, organizations need more than just an investment into the company wellness program.

The reality is this: Managers and employees are both stressed. And when managers stress at work, they “spread their stress” throughout their teams, according to the Gallup book, “It’s the Manager.” It’s so bad that 51% of Millennial and Gen Z employees have quit jobs because of a bad manager, according to Udemy’s 2018 Employee Experience Report.

And it is managers, not employees, who have the power to affect cultural changes in the company. In learning how to handle your own stress as a manager, you can apply those principles to your employees. We look at some of the ways high-performing business leaders handle stress—and how you can use their techniques to build a healthier environment for employees.

Identify your own workplace stressors

Evaluate your work life and identify the situations, interactions, and people that trigger your stress response. Anne Grady, author and keynote speaker, in the Harvard Business Review recommends using these phrases to recognize causes of stress: “I get irritated when I come to work and X.” “At work, I wish people would X.”

Roli Saxena, who ran sales, strategic partnerships, and operations at single sign-on company Clever, zeroed in on the source of job stress: “It’s not just having too much to do, it’s having committed to doing more than you know you have time for. It’s committing to things you know at the time you won’t be able to get to, but another voice in your head says, ‘I’ll make it work somehow.’”

Saxena realized that in many cases, it was challenging to spot causes of workplace stress in real-time. You might only become aware of the problem once you experience negative effects on your work performance. When you feel stressed at work, your brain produces high levels of the stress hormone cortisol. In addition to long-term health problems, sustained increased cortisol levels make you feel anxious and forgetful. That’s why it’s essential to spot your stress triggers.

How to identify causes of employees’ stress

Use the same method you applied to identify your workplace stressors to help employees recognize stressful situations. Get to the root cause of stress by assessing a team member’s workload or personal circumstances.

Todd McKinnon, CEO of Okta, discovered employees were working longer hours and over weekends during the pandemic, so he lowered the workload: “If you really want to take the pressure off the team, you have (to) adjust the workload.” Heavy workload is a source of stress for the North American workforce, according to Statista.

Be empathetic about challenges outside of work, like the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on team members’ well-being. An American Psychological Association (APA) survey found the pandemic was a source of stress for most Americans, with parents and people of color experiencing higher stress levels. You can also prevent employee burnout by being aware of the outward signs of stress, like employee absenteeism.

Take control of your stress triggers

Once you become aware of the trigger, take control of work-related stress instead of letting it control you.

When confronted with an obstacle, Lessonly CEO Max Yoder looks at the actions he can take to deal with the situation: “What parts of the situation I can control—namely, the steps I take to heal myself. My healing influences the ways I react to and support others.”

And there’s an element of Yoder’s approach that’s backed by research. According to the International Journal of Psychological Research, there are three key strategies for dealing with stress at work: withdrawal, acceptance, and change. Of these, change involved the locus of control, an individual’s perception over how much their behavior could influence the things that happen to them.

To manage stress at work, determine what aspects of the situation you can control. Perhaps you can reduce unnecessary meetings. Maybe you can eliminate constant last-minute deadlines, so you’re able to support a better work-life balance.

How to support employees in controlling their stress

Applying this principle to employee stress gives team members more control over how they deal with sources of stress.


Involve team members in employee stress management solutions. One example might be flexibility. Give them the option to choose between the office, remote work, or a hybrid arrangement. Encouraging employees to participate in this process may even improve their broader decision-making skills.

Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychologist, in “Smarter Faster Better” said: “[I]f you put people in situations where they can practice feeling in control, where that internal locus of control is reawakened, then people can start building habits that make them feel like they’re in charge of their own lives—and the more they feel that way, the more they really are in control of themselves.”

Defend your recovery time

Find activities that allow you to recharge outside of work and protect that recovery time diligently.

Daniel Ek, CEO of Spotify, looks for sources of positive energy: “[M]ake sure that if you have a few things that you know will take energy from you, balance it out by adding a few things that will add energy to your life. And try to find those things that constantly do that.”

According to Frontiers in Psychology, a leisure activity helps high-performers cope with the intense demands of their jobs.

Perhaps you feel refreshed after engaging in a creative outlet. Or, maybe defending your recovery time is a matter of getting enough sleep. According to researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, rest is critical for maintaining energy and reducing levels of stress. Whether it’s daily mindfulness sessions or regular weekends away, look for ways to reset—and don’t neglect those opportunities for stress reduction.

How to help your employees recover

When it comes to promoting wellness to team members, you have a dual role to play: leading by example and encouraging employees to unplug.

Ellyn Shook, chief leadership and human resources officer of Accenture, blocks out time for regular walks during the pandemic: “If you’re not comfortable practicing self-care, there’s no way you can be a leader in these times,” Shook said. “You really can’t. So I’m not shy about sharing those moments of self-care because I think they can help people grow.”

Discuss how you reset after a busy day or week. Share pictures of your time off. Avoid responding to work messages while you’re away and encourage employees to do the same.

You may even consider amending the paid time off (PTO) policy to include incentives. According to The Wall Street Journal, some employers add a bonus vacation day when workers book time off, while others pay team members to take a break.

Prioritize your important work

Ensure you optimize your time around the company’s most important priorities and delegate or cancel commitments that fall outside of that scope.

Scaling Retail CEO Syama Meagher said learning to prioritize and delegate helped to combat work stress: “Sometimes I think when I get emails or I get posed with problems and it can really spiral out into something uncontrollable, I have to pause and say, ‘How can I make this easy for myself? Do I really need to be the one to do it?’

A Workfront study found poor work prioritization was one of the productivity obstacles at U.S. companies.


Look at everything on your plate and determine what you need to prioritize based on your team’s strategic objectives. The activities that fill your workday should be clearly aligned with those goals.

How to empower employees to prioritize

To help employees to prioritize, share company objectives regularly so teams understand their core focus areas.

Bob Iger, former CEO of Disney, encouraged leaders to focus on—and share—priorities: “You have to convey your priorities clearly and repeatedly. In my experience, it’s what separates great managers from the rest.”

Help employees do a time audit to make sure their work schedules match professional goals. Agreeing on critical areas of work gives employees the confidence to manage their calendars independently. Empower team members to delegate where appropriate.

Manage workplace distractions

Manage digital distractions by setting ground rules for how you will engage with technology.

Niels Eék, co-founder of personal development app Remente, said in a CEO Today article: “In addition to stressful situations naturally occurring in most workplaces, today’s ‘always-on’ culture, brought about by increased connectivity, which means that many of us are under high levels of pressure around the clock.”

Researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of Washington Bothell found we experience more than 10 interruptions per day. For the most part, we see interruptions as part and parcel of modern work life.

Thrive Global CEO Arianna Huffington encouraged people to switch off their cellphones at night in this interview with Stanford School of Medicine Dean Lloyd Minor. According to this Reclaim.ai blog post, try tactics like going offline when you need to concentrate and batch checking email twice a day.

How to help your employees focus

Contribute to a company culture that doesn’t encourage employees to be chained to their email inbox or smartphone. This might mean setting expectations for longer rather than immediate response times and snoozing notifications during focus work sessions.

Brian Solis, principal analyst and futurist at Altimeter, writes in an article for MIT Sloan Management Review: “During staff meetings, those of us in leadership positions should make it standard practice to avoid looking at our emails, Slack messages, or anything else on our phones. When we chat with employees, we should not assume they’ve already seen nonurgent emails that we sent them in just the previous hour.”

Encourage teams to go offline if they need to get work done. Avoid practicing habits that set unhealthy precedents, like expecting instant replies to emails or messages.

Managers play a key role in easing employee stress

A stressed manager will likely lead to stressed-out employees. This is why stress management in the workplace must start at the top. Once you implement stress management techniques, you’ll begin to relieve your own tension and contribute to creating a calmer workplace: One that’s made up of happy, engaged employees who are empowered to deal with work—and personal—challenges.

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