Employers can help to address stress

Rebecca Weitzel

The year 2020 might hold the record for spawning the greatest number of articles suggesting ways to build resilience. “Meditate,” the articles advise. “Think positive.” “Practice self-compassion.” “Just breathe.”

No one could argue that’s solid advice. Resilience — the ability to bounce back from challenges — is a skill we can practice, polish and benefit from. I recently added a dose of meditation to my routine and can attest it helps me maintain my center of gravity.

As we zoom in closer, though, we can see these bits of advice share one thing in common:  They place the burden of overcoming stressful situations solely on the shoulders of individuals. As a result, they fail to recognize the significant role our environment plays in creating stressful situations in the first place. This is especially true in the workplace.

Imagine your workplace has a faulty indoor sprinkler system that randomly kicks on and soaks everyone without warning. To address the problem, you can provide each team member with a plastic poncho, develop a training on advanced toweling-off skills and share weekly tips for recognizing the early signs of sprinkler malfunction. Or you can just fix the sprinkler system.

We face similar choices when it comes to preventing burnout in the workplace. Although virtual yoga classes, employee assistance programs, motivational memes and guidance for recognizing burnout are worthy initiatives, they’re not sufficient. We also must address the proverbial sprinkler malfunctions that contribute to unnecessary or unreasonable levels of stress. If we don’t, people will burn out. If people burn out, the well-being of teams, customers and businesses are in jeopardy.

The American Psychological Association offers a few areas to investigate with its list of common workplace stressors:

Low salaries. Even without the strain of a pandemic, financial concerns burden team members. It’s important to evaluate if we justly compensate team members for the value they bring to our organizations. Analyze local wages to ensure those we offer are at or above market. During the pandemic, we can include hazard pay to recognize the additional risks essential workers assume.

Excessive workloads. Requiring individuals to take on increasingly more work is unsustainable. When the pandemic hit, many organizations benefited from the initial adrenaline rush inspired by mission-driven teamwork that enabled employees to lift staggering loads. Months later, workers are depleted. We must find ways to return to reasonable workloads by re-examining priorities, simplifying tasks, managing expectations and hiring temporary workers where possible.

Few opportunities for growth or advancement. According to Clayton Alderfer’s ERG theory of motivation, humans have three basic needs: existence (E), relatedness (R) and growth (G). Rather than occupying a spot on a hierarchy, these three needs remain present in varying degrees. This means the need for growth doesn’t vanish when we’re in survival mode. For some team members, growth becomes even more important to their well-being during stressful times. We must continue to offer development opportunities if we hope to retain top talent. Consider paying for online courses, taking turns leading 10-minute learning sessions on various topics during team meetings or setting up mentorships among team members.

Lack of social support. If your workplace went remote, such traditional means of offering support as a smile in the hallway or a quick “Hey, everything okay?” must be replaced with such practices as weekly virtual check-ins, direct offers of support and casual virtual get-togethers. Consider varying the ways in which you interact with remote staff to avoid video conference fatigue. Try traditional phone calls, socially distant walk-and-talks and handwritten notes to foster connection.

Unclear performance expectations. Humans crave clarity. Even in the best of times, many organizations struggle with clearly defining expectations so every individual knows what they’re accountable for and what success looks like. Now, our workplaces are prone to competing demands as we work to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. As leaders, we must take the time to evaluate priorities and reconstruct scorecards so team members feel confident they know what’s expected and can enjoy a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that rapid change is possible. Let’s apply that lesson to fixing the systems, policies and practices that increase stress and undermine individual and organizational performance. Let’s do it as though the future depends on it. Because it does.