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Stress test: Have you checked in with your team yet?

Mar 17, 2020

In times of uncertainty — whether because of a merger, a corporate change or world events — it’s a good idea to ask regularly: Do my employees seem stressed? If so, it’s worth checking deeper to see if you have a problem.

Of course, some amount of workplace stress is unavoidable. In a Wrike study, 94 percent of people said they experience stress at work. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The kind of stress that comes from meeting new challenges, which psychologists call eustress, can help people expand their skills and raise their income. It can even foster creativity.

But excessive or long-term stress can cause serious illnesses, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes, as well as depression and anxiety. That’s no good for your employees—or your company. Because unsurprisingly, excessive stress also affects work performance. A Colonial Life study found that 50 percent of employees lose one to five hours of work every week because of stress.

Gauging stress levels

So how can you tell whether your team’s workplace stress levels are normal or a problem that needs attention?

First, observe their behavior:

  • Are they experiencing issues with social isolation if they are in a remote work situation?
  • Are they fearing and worrying about their own health or that of their loved ones?
  • Have they been in less contact than usual?
  • Are they exhibiting more signs of sadness?
  • Do they seem nervous, sullen, or irritable?
  • Do they have trouble concentrating?
  • Have they stopped caring about their work?
  • Are they struggling with how to balance their work at home and caring for family members who may also be at home?

Keep in mind that working too much can also be a sign of stress. Are employees being asked to work remotely, take work home, skip lunch, work extra hours in absence of others? Are they becoming fidgety and inattentive at meetings? Is work substandard? Signs like this might indicate too much work-related pressure, which can lead to exhaustion, poor performance, and eventually, burnout and attrition.

Another gauge you can use is Stress-APGAR barometer, developed by experts to help executives learn whether their workplace has a stress problem. APGAR is widely used, in part because the acronym helps you remember what to look for. It shouldn’t take you long to memorize these signs:

A – Appearance: How does the person look? Overly tired? Is the person gaining or losing weight? Is there any indication of substance abuse?

P – Performance: Have team members become inefficient and distracted lately? Or are they working at a breakneck pace even without pressing deadlines? Has performance declined?

G – Growth tension: While stretch assignments and other challenges can be a source of healthy eustress, they may cause people to become overwhelmed. Conversely, others may give up and appear bored.

A – Affect control: “Affect” is a psychological term for observed emotion. How well does the person control his or her emotions at work? Crying, mood swings, or inappropriate reactions are a sign of trouble, particularly if they seem out-of-character compared to the way the person has behaved in the past.

R – Relationships: Is the team member having more trouble getting along with colleagues? Does the worker seem socially isolated and indifferent to others’ sorrows or joys? Too much stress can make people turn inward. They may be so worried about their own problems that they’re unable to put emotional energy into relationships—or into their work, causing a performance decline.

Dealing with stress

Here are some guidelines from the CDC on Managing Anxiety and Stress during this current situation:

Managers should talk privately with any worker who seems overly stressed. They might benefit from an employee assistance program, particularly if the idea is presented in a helpful, non-threatening way. Work with the employee to help them sort out if more time off or more breaks from work might be helpful.  Provide resources to help them when possible. 

If an entire team seems stressed, you need to find out what’s going on. Is the team leader making unreasonable demands, or are they difficult to get along with?

Maybe there are problems with the way work is organized, or with the technology the team is required to use, but no one feels comfortable speaking out.

These are problems that employees and managers need to acknowledge and resolve. Encourage managers to hold open discussions and get feedback about work procedures and obstacles to success. Then follow up to make sure solutions are implemented and track their effectiveness.

During times of heightened stress, it is important to have more lines of communication open with more frequent touchpoints.  Determine whether daily or weekly team calls may be helpful to keep teams in contact and address issues proactively and quickly. 

In response to the recent COVID-19 epidemic, the CDC also suggests making sure you focus on facts and not hype to help reduce stress. 

Whether excessive stress is work-related or personal, it puts a drag on productivity, affects personal health and dampers workplace culture. Learn to distinguish good stress from bad, and if there seems to be a problem, reach out to offer help. Both individuals and the organization as a whole will benefit.


Tina Nazier, MBA, CPC
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