Blog Post
April 2, 2020

Ways to support employees who may be overloaded or under stress

Overload and stress can take a toll on the workforce – whether personal or work-related – and can negatively impact morale, productivity, and engagement. Here's how you can manage stress for both yourself and the people you manage. 

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Supporting employees who may be overloaded or under stress is a vital part of every manager’s job. Job stress can be caused by numerous work-related factors, including workplace changes, overload, and communication problems as well as by personal issues, such as care giving and financial worries, difficulty with a child, or a family illness. In one recent report from the Harvard School of Public Health, 43% of workers said their job increased their overall stress level and 27% reported a negative impact on their sleep. Whatever the cause, overload and stress can take a toll on people and organizations and have a negative effect on morale, productivity, and engagement.

Overload and stress can also result in higher rates of absenteeism, decreased productivity, workplace accidents, and mistakes, so it’s important to watch for signs of stress and overload in both yourself and the people you manage. This will help you to respond appropriately:

Manage your own stress

Managing your own stress is the first step toward supporting employees. If you’re not aware of your own stress level, you may unintentionally impose your stress on those around you. Watch for signs of stress in yourself. Then develop a plan for managing symptoms of stress you may be experiencing.

The signs of stress include:

  • Sleep problems
  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Feeling nervous, anxious, irritable, or on edge
  • Trouble concentrating, focusing, or making decisions
  • Overeating or having no appetite
  • Withdrawing from family or friends
  • Tearfulness or frequent crying
  • Tense muscles, shakiness, or trembling
  • Stomach pain, upset stomach, or headache
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Lower productivity at work

Here are ways to manage your stress

Know how many hours you are working. Set a limit for how many hours you will work each day and then stick to it. If this is not always possible, be intentional about how you will carve out time to balance out the workweek or how you’ll spend your time outside of work more meaningfully.

Make exercise a regular part of your life. You can ease stress through activities as simple as going for a 30-minute walk three to five times per week. Find other ways to get regular exercise, too.

Learn a few relaxation techniques. Try deep breathing, yoga, or meditation. Using relaxation techniques regularly, even if only for a few minutes once or twice a day, can reduce stress all day long. If these techniques are not for you, think back to a time when you felt stressed and spend some time reflecting on how you managed to decrease that feeling. You may want to apply those behaviours and thoughts to the stress you are presently experiencing. You might also look at a book such as Declutter Your Mind: How to Stop Worrying, Relieve Anxiety, and Eliminate Negative Thinking by S. J. Scott and Barry Davenport or The Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson, MD.

Set aside time each day for an activity that you enjoy. This will help you take a step back and gain a fresh perspective on any stress and pressure you’re experiencing. Talk with a trusted mentor or colleague. Even if you are an experienced manager, you may have sources of stress that are too big or complex to handle on your own. You’ll benefit from getting a different perspective from someone you respect.

Take advantage of the programs and benefits your employer offers to help you reduce stress. The program that provided this publication offers many resources to help reduce stress. Contact your health care provider if you are having trouble managing your stress.Talk with your health care provider if you are concerned about any aspect of your physical or mental health.

Causes of stress in the workplace

Employees may be under stress for some of the same reasons that you are, such as a workplace change that is affecting everyone. Or they may have their own concerns. Some common causes of job stress include:

  • Interpersonal conflict
  • Tasks that waste time and effort, interfering with the ability to do productive work
  • Lack of control at work
  • Roles or responsibilities that aren’t clearly defined
  • Unreasonable deadlines
  • Poor communication
  • Information overload from email, phone calls, texts, social media, and other sources
  • Lack of training, technology, or other resources needed to do the work
  • Workplace changes, such as relocation, layoffs, turnover, job insecurity, new systems, or schedule changes
  • Too much work

Ways to help employees manage feelings of stress and overload

Be supportive in your interactions with employees. Ask how people are doing. Encourage questions and conversation at individual and team meetings. Make a point of asking frequently how you can help. When an employee identifies an area of stress, be sure to follow up with them so that they feel genuine support versus an empty gesture.

Help people prioritize their work. Perhaps assignments with a lower priority could be eliminated to allow employees to focus on the most value-added work. Perhaps a tight deadline could be extended. Maybe other resources or newer technology would help an employee achieve needed results. Encourage people to talk with you if they have questions about deadlines or how to prioritize tasks.

Be sure that roles and expectations are clear. Lack of information or uncertainty about roles, goals, duties, or responsibilities is often a source of stress in the workplace. Offer consistent feedback after the initial expectations have been set so that employees know how they are doing.

Try to create solutions to manage your employees’ job demands and reduce their stress. Help employees find ways to minimize interruptions at work. Encourage people to set aside some private time and project time during the day to minimize interruptions. Lead by example and do the same yourself. Enable and encourage employees to find private work spaces to get away from interruptions if that’s helpful for them.

Find out if people have enough time to complete their tasks. Give employees deadlines when you assign tasks, and schedule times to check in for updates.

Make sure people have the resources and support they need to do their work. Research shows that employees who feel adequately supported by the organization feel less overworked and are more willing to give extra effort. Do your employees have adequate direction and support from you on projects and tasks? Do they know where to go for additional support? Have employees received adequate training to provide them with the skills they need to accomplish their work? Is there a solid technology team readily available and responsive to their needs?

Identify jobs or tasks where stress is a problem and look for ways to ease it. For example, if an employee is falling behind with a project because of lack of cooperation from another department, you or your manager may need to intervene and get the cooperation the employee needs.

Work with employees to create a work schedule that offers them the flexibility needed to meet personal responsibilities. If they talk openly about it, take note of employees’ commitments and priorities outside work. Offer whatever scheduling adjustments you can as long as they don’t interfere with department effectiveness or create inequities for other employees.

Understand your organization’s flexible-work and time-off policies. Know where to get answers to questions about flexible work hours, virtual or part-time work, telecommuting or working from home, and other alternative work arrangements.

Include employees in planning, scheduling deadlines, and organizing how they do their work as much as possible. Transparency and collaboration are key. Give employees the support and training they need to handle difficult customers and co-workers. If the interpersonal issues between co-workers extends beyond the support a manager can offer, refer them to the employee assistance program (EAP) for coaching or counselling on how to resolve the issue.

Reduce low-value work. Research cited recently in the Harvard Business Review found that some workers spend much of their time — an average of 41% — on “discretionary activities” that could be handled competently by others.

Consider simple adjustments that might make an employee’s work easier or less stressful. For example, if an employee struggles with a particular task that could easily be shifted to another employee and exchanged for another task, a significant reduction in stress for everyone can be achieved and will probably result in better performance as well. Different employees have different skill sets, and leveraging them will help everyone to feel successful — success breeds success.

Encourage employees to take short breaks at work to reduce stress and protect their health. Even a 10-minute break from a stressful or tense situation — to get a few minutes of fresh air or to practice deep-breathing or relaxation techniques — helps. One study found that a small amount of time — even less than one minute — spent looking at nature improves performance upon returning to the work task.

Take a break as a group. Stress is another indication that your department might need to take a break as a group. Plan activities that are not connected to work performance. Ask members of your group for their ideas for team activities. Don’t forget to consider your virtual team members; there are lots of team-building activities that can be inclusive of everyone.

Be aware of how many hours people are working. If someone’s hours seem particularly long, step in and encourage the employee to take necessary time off. Are people taking their vacation time? You don’t want conscientious people to burn themselves out and become less productive.

Help employees succeed. Stress is often the result of feeling that you aren’t doing a good enough job or aren’t completing the work that’s expected of you. Training, coaching, and adequate supervision are three ways you can help people succeed.

Set a positive example. Be aware of the signals you send with your work schedule and work habits. When you take time for personal needs, don’t hide it from employees. It helps to show them how you balance work and personal life.

Offering support to employees

Personal concerns may also be the cause of or contribute to stress at work. These concerns may include a family illness, legal or financial difficulties, or other issues. The signs of stress are listed in the first section of this article.

It’s important to offer support if an employee shows ongoing signs of stress.

  • Know when and how to refer an employee to the EAP. Remind employees that the EAP is free and confidential. Contact your EAP or human resources (HR) representative on how to make a referral.
  • Continue to support an employee who is going through a difficult or stressful time. Provide support without being intrusive.

Make your employees feel valued. Take the time to listen to what’s going on with employees. And remember the value of saying “thank you.” You can express gratitude in many ways — in individual or group emails, in a departmental newsletter, and, of course, in person.

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