With unprecedented stress levels wreaking havoc on workers’ lives, from physical and mental burnout to the impact on clinical health, awareness without accompanying action just isn’t enough.
According to the American Psychological Association, 84% of U.S. adults are experiencing prolonged stress in 2021, and experts claim that “many employers aren’t willing to engage with the interior lives of their workers.” The most important thing we as leaders can do is guide them to the other side of overwhelm, where they feel empowered to manage their day-to-day stressors before they become insurmountable obstacles to health and productivity.
Recommit To Supporting Employees’ Mental Health
As we turn the corner into a post-pandemic reality, we must up the ante with mental health support to address the new challenges that will emerge with the physical return to work. A recent American Psychological Association study found that half of Americans (49%) feel uneasy about adjusting to in-person interaction once the pandemic ends, and this sentiment is as common in those who have received a Covid-19 vaccine as those who haven’t.
The “what-ifs” involved in returning to some kind of “normal” are at least as stressful as those we grappled with a year ago when confronted with lockdowns. Many employees have adapted and even come to prefer the more flexible work-from-home dynamics. Heading back into the office means dealing with long commutes, rearranging childcare, school drop-off and pick-up logistics, plus the continued apprehension around Covid-19.
Being “on the lookout” for stress to manifest in the workplace isn’t going to give employees the permission and resources to manage the stress they’re already experiencing. Here are steps you can take to elevate your company’s stress conversation beyond awareness and into action.
1. Bring multifaceted stress awareness — and an action plan — to leadership.
Leaders need to agree that stress is real, problematic and supportable on an organizational level. Your employees are watching their managers and executive staff for cues that it’s OK to struggle with some degree of stress in their lives. If they’re getting the message to “grin and bear it” or are not given the time and understanding required for self-care, even a simple stress awareness initiative will fall flat. Unfortunately, so will any sense of feeling cared-for or sense of trust in the company’s ability to support them meaningfully moving forward.
As Ryan Picarella, former president of WELCOA, expresses so astutely in my book, It’s Personal: The Business Case for Caring, “Stress in organizations that don’t care about their employees goes up substantially. Depending on the type of job, employees are more accident-prone, and more days of work are going to be missed.”
Once leaders are on the same page, they can embrace efforts to help employees manage their mental health and can truly lead by example. Encourage managers to talk openly with employees about the unique stress of getting kids online for school in the morning, being unable to gather freely with friends and family or planning to return to the office.
2. Treat the whole person for 360 degrees of well-being.
Stress impacts people’s minds and bodies and affects everyone differently. It’s possible to feel the impact of stress on sleep, mood, nutrition and physical activity. Treating the array of symptoms that result from stress is a moving target, which is why casting a wide net with your workforce well-being resources is paramount.
Stress affects executive function as well as various brain systems. Some employees will need help prioritizing and managing their daily schedules, while others will be desperate for effective ways to reduce cortisol levels so they can relax and sleep better. One of my employees can’t begin his workday until he’s had a workout, while another can’t even think about focusing until her kids are settled into their remote schooling routine and she has some degree of quiet. I’ve had to make sure that everyone on the team feels like their personal needs are covered. It’s only at that point that I can expect them to bring their whole selves to work, and they do.
Accommodations are part of today’s workplace, and they’ll continue to be. They’re highly effective at minimizing stress, if not eliminating it in certain areas. Some organizations are adopting four-day workweeks or six-hour workdays, offering backup childcare or assistance with household chores. Check in with your employees about where they need support, but I assure you that at least one area of their lives — and at least one area of their well-being — is calling out for something.
3. Pay special attention to at-risk employees.
It helps to bring awareness — and action — to the people in your workforce who are at particular risk for mental health problems and/or burnout. This includes:
• Remote workers: Employees who work from home are isolated from co-workers and simultaneously dealing with back-to-back video conferences and family members scampering about. They’re experiencing more burnout than their on-site counterparts, indicating they need more flexible support.
• Younger employees: Our 2021 “Working Americans’ State of Stress” research found that workers aged 18-29 report higher levels of stress than older workers. This makes sense, as they haven’t built up resilience to change or the support systems needed for trying times.
Stress affects us all at times, and right now it’s hitting us from every direction. So get the conversation going about stress and how you can better care for employees’ mental and emotional well-being. Make a powerful statement by moving beyond awareness and into the action your employees need.