In times of enduring uncertainty, managers can be the greatest ally to their team’s mental health – or one of their greatest stressors. Often, the difference is a leader’s ability to manage their own stress. While managers are typically focused on results, they must prioritize their own wellbeing to support their team’s mental health and performance when the stakes are highest.
April is Stress Awareness Month and it’s more relevant this year than ever. Amid recession fears and stubborn inflation, workplace stress reached an all-time high in 2022, a Gallup State of the Global Workplace report found. More broadly, around three quarters of American adults said they have experienced health impacts due to stress in a 2022 study conducted by the American Psychiatric Association, including headaches, fatigue, anxiety, and depression.
Managers are at the center of the storm. As they navigate their teams through the challenges of the past few years, their mental health has suffered. The impacts go all the way to the top. A Deloitte study found that one third of executives are constantly struggling with fatigue, stress, and feelings of being overwhelmed, lonely, or depressed. The result, record numbers of CEO resignations .
The stress felt by managers can cascade to employees, impacting wellbeing, retention, and performance. Harvard Business Review finds managers can trigger anxiety in their employers through unusual or erratic actions, emotional volatility, excessive pessimism, and ignoring people’s emotions. Managers that withdraw or are more “hot-headed” have teams that are 62% more likely to leave their jobs and 56% more likely to stop participating.
These statistics show that stress management is actually a key leadership skill. Managers who do it effectively can see improved relationships with their team, better conflict resolution, and enhanced project management skills. When managers reduce their team’s stress, they can raise morale, deepen focus, increase productivity, reduce injuries and sick days, and improve physical health by lowering blood pressure and strengthening the immune system.
Granted, managers have many demands on their time, but taking simple steps to manage stress can have wide reaching benefits. A few ideas include:
- Pay attention to the physical warning signs of stress: This can include aches and pains, chest pain, exhaustion or trouble sleeping, high blood pressure, muscle tension or jaw clenching, stomach problems.
- Strengthen support networks: Social and emotional support from friends, family, neighbors, and other groups can increase one’s ability to cope with stressful situations. Support can also include seeking professional help from psychologists and other mental health professionals.
- Combat stigma by becoming an advocate: Opening up about one’s own personal experiences with mental health challenges can have a huge impact on destigmatizing mental health in the workplace. It shows employees that it’s OK not to be OK.
- Take care of physical health: Staying physically healthy can improve emotional well-being. Eating healthy, getting enough sleep, and exercising are all important ways to cope and combat stress.
- Exercise emotional self-awareness, then respond: Understanding the sources of frustration and anxiety is important to recognize before taking the appropriate steps to respond. Identifying emotions, then appraising a situation, can help target a specific response.
Support to help manage stress in the workplace is abundant. Consider expert organizations such as the American Institute of Stress and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and other resources such as the Mental Health checklist for supervisors and the CDC Workplace Health Promotion resource list.
Stress in the workplace is unavoidable. But how leaders manage stress will play a critical part in determining the mental health of their teams. Managers who enact strategies to reduce their own stress will be better equipped not just to lead, but to be the greatest advocate for employee mental health and wellbeing.