How stress affects your business and what you can do to manage it

Research following earlier significant traumatic events, such as the Christchurch earthquakes and the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, provides the basis on which psychologists are expecting increased experiences of chronic stress and uncertainty.

Building employee resilience, providing wellness support initiatives, and adjusting managerial styles during this period are not tools exclusive to altruistic leaders with extra-time in their hands. In fact, research indicates the link between managing wellbeing and organisational outcomes including absenteeism, productivity, performance.

The following offers evidence-based recommendations to help you support your staff through challenging times. We address:


What happens when you and your staff exposed to work and life stressors?

  • Our bodies were designed to withstand short and infrequent exposure to highly stressful situations, with enough recovery time between episodes. However, prolonged exposure to a significant stressor does not allow the body enough recovery time, and after a while that takes a significant toll. An enduring stress response is signalled increased blood pressure and heart rate, muscle tension, gastro-intestinal problems, headaches, chest pain, fatigue, and exaggerated startle response. Over time and if the stressor is not eliminated or managed, there is increased risk of cardio-vascular problems, chronic pain, and other lingering conditions.

  •  Ongoing exposure to stressors cause significant cognitive and emotional depletion. Usual responses include difficulty concentrating on tasks, disorientation, persistent worry, difficulty regulating emotions (particularly negative emotions such as sadness and anger), and sleep disturbance.

  •  Irritability is one of the most common behavioural manifestations of stress and anxiety, which has clear implications for how we engage with others at home and at work. Other typical responses include withdrawing from others (avoiding communication) and substance abuse. 

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How might the stress induced the Covid-19 crisis affect your business? What are the costs of failing to address staff stress and wellbeing?

  •  When staff experience pain due to muscle tension, intrusive anxious thoughts, and difficulty focusing on tasks, they are more likely to make mistakes, be less engaged with their work, and become less productive
  • Difficulty concentrating, sleep deprivation, and other stress symptoms can lead to lapses of attention, and cause serious workplace accidents
  •  Stressed bodies and brains become self-protective. This self-focus impairs people’s ability to rationally evaluate situations and to take others’ perspectives into account. The result is growing conflict in the team
  •  Prolonged exposure to stress, without the resources to manage it, can lead to burnout. This is manifested in emotional exhaustion (not wanting to get out of bed to work), disaffection (lack of empathy and concern for co-workers and clients), and low sense of efficacy (feeling less competent, second-guessing one’s ability and contributions at work). We know that keeping an injured player in the field, we run the risk of a much longer recovery period or of causing permanent damage. Likewise, it is preferable to allow a highly stressed worker to recover than to force a swift return to work or remaining at work without the appropriate support systems.
  •  During uncertain times, when there are far more questions than answers, the tendency is to reduce anxiety and regain control filling in the existing information gaps. This can lead to the spread of misinformation. Misinformation is more likely in organisations where communications are heavily filtered, and when staff receive incomplete or contradictory information about the future of their jobs and of the organisation.

The wellbeing-performance connection

  • Wellbeing has been linked empirically to improved labour productivity (effort) and reduction in presenteeism (i.e., coming to work when unwell).
  • Supportive management approaches reduce burnout and its associated risks, which is particularly relevant to ongoing states of mental and physical fatigue.
  • A strong wellbeing strategy ensures that the organisation meets basic psychological needs that impact engagement, including sense of belonging, sense of purpose, sense of safety, and understanding of individual contributions to organisational success through communication and high involvement practices
  • Across industry groups, staff satisfaction and wellbeing are strongly related to customer loyalty. So, team wellbeing makes for great customer service.

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What can you do to manage staff stress and minimise its impact on the business?

Focus on wellbeing and engagement

Leading with Empathy

For a senior leader, business owner, or team supervisor, knowing how to support staff and colleagues through a crisis is essential to keeping the business going. Valuing staff and wellbeing focus are staples of resilient organisations. But it isn’t always easy to show vulnerability, seek support, or know how to offer it to those in need at work 

The period during and after the Covid-19 lockdown is similar to the aftermath of a major event impacting a community’s sense of security and safety: a mixed bag of challenges for most at one time or another, beyond the expected significant disruption and uncertainty. Financial insecurity, business failure and uncertainty, paying the mortgage, paying for food, paying our staff, worries about infection and return to whatever the new normal may be, home schooling, a bubble that we’re starting to tire of, frustration with lack of freedom of choice, putting off urgent needs … the list goes on. Sometimes it will build up and impact how we think, what we feel, how we react, and what we do – not always in the best way, and sometimes in a way that surprises us. When we’re used to being in control and being able to figure things out, manage what is going on, and get ahead, well, not feeling that way can get uncomfortable.

That feeling of losing grip is unsettling, and it may get a bit overwhelming sometimes, but it’s a normal human response. We become anxious when a situation that is out of our control really matters to us at a personal level. As business leaders, how we will come out on the other side of this crisis matters. 

It’s OK to feel vulnerable. Moreover, vulnerability is not a weakness, nor does it have to hold us back. To quote John Neal (1846), ‘Kites rise against, not with the wind.’ Rather, this feeling and the challenges that prompted it provide an opportunity to acknowledge, address, learn and improve.

In a resilient organisation, people feel free, and know how to, let others know when they’re struggling. As a leader, being able to convey vulnerability and support others in a vulnerable position has many benefits: 

  • It humanises us. If you’re in a leadership role or a position of influence, this could help build trust, as it gives leaders a real chance to show they give a stuff when it matters
  • It demonstrates that it’s normal to have a hard time. As a leader, here’s a great opportunity to model appropriate ways to express negative emotions at work and to seek support
  • It reassures your staff that they will be treated respectfully and given appropriate support when they express their concerns. Feeling ashamed, guilty, weak, or worried about how they will be treated during tough times only raises stress levels
  • It creates good habits around honest and open conversations at work, from personal conversations about wellbeing to performance feedback meetings
  • It can lead to early awareness of emerging problems at work and of staff needs due to more open communication and periodic check-ins

Key leadership principles for supporting staff who are having a hard time

  • Before you jump to problem-solving mode, take a moment and be aware that strong emotions and their impact need to be acknowledged ahead of developing solutions. Knowing that you acknowledge someone’s having a hard time is often what people are after. Sometimes, you’re not expected to fix the problem, only to sincerely recognize it.
  • You don’t need to have all the answers. Don’t worry if you don’t. It’s about working together, staying in touch, and working through it.
  • Follow up and stay in touch. Small moments of contact and checking in from time to time are easy to do and keep communication lines open.
  • Shift the focus to what people can do, what is in their control. The more people feel in control, that there’s a plan, that options exist, that an outcome is feasible, then the more likely they will respond positively and use their own initiative and time to move a matter forward.
  • There are a lot of services and resources out there. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your network and seek input, including specialist advice. As we work through post-Covid 19, new developments are yielding opportunities and information/advice that may not have been around a week earlier.
  • If you say you’re going to do something, do it. If you can’t, make sure you stay in touch. Information vacuums build doubt and uncertainty and they’re to be avoided.
  • Make sure that business systems, policies, targets, and resources are aligned with wellbeing initiatives, and show a good balance of flexibility and consistency. Consistency without flexibility (i.e., staying the course and making no concessions) can result in missed opportunities to adapt to a crisis and build organisational resilience. Flexibility without consistency creates further uncertainty and is viewed as lack of clear guidance and poor leadership.

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Opening conversation about stress and wellbeing

This may seem challenging, but opening conversation with employees and colleagues about stress and wellbeing doesn’t have to be awkward. Even if some are not ready to open up, most will likely be thankful that you have demonstrated concern

Your role is not to diagnose nor become your employees or colleague’s therapist. Rather your role could be to create an environment where others feel safe to come forward and open up about distress. You can do this keeping an eye out for changes in others that might indicate they are distress, to open conversation, and to guide toward appropriate support.

Connect regularly with colleagues and employees, especially if you notice a change to ‘their usual’. Conversations don’t need to take place formally to have an impact. For example, it might be that you have a weekly remote ‘catch up over coffee’ session with others’. Try opening up a little about your own worries and over time others may respond the same. 

How you frame a question can open up or quickly shut down a conversation. For instance, asking “Are you ok?” will likely get a “Yeah, fine” reply, with no further details. Instead, use open ended questions to get conversation rolling. Here are a few questions that will encourage conversation:

  • How is this affecting you? 
  • How do you feel about recent events?
  • Are there any things that could make work less stressful for you?
  • How are you coping? What helps?
  • Do you have other people to open up to?
  • What kind of support would help?
  • Additional help

If your colleague or employee indicates they are not coping, encourage them to contact their GP in the first instance. You might also support them making this appointment with them. Also, don’t forget the many Employee Assistance programmes available in New Zealand.

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  1. Keeping track of wellbeing and engagement

The better you understand how staff are doing through a crisis, the more effective your decisions around resourcing and solutions. And people appreciate being asked, even those who are not in need of immediate support. Brief check-up surveys that capture staff wellbeing and their views of leadership and organisation are a great way to keep track of how everyone’s coping, and to assess whether the business is fit to handle the challenges ahead.

Just a handful of items completed in under 2 minutes can provide a wealth of useful information. Repeating the survey every several weeks allows you to track changes to these perceptions over time: 

    1. Ratings of personal wellbeing at present time
    2. Views of managerial communications – usefulness, frequency
    3. Views of managerial support for staff
    4. Trust in managerial decision-making during the change or crisis
    5. Feelings of job security

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Ensure a sense of belonging and team cohesion 

Uncertainty, fear, a heavy workload, and competing demands cause significant stress, which undermines our ability to regulate emotions and behaviours. The result: a tendency to snap at others when under pressure, or to withdraw and avoid communications, both of which disrupt the good functioning of a team. These easy steps can make a difference to how we communicate at work during a crisis, and ensure we feel connected despite the challenges.

Clarifying and role modelling organisational norms around face to face and virtual communications is essential during stressful times. A clear and simple “communication guide” with a few notes on how a crisis heightens our stress responses goes a long way to ensure that staff “rein it in” instead of “lashing out”, and serves a reminder that civility and support are essential to successfully navigating crises.

  • Structure the all-staff communication to clarify organisational norms around appropriate workplace exchanges. Steer clear of taking an admonishing tone, and instead rely on widely available evidence and scenarios to exemplify:
    1. How workplace civility drives effective collaboration, wellbeing, and performance, and 
    2. The health and business costs associated with incivility, such as conflict, burnout, and turnover 

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Effective communications during a change or crisis

Develop an adaptive mindset

Businesses rarely end up where they started in the aftermath of a major crisis. Communications centred on “going back to normal” tend to aggravate stress because they direct staff attention to guessing when back to normal will happen and hold them expectant in place. Communications that focus on the future of the business will guide staff to a solutions-focused mindset and reduce stress increasing a sense of control, ownership, and agency. 

  • Redirect communications from “going back” to “moving towards”. In these communications, clarify that engagement in a time of crisis means letting go of some of the ways we’ve always done things and collaborating identify opportunities.
  • Invite staff to collaboratively identify opportunities and solutions, both as a crisis responsiveness approach, and a developmental initiative. As a leader, you can rely on business simulations, case studies, design thinking workshops, and other innovation-focused tools

Engage in actively supportive communications

While acknowledging staff effort and strain through uncertain times is important, business leaders must also offer the kind of active support that clearly ties business goals with staff needs and contributions. Having a sense of purpose and impact goes a long way to keep us sane.

We ask a lot from staff during a crisis, often discounting the toll stress takes on their motivation, health and wellbeing. Business leaders should fully acknowledge the significant challenges faced staff, the extra-effort required to perform, and the discretionary actions required to keep up with new or growing work demands. Yet, there is more to supporting staff than empathetic listening.

  • Keep status update communications frequent, easy to read, and useful. As mentioned before, an information vacuum is a fertile field for anxiety, and the tendency is to fill in the gap with worst-case scenarios about the future of the business
  • Stay open to and devise ways of gathering timely and usable feedback – e.g., the 2-minute check-up survey 
  • Once the business continuity plan and other crisis response initiatives are outlined, communicate a realistic yet empathetic representation of their impact on staff workload and wellbeing. Honest and supportive communications ensure trust in leadership during a crisis
  • Clarify the connection between staff performance and business survival and success. This promotes a sense of ownership, meaning of work, and control, and legitimises increased work demands or challenging targets.
  • Clarify how staff may stand to gain from engaging with the crisis management process and supporting the organisation. The tendency is to self-protect during stressful times, and your decisions as a business leader will likely be met with “what’s in it for me?” questions from staff. Especially when sacrifices are required. Be prepared to answer that question.

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