Managing stressed employees isn’t easy, but it’s something almost every manager and team leader will have to deal with, probably more than once. Usually it’s up to the manager to take the lead in sorting things out.
If you think about it, what do you do when you’re stressed? You try to hide it. Stress is so often seen as a sign of weakness. You might be afraid that it will affect how people think of you, or your chances for promotion. Your stressed-out employees feel the same way and act the same way. So part of your role as a manager is to look out for signs of stress and find ways to fix or reduce it.
How do you know if you have stressed employees?
Start by observing employee behaviour.
- During Zoom meetings, do certain employees keep their video switched off? Do they contribute via the chat option rather than joining in verbally?
- In a face-to-face workplace, do they avoid social interactions with the team? Avoid morning teas or Friday drinks?
- If the cause of the stress is outside the workplace, you may notice people arriving late for work, or leaving right on time, regularly. There may even be lots of absences.
- Are they underperforming? In particular, are they performing less well than they used to, or than you would expect from them?
All of these behaviours can be signs of stress. It’s time to take action, even if just to find out what’s really happening.
What’s the first thing to do when you notice stress in your team?
You can either call the person in for a chat, or arrange to bump into them ‘by chance’ at the coffee machine.
This first talk usually goes something like:
Hey, Jan, I notice you haven’t been yourself lately. Is everything going OK for you?’
‘No, I’m fine.’
‘OK. That’s good. Just know that if you want to talk about anything, I’m here.’
Unless behaviour has disrupted bottom-line productivity, deadlines or something similar, there’s not much more you can do at this stage.
The conversation may feel ineffective to you, but it does two things:
- It allows your team member to know that you’re there for them. If they feel safe with you, at a later point they may come in and have a conversation about what’s stressing them.
- It also lets them understand that their behaviour has been noticed. This puts them in a space to consider what they can do about the situation.
The options available to your team member depend on what’s causing the stress.
It could be something external to work. Maybe their partner is leaving them and they’re worrying about how to look after the children. Maybe it’s a workplace issue – they might have been allocated a new task or project and have no idea how to tackle it.
But at the very least, they start thinking about whether they need to explain anything to you, or how to approach resolving the situation.
What are the next steps?
How things proceed from this point depends on two things – what the stressor is, and how the employee reacts.
If the stressed employee’s behaviour doesn’t change
After a week or so, you need to follow up with a further conversation. This is less casual – it’s not just a chat in the corridor. You might ask them to pop in for 10 minutes in the afternoon. Or you might ask them to stop what they’re doing and talk to you now. This option doesn’t leave any time gap for anticipation to build up.
In this more formal chat, you really do need to get some idea what’s going on. At the very least, whether there’s a workplace issue or an external issue. Otherwise you can’t fix anything.
If there’s a workplace skills issue
Sometimes, your employee has taken on a new task, or the process for an existing task has changed. They don’t have the new process down pat.
If this is the case, be supportive. Some good words to use are:
How can I best support you here?
What’s your best way of learning?
We all learn so differently. Some people like to read instructions, others want to be shown, then do it themselves. Match training to your employee’s learning style and you’re already reducing stress!
If it’s an issue with another member of staff
Encourage them to be open about the issue and decide if mediation between the two people would be appropriate. You would need to gain permission from the person making the complaint of course, and then have a discussion with the other person. That might be enough and the situation may ease off. Perhaps it’s a case of making ‘reasonable adjustments’ – such as relocating where one person sits.
Not everyone is expected to get along with everyone else, although some level of tolerance needs to be displayed.
If it’s a personal matter
This is an ideal time to offer your company’s EAP service.
But once again, show understanding and empathy.
Do you know that our workplace pays into an employee assistance programme? That means that you’re entitled to five (or whatever the number of allocated sessions is for your organisation) absolutely confidential sessions to talk about personal issues. Do you think that would be of help to you?
This phrasing by the manager or leader will help the employee accept the idea of an EAP.
They may say they’ve tried it before. If it was at another firm, suggest that your EAP may have a counsellor who is a better fit for you.
In every case, your first goal as a manager is to use dialogue which builds trust and respect. The more you can encourage the person to open up to you, the more opportunity there is to work together on a solution.
The bottom line is, highly stressed employees affect productivity. If you can help them, it not only makes them happier, it also helps the company perform. So it’s worth trying to do it right!