3 thoughtful steps to combat workplace stress

October 7, 2020

By Martha Sullivan, CPA, CVA/ABV, CM&AA, CEPA
Partner, Succession Planning Practice Leader

Martha leads HK’s succession and exit planning services division and is a regular contributor to Wisconsin’s InBusiness digital magazine.

How would you rate your ability to deal with stress these days? Chances are, if you’re like me, you are feeling it. Work lives up to its name (“work”). The juggle with family may have morphed into a third job of educator. And then there’s all the other chaos swirling about.

The good news is that you’re not alone. A series of studies conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation point to the fact that “53% of adults in the United States reported their mental health had been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the coronavirus.” In March, only 32% reported as such.

What is interesting about this is how we process the stress. Research tells us that, unsurprisingly, men and women endure stress very differently. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, this may be due to the way the body processes its stress hormones when triggered. The human body reacts to stress by kicking off adrenaline, cortisol, and oxytocin. Men produce higher levels of adrenaline and cortisol when under stress, which triggers our “fight or flight” responses. Women produce more oxytocin, resulting in a more protective response, prompting more efforts to reach out for social connection and support.

The level and duration of the stress is undeniable this year, as is its impact on our workplaces. There are many factors contributing to workplace stress including the nature of the work, the demands of the job, the personalities and culture involved, and so on. And then there are the hours! How many times have you heard someone boasting about the number of hours they work? In our culture, we tend to wear our long hours as a badge of courage. We may be complaining but the message often really is, “Look at how hard I work!”

During 2020, between the shift to a work-from-home (WFH) model, economic impacts of the pandemic, and working parents faced with virtual education of their children, our efforts to get our work done has stretched in new ways. Without our usual commute, some of us have claimed those hours as work time. We check emails after hours and on weekends. We — men and women — balance family responsibilities and return to the desk late in the evening. Unfortunately though, the reality is this: the shared burden and responsibilities still weigh heavier on women. Women are more likely to manage the household chores, child care, and now home-schooling.

There are steps that can be taken to effectively manage this convergence of stresses in a caring fashion. In fact, as leaders in our organizations and community, we have an obligation to help our co-workers navigate the work environment and stress we face:

  • Identify what is stressing out your employees: Remember, we all process and perceive stress differently. Not just differently based upon our sex, but even within the respective sex. Employers can use tools to identify what factors are stressing out their employees and set the stage for conversations, accommodation, and management strategies.
  • Build bridges to and for the remote: WFH is a new experience for many of us. We have sent many co-workers home to work while others remain on site due to the nature of their work. Regardless of whether you’re working on site or at home, relationships with co-workers, customers, and suppliers have been seriously disrupted. The best way to build such a bridge is by understanding how each person best communicates with others and can be most successful in their new work configuration. For example, what is the best communication style in their work arrangement? What is their natural style versus their adaptive style? That is, how have they adapted their communication and energy levels to the demands of the job and culture of the company. The more they adapt, the more stress they internalize.
  • Rethink how work gets done: Chances are you instituted new processes on the fly when work locations and responsibilities were changing in March and April. Now may be a good time to pause and consider the work your employees are doing. How are those processes working? Should they be reengineered to factor in what’s happening now or what you expect to be the workflow in the future?

Our heightened levels of stress are likely to continue for a while. There are new and undue pressures facing our workforces, many of which are outside our control.

However, that does not give us a pass. We have work to do — work we can do. The question is whether we will accept that things have changed and that we need to step up to the table, craft our future, and adapt accordingly.

In fact, have you ever noticed how your stress goes down when you take action to move forward? You and your team will feel better once the stress is acknowledged and you have your action plans in play.

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