In order to help employees manage stress, organisations should create a culture of openness, provide effective training and role-model healthy working practices.
Resilience training has never been so popular. We’re all expected to ‘do more with less’ and no organisation can afford to allow ongoing workplace stress to impact the bottom line.
A variety of useful techniques can be taught to help employees better manage their own stress levels. These include practical approaches to help them to move, sleep, and eat in ways that de-stress the body and mind to enhance resilience levels.
Two underlying issues that exacerbate feeling stressed at work: not owning one’s emotions for fear of being seen as not able to cope; not being able to assert one’s boundaries by negotiating or saying no.
As a psychologist I also focus on two underlying issues that exacerbate feeling stressed at work: not owning one’s emotions for fear of being seen as not able to cope; not being able to assert one’s boundaries by negotiating or saying no.
While these two issues seem to be the sole responsibility of the individual employee, they are also dependent on the culture of the organisation.
Case study: Ali’s story
Ali is a competent project manager reporting to two project leads and a line manager. She strives to do a fantastic job and often works late and at weekends to meet her unrealistic demanding deadlines. Each of the three people she reports to expect her to prioritise their projects and she often feels pulled in several directions.
Ali is not confident enough to push back to her senior managers. She is secretly afraid that if she asked for extended deadlines or complains about her high workload, instead of being given extensions and words of encouragement, she would be seen as incompetent and be demoted.
The company Ali works for espouses corporate values such as ‘innovation’ and ‘excellence’ yet all of Ali’s suggestions to simplify and improve complex processes have gone unheard. Ali is unable to meet her own high standards without working additional hours every night. As a result, her personal relationship is also beginning to suffer.
What if nothing changes for Ali?
We could predict that if Ali continues to feel stressed and unsupported then the quality of her work will decline. This in turn will frustrate her further, and her stress levels will continue to rise, leading to her taking time off work and her workload being divided out among her already over-worked colleagues. This is a negative spiral that is hard to break.
We’ve all met (or even been) versions of Ali - organisations are full of them. While there are many things that Ali could be doing to improve her personal resilience to workplace stress, this article is focussing on what organisations can do support employees like Ali.
Take a moment to reflect on how your organisation supports employee resilience on a day-to-day basis. Answer the reflection questions below as honestly as you can (on a scale of 1-10: 1 = not at all, 10 = always).
- To what extent does your organisation behave according to its core values?
- To what extent do senior staff and line managers role-model healthy working practices that enable and encourage staff to do their best?
- To what extent do your line mangers or project leads offer a regular reality check-in with staff and ask questions like: “How I can I support you better?” and then listen to the answer?
- If you have a culture of quick-wins, do-it-yesterday, and do more with less - to what extent do your senior leaders balance the drive for results with the drive to make employees feel valued?
Referring to the story above, Ali is too scared to discuss with her colleagues how she really feels. She’s also unable to push back for fear of being demoted. Ali’s experience is common, so I’ve elaborated, drawing on my past experience as a senior HR manager and as a business psychologist consultant. It’s not an exhaustive list, but more a conversation-starter to help you work towards building employee resilience every day in your own way.
1. Not owning one’s emotions
- “I’m fine” denial: Most employees feel stressed at work but no one is acknowledging it. Employees are afraid of being judged negatively, as weak, unable to cope with their responsibilities, they believe their job might be at risk if they do express themselves.
- Suck it up and soldier on: If a line manager is suffering stress but not admitting it, they are role-modelling unhelpful behaviours and maintaining a culture that makes it difficult for direct reports to support them better and acknowledge their own stress.
What can the organisation do?
- Share stories: Encouraging senior executives to publicly share their personal experience of how they have developed their resilience. This could help employees know that they can be honest about how they feel without being penalised.
- Ask employees: Highlighting employee engagement survey results, ask each other “what is not working well and what can we do about it”. Ask your employees for potential solutions, then notify them when and on why you’ve implemented those solutions.
- Check-in regularly: In addition to Occupational Health or Employee Assistance Programmes, build in an honest ‘check-in’ conversation regularly, or as part of a performance review (it might reduce the need for OH or AEPs).
- Create a supportive environment: Provide comfortable meeting places in the building and give employees permission to take a break from their desk and ask each other ‘how are you doing?’. There’s huge potential value in employees having time to share their experience and insights. Demonstrating that this activity is as important as external-facing sales or service calls will help employees to feel more valued.
2. Not being able to assert one’s boundaries
When you believe you don’t have any control or power to say no or negotiate in a situation or a relationship, you are unable to stand up for yourself or exert your needs. How does this show up in your organisation? What other examples can you think of?
- Saying yes to everything: if you are a perfectionist or experiencing imposter syndrome and desperately trying to prove yourself, or if you want to be liked or seen as a keen employee.
- When you are intimidated by the other person’s personality or seniority.
- Feeing guilty when you do gently push back or say no.
- If you have previously asked for something and it has been denied, you are less likely to ask in the future.
What can the organisation do?
- Provide assertiveness skills training: Knowing what you want, when and how to assert your needs without expressing your emotions is key to building your confidence to negotiating that win-win.
- Protect work-life balance: Managers protecting their own and their direct report’s work-life balance on a daily basis, i.e. encourage them to take a lunch break, not emailing outside office hours, discussing realistic deadlines etc.
- Ask helpful questions: When delegating tasks, managers could ask ‘what else do you need from me?’. This gives the employee the opportunity to ask for things that would make that task easier (i.e. connecting them to a key stakeholder, clarify specifics, discussing realistic deadlines etc.).
About Jess Baker
Jess Baker is a Chartered Psychologist, Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, and a Women’s Leadership Coach.
For over ten years she has worked as a consultant Business Psychologist, Senior HR manager, coach, and facilitator, across a wide range of industries, delivering global leadership development and employee engagement programmes. Her clients include AON Consulting, Barclays Plc, CoOp, The NED, Public Health Wales, John Wylie & Sons, University College London.
Jess is an experienced leader, a passionate coach, and an engaging facilitator. She shares her expertise in women’s health and business magazines (Boots Health & Beauty, Very, Women’s Health, Natwest Women, Take a Break ), and is regularly invited for interview on podcasts. She also enjoys speaking at wellbeing and corporate events across the UK.
Jess is also a Trustee of BelEve UK, helping to empower girls aged 8-18 through leadership programmes in schools and communities.