The importance of effective stress management at work
As a manager, you are responsible for creating an environment that promotes the personal and professional growth of your team. As a key team decision-maker, you are at the epicentre of team growth, meaning your team relies on you to build an environment that is conducive to their development. Assessing team stressors and providing management techniques falls within your remit of responsibility as the individual acting on behalf of their workplace wellbeing. So, McGannon is right, leadership is more than just position; it’s action, and your actions will reflect your unique influence over your team’s ultimate performance.
Stress can significantly affect the physical, mental, and emotional health of your team. It is crucial, therefore, to take the relevant action to become attuned to the wellbeing of your team members. This includes paying attention to the physical symptoms of stress, as well as the emotional symptoms of stress that may develop during times of pressure, such as when tight deadlines and heavy workloads seem unavoidable.
Taking action to combat stress is not solely about your ability to perceive and manage stress in the workplace, (although that is extremely important), it also involves teaching your team how to manage stress independently, by offering effective and relevant stress management techniques, guidance, coping mechanisms and resources.
By directly recognising physical and emotional stress symptoms, and compassionately addressing how to manage stress at work, you can offer your team the stress management strategies that they need to navigate their responses in a healthy way.
To begin applying an effective approach to workplace stress management, you should start by understanding the various physical and emotional symptoms of stress that members of your team (including yourself) may experience when under high levels of stress at work.
Identifying symptoms of stress
The lists below will help you identify the cognitive, behavioural, emotional and physical symptoms of stress. Knowing these symptoms will empower you to create a more supportive work environment, develop key stress management tips, and promote overall workplace wellbeing.
- Cognitive stress symptoms:
This is how stress impacts an individual’s mental processing (cognition). Cognitive stress symptoms can manifest differently for each person, however, this will generally look like:
- memory problems and difficulty concentrating,
- constant worrying and negative thinking patterns,
- impaired judgement and decision-making abilities,
- increased anxiety and restlessness.
The mental processing and functioning of an individual can have a direct impact on the emotional, physical and behavioural aspects of their life, and yet, many individuals are unable to identify the impact of stress on their cognitive processes, resulting in the display of other stress symptoms.
- Emotional stress symptoms:
This differs from cognitive stress, referring instead to the ways in which stress may impact the mood and feelings of an individual.
- Moodiness, irritability, and emotional instability
- Feelings of loneliness and isolation
- Inability to relax and feeling overwhelmed
- Symptoms of depression, such as persistent sadness or loss of interest
While emotional symptoms of stress are not visible in a literal sense, taking the time to understand the emotional disposition of your team members, allowing them time to introspect, and allowing yourself the time to determine your own emotional disposition, helps to establish an environment in which identifying emotional stress symptoms within the team and taking action to remedy it becomes second nature.
- Physical stress symptoms:
This refers to the ways in which stress may impact the physical health of an individual, i.e. anything to do with their physical body: muscles, bones, nerves, immune response, digestive system etc.
- Aches and pains, including headaches and muscle tension
- Digestive problems, such as stomachaches or indigestion
- Chest pains and elevated blood pressure
- Nausea, dizziness, and fatigue
- Frequent colds or illnesses
Long-term stress can have profound effects on physical health. When stress is identified as an underlying cause of physical symptoms, it becomes vital to address the root cause to prevent long-term harm to the body, (an example of the long-term impacts of stress on the body might include an overall decline in musculoskeletal wellbeing, digestive health and skin cell repair).
Likewise, both long-term and short-term stress can have a significant impact on existing health conditions. Stress can exacerbate chronic conditions by increasing inflammation, elevating blood pressure and compromising the immune system. Moreover, individuals may develop unhealthy coping mechanisms (such as making poor dietary choices or not sleeping enough) to manage their stress, which can deteriorate health in the short term and lead to serious long-term health implications.
- Behavioural stress symptoms:
This refers to the impact that stress has on the way a person acts (their behaviour).
- Irregular eating and sleeping patterns
- Procrastination or neglecting responsibilities
- Social withdrawal and isolation
- Increased use of alcohol or drugs as coping mechanisms
- Nervous habits, such as nail-biting or fidgeting
Our behaviour shapes how we live and experience life. As highlighted in a 2009 study measuring the impact of incentives on exercise,the repetition of behaviour is how we instil habits and long-term behavioural patterns.
If we find ourselves facing stress on a regular basis, we may develop set behavioural responses (or habits) when experiencing these situations in general. This increases the risk of negative and unhealthy habits becoming an additional problem i.e. an individual may develop a habit of drinking alcohol as a coping mechanism for stress, this could make the replacement of that behaviour with another (like going for a run, or calling a family member or friend), much more difficult in the future. So, it’s really important to recognise and address behavioural stress indicators in your team members, as well as provide informative resources and training on positive coping mechanisms for stress.
Techniques for managing stress
There are multiple ways to manage stress in the workplace, and these tips, techniques and strategies will help to empower you as a leader, to better support your employees with their own methods of managing stress at work. We’ve listed a few of the best strategies for stress management in the workplace that you might want to consider adopting:
- Open Communication: Create a culture of open communication where all team members feel comfortable discussing their stress levels. Encourage them to share their concerns and actively listen to their needs. Lead by example and actively participate in initiatives to increase communication such as instigating conversations with team members or giving feedback in team meetings. You are a role model to the other members of your team, so your behaviour must encourage their active involvement and team contribution.
- Observing Behaviour: Pay attention to changes in behaviour, performance, or work habits that may indicate increased stress levels. Be observant of signs such as decreased productivity, increased absenteeism, or sudden mood changes.
- Providing Resources: Offer resources and support systems to help them manage stress effectively. This can include access to counselling services, stress management workshops, or wellness programs.
- Flexible Work Arrangements: Consider implementing flexible work arrangements that promote life-work integration. This can include flexible hours, remote work options, or time off to recharge.
- Encouraging Self-Care: Promote the importance of self-care by encouraging your team to engage in activities that promote wellbeing. Encourage breaks, provide opportunities for relaxation, support healthy lifestyle choices, and discourage presenteeism (working when unwell), as this reduces an employee’s short-term productivity and wellbeing, and may even impact the wellbeing and productivity of others, i.e. if an individual attends work with a cold, they increase the likelihood of those around them becoming ill, which will lead to more employees unable to perform their tasks and delay overall team progress.
- Collaborating with Consultants: Seek the expertise of workplace wellbeing consultants or corporate wellness consultants to design and implement effective workplace health and wellbeing programmes tailored to your organisational context. These consultants can provide guidance, strategies, and tailored solutions for fostering employee wellbeing.
Managing stress within your team is an honourable and necessary skill for any manager, but teaching your team how to recognise the symptoms, and providing them with an holistic approach to stress management so they are able to manage stress in any setting, is an example of invaluable leadership. By incorporating stress education with workplace wellbeing programmes, consulting with experts, and providing support, you can build a more encouraging work environment that prioritises employee wellbeing and contributes to a positive work culture.
Remember, by supporting your team members in effectively managing stress and implementing workplace wellbeing initiatives, you are contributing to their overall success and fostering a positive work environment.