In today’s productivity-obsessed work environment, employees face unprecedented pressure to perform.
And in many ways, that’s self-defeating because it creates the conditions for a stressful workplace that makes high output all but impossible.
According to data compiled by the healthcare industry analysts at Health Advocate, the cumulative effects of workplace stress cost US businesses up to $300 billion per year in lost productivity.
In response, many business leaders have begun to encourage employees to practice various forms of stress management techniques. But by placing the burden on employees to reduce their own stress in the workplace, they may be inadvertently making the problem worse.
Worse still, they’re avoiding the responsibility to take a more active role in providing a stress-free work environment.
Instead, businesses should be empowering their managers to help facilitate whatever changes they deem necessary to tame workplace stress for the broader workforce.
It is those managers that are in the best position to know what will work best for the employees working under them.
It is also those managers who will best be able to convert the feedback they receive from rank-and-file employees into common-sense policy decisions aimed at creating a healthier and happier – and therefore more productive – workplace.
But most managers haven’t been trained in matters relating to workplace stress. So, it’s not a good idea to simply expect them to invent anti-stress solutions on their own.
Here is a primer on the leading causes of workplace stress and 7 broadly-applicable ways that managers can facilitate a stress-free work environment.
Although every office and business has its own unique work culture, there are some common things that employees everywhere report as the key drivers of workplace stress.
Understanding what they are is a prerequisite to taking mitigating action.
Broadly speaking, the most common workplace stress drivers are:
Although these common stressors seem like they would have straightforward solutions, this isn’t always the case.
For example, it’s not always possible for a company to allay financial concerns by issuing raises to all who might benefit from them. And in many instances, existing management structures aren’t well-suited to decentralized decision making.
For every source of stress on the list, however, there are ways that managers can take action to make a difference.
And by placing a deliberate focus on counteracting these common factors, managers can make a big difference in the ways that employees experience these stresses. As you can imagine, every incremental improvement counts.
And managers may not be able to eliminate every stress factor entirely. But the efforts they make can go a long way toward helping employees feel more comfortable that their concerns are being addressed.
In recent years, as business leaders have recognized the productivity gains that come from maintaining a healthy workforce, they’ve deployed various workplace wellness programs.
The trouble is, employers continue to report that participation rates in those programs are poor. According to one survey, 60% of employees who had access to a wellness program didn’t take advantage of it.
That lack of participation translates to a waste of company funding and a missed opportunity to reduce the stress levels of the workforce.
But managers do have some options available to them to help encourage more employees to participate in the wellness programs available to them.
To do it, they have to elevate the importance of those programs in the eyes of the workers they’re responsible for.
In practice, doing this can take a number of forms.
For one, managers can set aside dedicated times within work schedules devoted to wellness.
For example, making time to take a 30-minute walk (outdoors where appropriate) with employees either individually or as a group a few times per week can do wonders for employee morale. It also sends the unmistakable message that the employees’ well-being is paramount in the eyes of the manager.
Another useful strategy is to give employees scheduled paid time to participate in wellness activities provided in the office. Such activities might include group learning sessions that teach employees stress management techniques or individual counseling opportunities for them to learn valuable anti-anxiety and coping skills.
When wellness becomes a part of the work schedule, it becomes a part of the job rather than an optional exercise.
Tactics like those allow time for both employees and their managers to decompress in a no-expectations environment.
It also fosters stronger relationships that can encourage employees to communicate more openly with managers.
Keeping those lines of communication open and free-flowing makes it easier for managers to keep gaining insight into the needs of those underneath them, which is essential for crafting further proactive stress-management measures.
Although it’s been a trend lately – and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic – for businesses to offer employees flexible scheduling and remote working options, most managers remained skeptical of allowing employees to make liberal use of the privileges.
For the most part, that was due to a reluctance to adapt existing workflows and to trust that employees would remain productive without direct supervision.
But time and again, studies on the subject reveal that remote workers are more productive than their in-office counterparts.
And surveys have shown that as many as 99% of employees would like the option to work remotely for some or all of the rest of their careers.
What’s more, 97% of employees report that having a job with that kind of flexibility would have a positive impact on their quality of life.
When viewed in that light, it’s clear that managers have a huge incentive to not only allow but to encourage flexible hours and remote work for the employees on their teams.
In one fell swoop, they can simultaneously achieve higher work output and vastly reduced stress levels for everyone involved. But to reap the rewards, they have to get over their misgivings about flex time and remote work and craft an all-encompassing policy that will keep everything running smoothly.
There are plenty of go-to examples managers can use as a guide.
In general, though, the most successful flex time and remote work policies begin with an all-out effort by managers to learn the new skills that it takes to support a workforce comprised of remote workers and in-office staff on varied schedules. Among those skills, the most critical is to learn how and when to communicate with the employees they manage.
The reason that’s important is that poor communication is what tends to doom many remote work arrangements. Too little communication can lead to a breakdown in teamwork, but too much communication can ratchet up the stress level of the employees. Since both outcomes would be self-defeating, it’s something managers can’t afford to get wrong.
One of the major stress-creating factors that employees report revolves around the unrealistic expectations of their employers. And working to alleviate that particular stressor is another thing managers can do to facilitate a stress-free work environment. To do it, they have to reassess the way that they set goals for their teams.
The simplest way to do it is to adopt a methodology like SMART to make sure every project contains realistic, measurable, and clear sets of goals. SMART is an acronym that spells out a goal-setting strategy that ensures expectations are:
By setting goals that conform to the above requirements, every employee knows what’s expected of them and those expectations should be aligned with reality. And, since SMART goals are, by definition, meant to be time-limited, they naturally lend themselves to the creation of a schedule the whole team can follow.
That makes it much easier for workers operating on different schedules to manage their time in an effective way to get their jobs done.
In most situations, even when employees have enough time and resources to meet the goals set for them, they will still feel a great deal of pressure to perform. That’s only natural since the goal of the business is to keep them working at maximum capacity for as much of the time as possible.
But as any worker can tell you, it doesn’t take much disruption to turn a just-in-time schedule into a mad scramble to catch up.
To prevent that kind of situation, managers have to do their part to give their team members the tools they need to handle whatever comes.
In some cases, this will require working with the business’s IT staff to have them provide access to the company’s existing project management and productivity tools.
But if the right tools for the job aren’t available, effective managers shouldn’t stop there.
Instead, they can turn to a whole host of free productivity tools that may be adapted to their team’s specific requirements.
They should also make efforts to eliminate some of the common disruptions that cause time crunches. That means helping employees – particularly those working remotely – to maintain their computers and other critical technology in good working order so they don’t experience ill-timed downtime.
Wherever possible, managers should also encourage their teams to make liberal use of automation technology in their day-to-day work. Doing this gives them some additional breathing room in their schedule to accommodate the unexpected. And given that no project ever goes precisely according to plan, every second saved is a valuable hedge against deadline-related stressors.
And productivity tools aren’t all that managers should look to provide. They can also identify and encourage the use of apps that are purpose-built to help manage and eliminate stress.
There are so many options available to suit any conceivable need that managers need only to expose their team members to them and let them choose what works best for them.
Even though the digitization of the modern workplace has been a boon to productivity, it’s also partly responsible for the rise in stress levels many employees experience.
Much of it is due to the fact that our ‘always on’ work culture is rife with interruptions and distractions that make the simple act of concentrating on a single task all but impossible. And according to the Harvard Business Review, the current level of digital distraction may be the “defining problem of today’s workplace”.
But managers can help to mitigate those inherent issues and relieve that stress, too.
They can do it by reserving time in employees’ work schedules when they can just unplug and focus on their work. That means no responding to emails, phone calls, or text messages. It also means accepting the fact that not every issue will be dealt with the moment it arises.
And that prohibition on responding should extend into employees’ personal time as well. Surveys have indicated that workers spend up to 8 hours per week responding to work-related after-hours messages. Not only does it cut into the time they have to spend with their families, but it also robs them of the ability to decompress and relax after each workday.
That can make the stresses of the workplace cumulative, as the stress of one day bleeds into the next. When that happens, it will render all other stress-reduction measures far less effective than they otherwise would be.
And given that there’s no clear productivity benefit to expecting employees to keep an always-available schedule, this is a change that any smart manager would make in a heartbeat.
For even better stress reduction benefits, provisions should also be made for in-office employees to have specific quiet time added to their schedules. Well-known organizations like Intel, IBM, and Deloitte have long made quiet time a part of employees’ weekly schedules. And in all three cases, the practice resulted in happier and more productive employees. A classic win-win.
For as far back as most people can remember, managers throughout organizations of all kinds were all trained to operate in one way. And that way called for them to practice a kind of top-down management style that centralized authority to the greatest extent possible.
The trouble is, top-down management is a major contributor to the workplace stress associated with employees’ feelings of dis-empowerment.
First of all, it has a tendency to stifle creativity among rank-and-file employees.
But that’s not the most damaging aspect of top-down management as it relates to workplace stress.
The bigger issue is that it kills employee engagement and robs employees of the flexibility they need to do their best work. And as we’ve established earlier on, flexibility is both desirable and necessary to reduce workplace stress.
Of all of the things that managers can do to foster a stress-free work environment, breaking the habits of a top-down management style may be the most difficult for them to do. But it can and should be a priority for them.
A great place to start is to make it standard practice to solicit feedback from all team members before making decisions that affect the group.
Doing this gives employees a voice in the work they’re expected to perform. And having that say gives them a sense of ownership over the whole process, providing the motivation to work hard and the feeling of security that comes from being a valued member of the team.
Both of those outcomes will lead to less workplace stress and better overall employee engagement results.
The final thing managers can do to foster a stress-free work environment is to give employees opportunities for professional development and a path to career advancement wherever possible.
This deceptively easy task is something that too many managers either inadvertently or intentionally avoid carrying out. And not doing it is a major factor in creating workplace stress and harming employee morale.
Instead, managers need to make themselves advocates for the employees in their charge.
They should be proactive in looking for ways to help workers expand their skills and on-the-job knowledge.
They should also do their best to reward high-performers by being in their corner when an opportunity for promotion arises.
Whenever possible, managers should make schedule allowances for employees to participate in whatever job skills training and other professional development the company provides.
And they should also encourage an ongoing dialogue with team members to assess their career goals all along the way. By becoming an active participant in advancing the careers of those under them, managers can also gain critical insight into how those employees feel about their job situation.
Think of it as an opportunity to take the temperature of the team. When doing so, it’s easier to address the concerns of the group on an individual and collective basis.
A manager might, for example, find out that their team members have goals that are easily met. Or, they could find that an employee has aspirations that are incompatible with what the organization has to offer.
In some cases, managers may find that certain employees want nothing more than the chance to keep learning new skills.
In other cases, they may discover that some of their team members won’t be satisfied without the possibility of a promotion. In every case, however, it’s incumbent on the manager to be as open and honest about the employee’s prospects as the situation permits.
But most of the time, the very visible effort a manager makes on behalf of their team members is enough. Employees that know that they’re getting every opportunity available to grow and advance will reward their manager (and employer) with hard work and loyalty. And that kind of mutually-beneficial arrangement goes a long way toward alleviating the stress that employees feel about their job security and future prospects.
The Bottom Line
Any way you look at it, managers are in a unique organizational position that affords them the authority and ability to make changes that foster a stress-free work environment.
And of course, this advice works all the way up the corporate ladder, too. At every level, those in management positions owe it to the workers beneath them to see that they do what’s necessary to create a supportive and stress-free environment for all.
And as they work to put the seven strategies outlined here into practice, they should remember that there’s one common factor that binds them all.
It’s that communication plays a big part in the dynamics of workplace stress. Too much of the wrong kinds of communication can create stress, just as appropriate and well-timed communication can provide managers with the insights they need to make appropriate changes to the workflows and environments under their control.
In making these efforts, managers can help everyone in their charge to work to the best of their ability while avoiding poor outcomes like employee burnout, absenteeism, and poor engagement.
The best managers do this not because they’re trying to squeeze more work out of their team – but because they recognize that their team members are people, and not merely numbers in a productivity report.
So, in the end, the best advice any manager can follow to help foster a stress-free work environment is to care a little bit more about the people they manage than the results they produce. In doing so, it’s all but guaranteed that they’ll end up with happier workers that meet expectations, time, and time again.
About the Author:
Andrej Kovacevic is a digital marketing specialist, founder at TechLoot, and a contributing writer for a variety of other technology-focused online publications. He has covered the intersection of marketing and technology for several years and is pursuing an ongoing mission to share his expertise with business leaders and marketing professionals everywhere.