Stress isn’t new. But it’s safe to say that over the past year and a half we’ve all become extra well acquainted with it. From drastic changes to long stretches of uncertainty to new worries, losses, and fears, the ground has been unsteady beneath our feet. And that upheaval takes both an emotional and physical toll.
But the good news is that the ground is finally starting to settle. Many of us are returning to in-person work or have figured out how to navigate—and enjoy—a new WFH normal. And while that comes with its own stresses—and continuing to manage the accumulated concerns of the past year and a half—the skills we strengthen or learn now will pay off as we face new challenges in the future. As people leaders, we can use both classic and modern tips to help ourselves and our teams reduce stress at work.
Why stress matters
Since stress is as old and enduring as humanity itself, you’ve probably already heard some about why it matters. Stress is physiological, reacting to and affecting our mental and physical wellbeing.
It’s all in the body. Stressful situations set off your hypothalamus, the part of your brain that alerts the body to potential danger, which triggers the release of adrenaline and cortisol into your bloodstream. These hormones set off your fight-or-flight response, with adrenaline increasing your heart rate and energy level while cortisol shifts your focus away from “inessential” concerns.
Of course, all of this is great if you’re out gathering berries, startle a bear, and need to fight for your life. Or even if you need to work your way through an unforeseen emergency at work. The downside is that prolonged stress can take a serious toll on the brain and body, causing everything from migraines to hypertension to chronic pain and other health issues.
But it affects your whole life. Imagine you painted your entire body blue. Everything you touched, wore, sat on, all of it would end up stained with some blue. Dealing with stress, especially chronic stress, is a bit like that. When we become overwhelmed with stress, it shows up like those blue fingerprints and stains all the other parts of our life, regardless of where the stress originated. We can become impatient with friends and family, withdrawn and depressed, and at work, our motivation and productivity falter. Lyra Health reports that 30 percent of people report stress interfering with their work, 40 percent are suffering from burnout, and 62 percent have concerns about the future.
The thing about stress is that it isn’t just full-body, it’s full being. Work, goals, hopes, life, leisure—stress colors all of it. It’s inevitable, part of being human, and yet, it can also take us out at the knees. The good news is that no matter how potent stress can be, there are ways to regain control, or better, head it off before it overcomes us in the first place.
Reducing stress at work: Tips for leaders
The process of becoming a people leader who knows how to reduce their team’s stress at work is twofold. First, you need to start with yourself. Part of being a good leader is modeling good behavior, and stress is no different. So start by learning to manage your own stress levels in a productive way. After that, expand your perspective to those around you and challenge yourself to become attuned to the morale of your team.
Be the change. The bottom line is, you can’t help other people get a handle on their stress levels if you don’t take care of your own first. So, build your own foundation by:
- Staying calm. The American philosopher William James once said, “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over the other.” This isn’t to say you should ignore your stressors, but rather, work to adjust your approach to them. There are only so many things you can control, so focus on controlling those with calm and confidence while letting the others go.
- Pacing yourself. We all know the saying. You eat an elephant in one giant bite, right? Of course not! We do it in small bites. And the same goes for managing stress. Often, there’s no quick fix. Be sure to pace yourself. Otherwise, you’ll risk becoming stressed out about how you’re dealing with your stress.
- Focus on your small joys. This could be Thursday lunches with a friend, the crossword you do alongside your morning coffee, or Friday’s family movie night. Anything that brings you joy is worth focusing on, and that focus will help you stay in control of your stress.
- Asking for help. Sometimes, we can’t do it all alone. And that’s not a sign of weakness or failure, but the fact that you’re human and none of us can do it all alone. If you need a helping hand, there’s strength in asking for one.
Then watch for changes in your teams. Think of this as keeping your finger on the pulse of your workplace. If you’re attuned to your team by following these tips, you’ll be able to notice when things fall off-kilter in time to get them back on track. As a people leader, if you want to help boost employee well-being and reduce stress at work you’ll need to:
- Stay mindful. Mindfulness is a powerful tool. Not only can it help you manage your own stress level, it will also help you focus on the present, slow down enough to see the bigger picture, and keep your emotions in check while managing the feelings of others.
- Up your observation game. A major part of leading to reduce stress is learning to see when your team members are stressed! To do this, you need to first have a baseline. Make mental notes about when your team is doing well so that you’ll be able to tell when they aren’t. This could be anything from a punctual person starting to come in late or a typically calm team member consistently losing patience.
- Create a culture of open communication. It may not be an actual magic pill, but it comes close. Communication is absolutely key for managing stress. As a leader, you need to be willing to be vulnerable and open about your own challenges and encourage others to do the same with you. Be sure to keep your door open, invite feedback, and make it known that you’re prepared to listen to others.
Next, don’t be afraid to think big. Part of being a people leader who helps their team learn how to reduce stress at work is creating a less stressful workplace. Examine your overall workplace and team culture and look for places where it can improve. While we can’t shut down or head off every stressor we’ll face, we can take a step back, look at the bigger picture, and prepare ourselves and our teams to deal with stress in the best way possible. Here’s how:
- Remember the importance of psychological safety. Psychological safety, in the simplest terms, means feeling like it’s okay to screw up. Basically, a workplace that values psychological safety encourages its employees to take risks without the fear of punishment. It isn’t “go big or go home,” it’s “go big, then if you mess up, learn from it and try again.”
A psychologically safe workplace is also one that values a variety of approaches and perspectives alongside respectful open communication and cycles of constructive feedback. It’s a workplace that works hard to be inclusive and sets up employees for positive stress management by creating a culture of compassion, support, and collective drive.
- Prize authenticity. A major reason to create a psychologically safe workplace is so that your team members feel comfortable bringing their whole selves—including all of their diverse identities—to work. Because, in the end, all of us want to feel like we belong. When our whole selves are welcomed, we don’t waste energy hiding the pieces that may not be accepted. And with that extra energy, in an environment that is supportive and inclusive, we can better manage stress with plenty left over for ambition, innovation, and creativity.
Small changes for big wins
Culture and value shifts play a big role in reducing stress at work. But don’t neglect the small stuff. Here are some ideas for how to reduce stress at work on a day-to-day basis.
Strive for balance. Remind your team to take breaks. Stress amplifies when we ask ourselves to stay perpetually “on,” and doing so can eventually lead to clinical burnout. You can also take the extra step of planning them into your day by doing things such as adding light exercise into your daily routine or inviting people to eat lunch or take their breaks away from their desks. Even the occasional walk around the block can do wonders for your mental and physical health.
Build engagement. People need people. It’s that simple, yet, that hard, too. Isolation is mentally and emotionally draining, and it can compound the effects of stress. The answer is to offer opportunities for your team to engage with each other.
This means getting creative with how to assemble and manage your teams. Challenge people to find common ground with new team members. Delegate tasks and responsibilities to show your team you have faith in their abilities. And watch out for untapped or underutilized talents, then offer employees opportunities to test themselves and grow.
Make it fun. Even though we’re doing these things at work, they don’t always have to be about work. Remember, you’re a people leader. And each of us is bigger and more complex than our duties and tasks alone. So, have some fun!
The possibilities include scavenger hunts, weekly or monthly challenges, ongoing cooperative games, and other fun activities. One week, you might ask your employees to each anonymously share a funny memory from childhood on a notecard, then challenge everyone to try and match each memory to each colleague. Whoever gets the most right wins a new water bottle or an extra fifteen-minute break. Or you could nominate an office mascot—an action figure or any small statue or item you all agree on—then have one person hide it. Whoever finds it wins a small prize, then is tasked with hiding it for the next person to find. You can try out weekly trivia contests, a “perfect cocktail” contest (make sure to provide a virgin option!), or organize simple weekly or monthly scavenger hunts using items in the office or around town. Once you get started, the options are endless.
In the beginning, a few people may feel silly. But, sometimes, silliness or a bit of fun just for fun’s sake is the perfect antidote for stress. Laughter and lightness relieve tension and bring people closer together. Tailor these challenges and games to your team, making sure to seek out feedback and ask for suggestions. And remember, activities like these don’t need to be distracting or negatively impact productivity. Instead, they inject a bit of color and fun into your typical workday.
Think outside of the box. Whether it’s office-wide games or introducing daily mindfulness sessions, don’t be afraid to try something new. We’ve all been through our fair share of “new”—and scary and uncertain and unknown—this past year and a half, but instead of shying away from change out of fear, embrace the positive possibilities that come with thinking outside of the box.
Stress is unavoidable. Small or large, there will always be those things beyond our control that challenge us and create change. As we’ve all learned recently, sometimes those things rattle the ground beneath our feet with aftershocks that keep us struggling to find our footing for months afterward.
But even with all of that and more, with uncertainty and the inevitability of the unknown, people leaders can help themselves and their teams not only reduce their stress at work but create environments that stop stress in its tracks. With mindfulness and self-awareness, by valuing psychological safety, inclusivity, and belonging, and by finding balance, building engagement, and remembering to have a little fun, we can settle the rumbling ground long before we’re on our knees all while strengthening our stance for the future.