Defusing stress

The effects of chronic anxiety are rippling through organizations large and small as workers face ever-increasing internal and external pressures. Left unchecked, stress in the workplace is passed like a virus from employee to employee impacting morale, productivity and, eventually, physical and mental health.

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control estimate that 75 to 90 percent of all doctor visits are stress-related, including at least 11 million Americans who suffer from unhealthy levels of stress at work. Therefore, it’s important for leaders to find a healthy way to deal with employee stress.

“Communication and building trust is critical to help employees manage their anxiety about uncertainty and change,” says Julie Sanon, senior vice president and innovation officer, Tampa Bay WorkForce Alliance. “It takes effective communication at all levels of the organization, and it has to be timely.”

Smart Business spoke with Sanon to find out more about the factors that are eroding employee confidence, how to assess workplace anxiety, and why empathy is crucial for building productivity, morale and loyalty.

What is contributing to the shaken confidence and increased anxiety in the workplace?

With current economic conditions as they are, employees are working in an increasingly changing environment. Companies are going through reorganizations, mergers, leadership changes and downsizing. So employees today are faced with shifts in the workload, random interruptions, lack of pay increases, and in some instances either pay decreases or a decrease in work hours. Workers also experience anxiety when the communication in the company is not forthcoming. They are stressed when they perceive they have little or no control over their participation or in the outcome of their work. These factors and others tend to have employees’ levels of anxiety rising due to the fears of not knowing what the future is going to hold for them.

How can leaders best assess employee anxiety about reorganization and change?

Leadership should recognize that employees react differently to stressors in their lives, be it in the work environment or in their personal lives. Today, there are many stressors in the environment, some over which employees have control and others not so much. So it’s important for managers to maintain a pulse over their organization and watch for indicators. For example, there may be a noticeable change in employee morale, productivity, or loyalty. These are all potential signs of distress. Leadership should watch and listen and communicate effectively to try to minimize levels of distress and anxiety.

What are examples of adjustments a company can make?

Communication and building trust is key. For example, effective communication during a company reorganization needs to begin early and take place often. It is important to explain the role the employee is going to play in the reorganization, walk them through the new workflow and explain what’s required for the reorganization. A sense of shared responsibility should be communicated. Send the message that everyone in the organization is adjusting and going through the same change together, so the employees understand they are not going through the changes by themselves.

How does empathy and understanding come into play?

When empathy and understanding is displayed, it strengthens the team, and oftentimes it increases productivity, morale and loyalty. It is necessary to talk openly about the kinds of job stresses employees may experience, and equip them with the tools to be able to effectively deal with those stresses as they arise. Encourage employees to feel they are personally part of the solution to the challenges the company is going through, and that what they have to say matters.

Further, always be exploring ways to motivate your staff with awards and recognition programs, and creating ways for employees to express what makes them feel accomplished or energized during time at the office. In these ways, empathy can make the difference between success and failure of your business by ensuring employees remain engaged in positive activities.

Does this require creative levels of communication and reassurance, and what is the message?

Effective communication is going to be essential at all levels within the organization to ensure the work environment is a healthy environment. And it’s important for that communication to be timely as well as appropriate. For example, you have to communicate effectively and in a timely manner why pay raises, company sponsored events or other annual events are not possible without diminishing appreciation for the employees’ contributions.

Reassurances to employees that everyone is observing the appropriate actions can make a difference in the workplace, for example, being good stewards, taking responsibility, supporting the work they do on behalf of their customer and sharing the company’s values.

Julie Sanon is the senior vice president and innovation officer for Tampa Bay WorkForce Alliance. Reach her at (813) 740-4680 or [email protected].