In this pandemic era, we are living through myriad crises: health, economic, environmental, racial, and political. Each is stressful on its own, and when combined, the stress is multiplied. We aren’t just sensing danger, we are living with tangible threats on a daily basis.
The craving to feel safe on a global scale has possibly never been greater, and as business leaders, it’s imperative we take employee stress seriously.
Need Evidence? You Don’t Have to Look Far for Studies on Employee Stress
Rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide are high and trending further up. According to a 2020 study archived in the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine, anxiety increased from 5.12% in 2008 to 6.68% in 2018 among adult Americans, and that was before the pandemic. Sadly, according to the National Institute of Mental Health the rate of suicide in the U.S. has trended up for the past 20 years and is now the tenth leading cause of death.
We are clearly collectively stressed.
The craving to feel safe on a global scale has possibly never been greater, and as business leaders, it's imperative we take employee stress seriously.
The Impacts are Both Personal and Professional
For me, this is concerning on multiple fronts.
First, I’m feeling it myself. As a parent, I’m concerned daily about the stress on my oldest beginning a career and our three teenagers making the best of their derailed senior year of high school. As a child of aging parents, I worry that isolation and inability to exercise will take a serious toll.
As a business leader, I’ve had to steel myself to stay calm during what has been the wildest roller coaster ride in Sendero’s history. There’s also the burden of responsibility I feel for our employees and their families, all of whom are stressed for their own reasons.
It’s a lot, and I’m not alone.
Employee Stress is Mounting
Employees around the world are struggling. There are multiple stressors – worry about job security; loneliness; fear of illness; grief in general for everything from colleagues lost to the virus to the loss of simple normalcy; discomfort due to the loss of an office environment; boredom; feeling trapped. They might even have “survivor’s guilt” for still having a job.
While short-term stress can be motivating, research has shown long-term stress can harm your health.
Helping Employees Feel Safe and Secure
Leaders need to step up. But how? The obvious answers include promoting your company’s Employee Assistance Program and supporting wellness initiatives – but there has to be more.
For inspiration, I turned to Simon Sinek’s TEDTalk on why good leaders make you feel safe.
He points out that while we have limited control over the dangers outside of our organizations, we have inordinate control over what happens inside of them. We set the tone. We can create an environment inside our organizations that helps our employees manage the stresses outside of it. We can make a difference.
Sinek talks about how when leaders make sacrifices for the safety and well-being of their people, it breeds a deep sense of trust and cooperation. Those feelings are like an antidote for stress, the medicine many desperately need right now.
So, ask yourself: What can I sacrifice for the safety and well-being of my team? Sinek highlights the bold actions taken by a few business leaders facing a crisis:
- Foregoing executive bonuses and/or salaries
- Avoiding layoffs with kinder alternatives like furloughs or across-the-board pay-cuts
- Taking pay cuts themselves to protect the livelihoods of their employees
Actions like those are unusual in a capitalist economy, but they do happen, and they do seem to breed the loyalty and team spirit he predicts. Southwest Airlines is a great example.
In addition to those grand gestures, though, there are plenty of other things we can do. Some take nothing but time and a willingness to be vulnerable and open:
- Listen, both through formal group sessions and in one-on-one conversations
- Increase information sharing and transparency, trusting that your employees can handle the truth
- Provide learning opportunities to accelerate understanding of cultural differences and historical injustices
- Encourage employees to bring their best, authentic self to work so they can spend their energy on managing their stress and being creative instead of trying to fit some artificial standard
- Send thoughtful notes, hand-written if possible – appreciation for a job well-done, sympathy for a loss, or congratulations for a milestone
- Empower employees to work together to come up with creative ways to handle stress, then support execution of as many of the ideas as feasible
- Be human – encourage social time at the start of meetings and find joy in the life (e.g., cat tails, toddlers, etc.) making regular cameos on our screens
- Invite employees to share their talents like leading an online exercise class or meditation
Others may cut into your bottom line, but are investments in your people that are worth considering:
- Understand and accept that some may be unable to perform at their peak for a period of time
- Offer stipends to cover home office equipment so employees can have an ergonomically sound work environment
- Voluntarily extend the extra PTO for COVID-19-related illnesses even though it’s no longer legally required
- Offer work pro bono to support your community and help employees find purpose
The Trust Dividend
You may be sacrificing some profitability, but what you gain in trust and cooperation is priceless. It’s so important, Stephen M.R. Covey gives it a name in The Speed of Trust: the trust dividend. It is real and powerful, and embracing the “leaders eat last” philosophy is one of the best ways to earn it.
Employment is a form of social contract. At its most basic, companies owe their employees compensation for their work. At its best, though, business leaders feel a responsibility to employees and their families that goes beyond the transactional nature of payment for productivity. The most effective leaders help their employees feel secure, informed, trusted, and empowered. Those employees are part of something bigger than themselves, and they know their leaders will take charge when the company is threatened.
Paraphrasing Sinek, when people remain and feel safe and feel like they belong, remarkable things happen. It’s worth striving to create that kind of environment.