The World Health Organization states that unchecked workplace stress causes burnout which is characterized by “1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and 3) reduced professional efficacy.” We can see that workplace stress is terrible for business and individual health. However, as small business owners and employees, we are often unsure of what to do. Sometimes we might even settle for thinking that stress at work is inevitable.
I do not believe that, and I do not think you should either. There are things you can do as a business owner, manager, or even a first level supervisor to prevent workplace stress in the first place. I am not saying that burnout will never occur. I am saying that we do not need to operate on the assumption that it is normal for our employees to feel stress regularly and to feel burnout on the job.
In this article, I will talk about two causes of stress and two ways you can actively prevent the appearance of stress for your employees.
2 Causes of Workplace Stress
Conflicting and Unclear Demands
A common cause of workplace stress for employees is not knowing or understanding the expectations their boss has of them. Their boss may have never explained the job assignment, or maybe the employee does not understand what the boss has said. It is vital to ensure that you disclose all job requirements to your employees and then check in with them regularly to ensure alignment. Try to avoid questions like “did you get that?” or “does that make sense?” Most employees will say “yes” because they either think they understand or they don’t understand but do not want to seem inadequate. Instead, you can ask the employee open-ended questions that show understanding. You could say something like “So, how do you plan to tackle this project?” This option also has the added benefit of giving your employee decision-making control. We will talk more about the power of that later.
Often times, we add more and more to our employees’ plates, such as when key individuals leave the company or because the company has brought on new business. A solution that is easy to say but hard to implement is to bring in more staff. Hiring more employees is critical if a long-term solution is needed. You should always be reviewing your work and workforce to make sure you have the correct number of people doing the right kind of jobs.
However, another great solution, and one that you can do today, without any money, is to prioritize. If you know that your employees have too much work to do, then you have to reduce the amount of work. Review everything that your employee does; from answering emails to making sales calls. Once you gather all the information, then you have a comprehensive list of what each employee is doing each day. You then need to rank the items from most important to least significant. Once you have this list, then you can take off the things at the bottom of the list. In this exercise, it is also good to review what actions make money or advance a critical project. You want to focus your employees’ time on the items that “move the needle” in your business rather than having the employee get burnt out on low-priority tasks.
2 Ways to Actively Prevent Workplace Stress
One of the most significant ways to prevent workplace stress is to embrace work-life boundaries. You want to make sure that your employees are taking care of themselves as individuals and are taking care of what matters to them outside of work. One example is having time with family or spending time on passions and hobbies. A common way to encourage work-life balance is by offering leave. It is essential also to allow your employees to take leave periodically. Often we think that we cannot go on vacations until big projects are complete. However, taking vacations can improve productivity and result in more work getting done. Of course, you must manage time off to make sure you are still meeting business needs.
The key to embracing work-life boundaries is to showcase these boundaries yourself. Therefore, no emailing your team at midnight and no working through lunch. If employees see you sending emails in the middle of the night, then they will naturally assume that this behavior is required to advance their careers.
Control Over Related Job Decisions
The ultimate way to prevent job stress for your employees is to give them control over job-related tasks. You have probably heard over and over again that you should empower your employees to improve productivity and retention. That is very true, but you also want to empower your employees to prevent stress. Give them a goal or problem to address and then let them come up with a solution for your consideration. When this happens, an employee will feel engaged and energized to create a solution even if it is difficult. On the contrary, if you dictate what steps your employees must take, then they will be worrying about whether or not they are completing each step appropriately rather than considering the best way to get the job done.
These are four essential items to consider when working to prevent workplace stress. Understand that this is a continuing practice that you should revisit often. Over time, you will see what works best for your employees. Avoiding stress and burnout is vital for good business and healthy employees.
About the Author: Sarah Torres-Ferrick is a human resources expert at HR Circle Online who helps government agencies and small businesses grow high performing workforces through education and consulting.