Finding ways to help employees manage stress is often a top priority for HR and wellbeing experts. But it can be extremely challenging; for many, the workplace is their primary source of stress.

Personal issues, lack of job security and workload can all add up to overwhelm your employees, leading to a drastic reduction in their mental and physical wellbeing.

That’s why it’s so important we do all we can to address sources of stress in the workplace, while also learning how we can support those affected.

Whilst stress is part of our evolutionary history and biological make-up, we can use factors within our control, as individuals and leaders, to mediate the effects of stress on ourselves and others.

In this post, we’re going to run through some actionable ways to help employees manage stress – whether that’s educating yourself to spot the signs of stress or implementing new wellbeing initiatives.

1. Learn to recognise the symptoms of stress

To really help your employees manage stress, you’ll need to learn how to recognise the symptoms. Whether you’re in an office or working from home, you need to support your employees, and the first step is to pick up on the signs when they are stressed.

We can split the symptoms of stress into four areas: physical, cognitive, behavioural and emotional. Physical symptoms can include headaches, muscle tension, tiredness, chest pains and heart palpitations, while cognitive symptoms you may notice in the workplace include low concentration, irritability, fatigue and impaired memory.

Stress affects our emotional state too with symptoms including emotional outbursts, low mood, sensitivity to criticism, low confidence, anxiety and anger.

Plus, when it comes to teams or departments with highly stressed staff, you may notice the following:

  • Disagreements and arguments
  • Decreased performance
  • Higher sickness absence
  • Higher staff turnover

Once you can spot the signs, it’s time to understand how to respond.

2. Understand how to respond

Before we talk about organisation-wide initiatives to reduce stress, it’s important that you know how to support an employee on a personal level.

If you believe one of your employees is feeling stressed, it’s important to talk to them. Approach them, ask open questions about how they’re feeling, and show that you’re concerned for them. You may need to be direct and assertive to show your concerns, but it’s important not to be forceful.

When a colleague opens up to you, listen non-judgementally and avoid giving unsolicited advice. You don’t need to have all the answers, simply making it clear you care is a great place to start.

Once you’ve listened, reassure your colleague that you’re there to help and ask if there is anything else you could be doing to support them. Aim to get regular touch points scheduled in – whether that’s a team meeting or 1:1, so you can continue to support them, and show your support is available going forward.

If you continue to be concerned, signpost them to the relevant support – whether that’s your EAP or mental health helpline.

How to support employees with stress diagram

3. Develop the skills to cope with stress

When we feel like we don’t have the resources to cope with the demands placed upon us, we begin to feel stressed.

But what are your options to support your employees?

  • Option 1: Take the demands away
  • Option 2: Ensure your employees have the resources to manage the demands

It’s clearly not always possible in the workplace to choose option 1, but you can support your employees to build enough resources (the skills to cope) to effectively manage their demands.

This is the basis of the Job Demands-Resources theory. Helping your employees to maintain a balance between their resources and demands will support them to stay engaged, challenged and motivated despite the demands of their career.

For a practical exercise to complete with your employees, take a look at #2 on this post on health and wellbeing tips at work.

4. Realise that not all stress is bad

It’s important to keep in mind that not all stress is bad. The discomfort it creates can be hugely energising and, in these instances, stress helps us pay attention, keeps us focused and helps us prioritise.

These are useful stresses – they help us feel focused rather than fearful, giving us energy instead of draining it away. These are the stresses that can bring out our very best.

So, what is the key to effective stress management? Taking action to transform problem stress into something more useful.

As leaders, we can do the following to ensure our employees are not experiencing negative stress:

  • Understand the causes of workplace stress
  • Consider the impact of COVID-19
  • Know how to spot the warning signs
  • Reflect on your practice as a leader
  • Turn knowledge into action

5. Reduce the gaps

Another strategy to help your employees manage stress is to coach them to choose a gap – e.g., something that is causing them stress – that they can do something about.

“Any gap will do to start with – it doesn’t have to be the biggest or most uncomfortable; working on reducing stress in this area, in any way, leaves us better able to deal with the rest. Even if they can’t close the gap fully, reducing it little by little can still make it easier to cope with,” suggests Sue Evans, founder of workplace wellbeing consultancy FAST Pathways.

6. Lead by example

Work-induced stress isn’t solely an employee’s problem to solve. In fact, managers and leaders play an important role in modelling healthy behaviours.

Change must start from the top and unless you’re leading by example, it’s unlikely your employees will engage. This can be true when it comes to helping your employees manage their stress.

If you are a leader, get vocal about stress reduction and educate yourself and the wider business about the symptoms and causes of stress.

This is about influencing the culture of your organisation, and that has to come from the top. So, even if you’re not a leader, you need to get them onboard. Where they lead, the organisation will follow.

7. Be transparent

To support your employees, it’s important that you’re honest and clear with them. This means acknowledge uncertainty – whether that’s caused by the pandemic or any difficult situation affecting that employee.

It’s also key to make your expectations clear. This could be that you expect your employees to set clear boundaries while they work from home, I.e. You only expect them to work within office hours. Something as simple as this can help your employees to avoid uncertainty which can lead to increased stress.

Finally, be transparent when it comes to their goals – make sure they’re clear and achievable. The SMART goals method will help you ensure a good level of transparency.

8. Help your employees to be more social

Whether working in an office, onsite, or from home, your employees spend a lot of time working together. And the more comfortable they are with each other, the less stress they will feel.

As co-workers get to know each other, expectations and communication barriers are broken down, making for easier interactions in the future.

One quick route for boosting social activity across your business – especially when working-from-home – is to create an online social channel using an online messaging platform like Microsoft Teams, Slack or WhatsApp.

Communicate that the channel is not for work, and encourage your colleagues to engage without fear of being labelled as wasting time. It’s important that your people are able to socialise as much as possible, even if it is virtually.

9. Create quiet time

No matter how successful your wellbeing initiatives are, stress cannot be completely avoided. That said, you can help alleviate its effects by ensuring your employees have a peaceful space where they can take a break.

This could be as simple as an unused meeting room, office, or even an outdoor bench. The important part is to ensure that it’s separated from the daily grind, where your employees can take a few minutes out of the workday and not think about work.

Another strategy – particularly relevant to home workers – is to consider blocking off time during the work week. This could mean implementing “No Meeting Mondays” or an hour of each day where meetings are discouraged, and employees are encouraged to focus on one individual task. This can help avoid employees getting bogged down in meetings or overwhelmed by a heavy workload, which can increase stress.

10. Develop a supportive workplace culture

Creating and sustaining a supportive workplace culture, where colleagues can openly talk about their struggles with stress or other aspects of mental health, is key to reducing stress within your workforce.

However, it can be challenging to develop this type of culture, especially in organisations that have not focused on wellbeing initiatives before.

Your first action will be simply to get the conversation started and start to break down the stigma that unfortunately still surrounds stress and mental health.

Many employees will be wary of discussing their mental health concerns and others may be worried about the impact opening up could have on their careers.

Try starting with something as simple as asking your colleagues how they’re doing on a regular basis – making it clear that you care is a great first step to developing a supportive workplace culture.

For additional tips on introducing wellbeing at work and ultimately reducing employee stress, we’ve put together a more detailed article.

11. Improve work environments

The workplace itself makes you and your employees particularly susceptible to musculoskeletal (MSK) pain.

This is caused by a combination of factors that can build up over time, including prolonged sitting periods, a lack of activity during the working day and poor posture whilst sat at your workstation. In its most basic form – it’s caused because we don’t move enough.

Your employees can become stressed if their work environment influences unhealthy behaviours (like minimal movement) and this can lead to MSK pain.

So, here are three quick actions you can take to improve your employees work environment, and keep them active:

  • Encourage employees to take a 10 minute walk before starting work, or at lunch
  • Ensure employees have their workstation set-up correctly (start by ensuring their screen is at eye-level)
  • Encourage employees to set alarms to break sitting periods every hour

Lastly, if you have budget available, it’s well worth supporting your employees to invest in standing desks, quality office chairs and new equipment.

Written by Joe Pindar, Wellbeing Executive, Champion Health