How to Manage Employee Stress Levels

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Stress is defined as how we respond physically, mentally and/or emotionally to demands in our environment. We deal with stress all day long. On the lower end of the stress-level scale, your Chihuahua barks too much. On the higher end of the scale, you were involved in an auto accident and have to come up with a $1,000 deductible as well as transportation while the car is in the shop.

Stress Isn’t Always Bad

Although we tend to think of stress as a bad thing, that’s not always the case. Perhaps you’ve come to the conclusion that your Chihuahua might do less recreational barking if he had a pal. Getting a new dog is fun and exciting. Nevertheless, you’ll have to make sure the two dogs get along, and you’ll probably have to make some changes in your home and schedule now that you’re a two-dog family.

It’s not uncommon for performers to feel stress-level highs before the curtain goes up. Commonly referred to as "stage fright", Barbra Streisand and Adele are famous for it, but they channel the stress into giving great performances.

Fight or flight is our body’s stress reaction to extreme and immediate danger. It can save our lives. If you’re a Shark Week fan, you’ve seen many examples of fight or flight, like when a gigantic great white bursts through a metal shark cage with divers inside.

Unrelenting Stress Can Kill You

The kind of stress that causes the most trouble is long-term, unrelenting stress. This is the kind that you want to watch out for as an employer. It can cause all kinds of health problems and behavioral issues, ranging from “shutting down” to headaches to heart attacks.

This is not to say that a restaurant employee is going to keel over on you after a particularly busy lunch shift. However, you should be alert to changes in employees’ health and attitude if your business is in a frenzy for weeks on end.

Unfortunately, there’s no stress-level scale for measuring stress. It’s subjective. Something that stresses one employee may roll off another’s back. However, there are ways to gauge employee stress levels, and there are things you can do about it.

How to Recognize Employee Stress

Indications that an employee is feeling stressed to the point where you need to take action are:

  • She’s making more errors than usual.
  • She’s taking more sick days than she has before.
  • She exhibits a short fuse with co-workers and customers.
  • Her morale is low.
  • She’s withdrawing or shutting down, which is equivalent to giving up. 

The key to recognizing these signs of on-the-job stress is that they are different from how the employee usually acts. (If you have an employee who consistently makes errors and calls in sick regardless of what’s going on in your business, you probably need to replace her.)

In addition to watching for behavioral changes, be aware of the obvious. Relocating your business, being chronically short staffed or having crucial equipment that’s not operating correctly for months can all cause a lot of stress.

Managing Employees’ Stress Levels

Once you’ve determined that your employees are stressed and you've identified the cause of it, relief is yours to provide. Just talking to your employees and recognizing out loud that things are rough can help a lot. It will help even more if you tell them what your plan is for alleviating their stress and by when.

For example, if everyone has been working too hard because you’re short staffed, let everyone know what steps you’re taking to hire new people, and give them an estimate of when that will be accomplished. Involve your employees in solving the problem. Ask them to refer anyone they know who would be qualified for the vacant positions.

While unrelenting, long-term stress may require a big-picture, long-term solution, there are things you can do right away that will help.

Quick Employee Stress Relievers

Employees like to be recognized for pulling their weight during a particularly stressful time. Consider some ways to do that:

  • Give your employees rewards that address stress, such as gift certificates for massages.
  • Show them that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Offer extra paid time off that can be taken as soon as the big project is finished. In the meantime, buy an espresso machine for the break room.
  • Provide services that make their personal lives easier. Line up grocery delivery, dog walking and dry cleaning pickup and delivery from and to the office. Cater a great lunch once a week. This will cost you, but you’ll earn employees for life. 
  • Ask employees what they need to lower their stress levels. If it’s feasible, provide it.

Simply recognizing out loud that things are stressful and sharing what you plan to do about it will help a lot. However, actions must follow your words, or you’ll not only have stressed-out employees on your hands but you’ll also lose their trust and respect.