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Between the global pandemic, outcry against
systemic social injustice and brutality, and the drawn-out U.S. election
results, we can all point to macro sources of stress that have left us totally
The Institute for Corporate
Productivity (i4cp), in collaboration with Professor
Rob Cross, has been studying the myriad impacts
of 2020, to include looking at the more subtle effects of sustained stress. For
example, the million small, personal moments that are also contributing to our
stress. These micro-stressors are the seemingly insignificant but stress-inducing
relational touchpoints that accumulate quickly, slowly draining our personal,
emotional and mental capacity until we find ourselves exhausted by the end of
the day (if not earlier) with no clear reason why.
At work these micro-stressors
might include sensing misalignment with a peer, misinterpreting an ambiguous
client request, or having to coach a team-member. At home: a curt
moment with a partner before work, a worrisome text from a child, or troubling
news about an aging parent’s health.
leaders are caught in the crosshairs
Many organizations have tried to
support weary employees by instituting regular 1:1 well-being check-ins with
managers. But managers who ask reports how they are may find themselves facing
an uncomfortable barrage of sensitive and personal issues that they are
underprepared or unqualified to handle.
These same managers may be overwhelmed
already with their own micro-stressors, leaving them little bandwidth to bear employees’
emotional burdens, too. Those who try to shoulder such stress alone will
inevitably burn out.
Yet many organizations not only expect
managers and leaders to support their employees through regular conversations,
but also to be models of a relatively new imperative in business—well-being.
In a recent i4cp pulse survey, 59% of respondents said that leaders in their
organizations are expected to model prioritizing their personal health and
well-being. Of course, leaders themselves are common sources of stress for
their employees, through destructive practices including poor communication and
inconsistent behaviors that impact our sense of psychological safety at work.
When asked to share details of how leaders
are modeling well-being at work, narrative responses from survey participants ranged
from “pathetic” to “inspired.” Perhaps the most common response was taking time
off and encouraging employees to do the same.
Better solutions benefit
organizations and leaders
A best practice stress solution for
organizations and managers, alike, is active communication— sending regular
email reminders about the benefits of unplugging, leaders sharing their
personal well-being practices in meetings, and push notifications on the
intranet or IM channels.
A particularly promising approach involves
creating supporting structures that make well-being activities part of the
culture for everyone. For example, instituting no-meeting days or no-meeting
during lunch hours, holding virtual walking meetings (as a much-needed reprieve
from video calls), or holding team meditation/mindfulness sessions to kick off
meetings, means employees aren’t left to their own devices to model their
leader’s behaviors. Instead, they take part in team behaviors that reinforce
well-being for all.
Clearly, more leaders and managers should
engage in shaping team norms in such constructive and well-being-supportive
ways. To help managers address micro-stressors, the pulse survey results
indicate that most large organizations offer training on change management and effective
communication, along with promoting a culture of psychological safety, though
smaller organizations may have fewer formal resources to do so.
Further, those common programs often
fail to fully address the velocity and volume of micro-stressors that managers
face today, and may focus on making personal changes that don’t realistically
account for the demands of interconnected environments and relationships.
Beyond the formal training and
vacation reminders, we must ask what behaviors are actually being incentivized?
If there is a persistent culture of long hours and wearing burnout as a badge
of honor, then even the most sophisticated programs are unlikely to provide support.
In fact, underutilized well-being programs do more harm than good since a
stigma builds around using them at all.
When asked how leaders are
incentivized to prioritize their own health and well-being, many respondents
were stumped, offering such responses as “it’s mandated in words, but no
behavior.” However, a notable example points not to a single incentive,
but a “solid culture of accountability around self-care” that is reinforced by
recognition in global town halls with prizes and celebrations for individuals
and teams that show improvement.
The global pandemic has forced
organizations to be more mindful of employee well-being, primarily by
implementing interpersonal check-ins between employee and manager that bring to
light the range of micro-stressors impacting individuals in the blurring
environment of work and home. But managers (who face many micro-stressors
themselves) bear the brunt of this emotional labor.
The answer? We must look to models that
use better communication and effective training to help build individual and
team resilience. Instead of overwhelming leaders with hefty asks, we need to
empower all employees by establishing and evolving cultures of collective
support that emphasize sharing the responsibilities of self and team-care.