There is little doubt that 2020 has been the most stressful year in the workplace in modern history. People have been working from home or on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, putting their lives at risk. We’re all deeply concerned about our health and the economy. More than 200,000 Americans are dead from the virus. Most of those deaths were preventable. And unlike previous crises, such as the 9/11 attacks in 2001, we couldn’t be less united as a people.
But things are about to get worse. I believe the most stressful quarter of my lifetime is about to begin for workplaces across the country.
Recently, I posted a survey on LinkedIn asking people how they believe employee stress and burnout will change in their organization from Q3 to Q4, which for most companies begins Oct. 1. Of the nearly 400 people who weighed in, three-quarters said it will increase.
Why will stress rise? First, the economy. Inside businesses there’s pressure to achieve goals for the year, which is especially tough with revenue down in most industries. Analysts are also expecting further layoffs in the coming months, and federal relief for the unemployed has expired. Meanwhile, the usual infusion of money into retail through holiday shopping is also uncertain given the economic strain.
Perhaps most stressful of all, in the middle of the quarter will be the U.S. election, which could be drawn out through court battles and spark civil unrest. And as some analysts note, the Trump administration is encouraging vigilantism and violence.
The business and human imperative
Amid all this, there’s a lot businesses can do to help employees alleviate stress. Yes it’s kind to do so, but there’s also strong financial incentive. High stress levels lower productivity, engagement, and employee retention, while increasing absenteeism and medical costs.
Businesses need workers at their best, delivering innovative solutions and maximizing their productivity during the time they’re able to put in to work (which can be limited as millions of employees also need to take care of children at home and/or sick loved ones).
So what should businesses do? Help employees help each other.
Why peer coaching works
In peer coaching, employees at similar levels in a company pair off to engage in carefully structured conversations. It’s not mentoring or teaching. Instead, it’s all about two coworkers listening to one another, asking questions, and offering feedback. Through this process, participants help each other find answers for themselves.
It helps build self-awareness, increase clarity, and provide true social support — all of which are critical in beating stress. Studies have found that when done right, peer coaching reduces stress in all sorts of environments.
As the USC Marshall School of Business has found, “Two stressed people equals less stress.” A study determined that emotional similarity with a partner when facing a stressful situation reduced cortisol levels.
How to start
To make peer coaching work, businesses create a system in which people are paired with someone at their same level in the organization, but from a different department. They provide specific questions to start off a conversation, and guidance on how to offer each other feedback throughout. (My company, Imperative, provides these. See our Definitive Guide to Peer Coaching.) These sessions can take place by video, so they’re just as smooth remotely as in the office.
Both sides of the experience — speaking and listening — make a big difference. Opening up about your feelings brings stress relief because “if you let it out, it can help you process whatever it is you’re worried about,” a clinical psychologist told Refinery29. And focusing on others is helpful because, “When we fully engage in empathy, we draw on skills for emotion regulation. In doing so, we are also controlling emotions that can be stressful,” a researcher explained in Psychology Today.
Before a peer coaching conversation ends, each participant chooses a next action to take that will help them achieve their goals. They’re then tasked with holding each other accountable to see those actions through. My company has found that 80% of those actions are completed.
Over time, pairings change, allowing each employee to experience a broader variety of perspectives. This also leads to a larger number of positive relationships, which also reduces stress.
It’s been a difficult year. Let’s engage in the best practices we can to help ourselves, and each other, through what lies ahead.