How to support employee stress in uncertain times

Compassionate leadership is being called to step up and lead with care to support employees in navigating stress and anxiety during these uncertain times.

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Working from home was an adjustment for many of us as we transitioned back in March while navigating the stress that came with a global pandemic. Soon began the tips and tricks to stay motivated, productive and engaged while settling into your new (or should I say familiar) environment. Your bed, couch, the kitchen and whatever other creative places you called ‘the office.’

Employees were not at all prepared to work from home for the long-term nor did they sign up for it. Leaders were having to handle the standard responsibilities of managing a team remotely, while now having to deal with new emotional and mental stresses that none of us could have prepared for or imagined.

This is of course dealing with their own stress that a global crisis has brought to life. We’re in turbulent times with still much uncertainty that lies ahead. So much so if we thought ‘work’ was the biggest culprit of some of life’s biggest stresses, it’s now a few notches lower than the top 5 stresses in life. 

Or is it? Job loss is considered one of the top stresses in our lives and we all know the impact the economy has had due to COVID with unemployment rates in Canada hitting highs of 13% as of April according to Stats Canada.

Fast forward, we have a social movement across the globe that has the collective emotions in high gear processing grief, sadness and anger to name a few, while the motive is for the greater good and sustainable change for racial equality. To say we’re ‘processing’ a lot and stressed would be an understatement.

Some of us feel it more than others, however, there is no separation when it comes to unity and coming together as one. With that in mind, your role as a leader will become even more significant in the days, months and years ahead. But one step at a time.

While some of you may have partially transitioned to an office setting, others are still working from home. Some by choice and others haven’t been given the green light to go back to their office. What hasn’t changed is being responsible for productivity, managing performance, strategic planning and other priorities, while managing overwhelming stress that is our state of affairs. 

This is where your greatest opportunity lies as a leader to put compassion, empathy and heart into practice. I have a client that I’m working with who happens to be struggling with one of her direct reports and is being put to the test in leading with the aforementioned. 

This employee is generally one of the quieter ones on her team, however over the past several months has been showing signs of passive aggression in his communication, he doesn’t often participate in team meetings, he’s short in his 1:1 meetings and it’s clear he’s overwhelmed and stressed.

But who isn’t right? Well, that might be a fair assumption, yet pandemic or not, you’re still responsible for your employee’s performance. Without supporting them in the best way you can that goes beyond the title and role they hold in your organization, you do both your employee and yourself a disservice. 

My client has noticed this kind of behaviour from her direct report for some time and it was now beginning to affect the rest of the team. She had approached him on several occasions to ask him if there’s anything that’s going on or troubling him and that he can talk to her if he needed to talk.

She said to me, “Lisa, I’m not a therapist. He opened up to me last week saying that he is stressed. His wife is not working, he’s got a young child, he’s expecting another baby and is just overwhelmed with all the responsibilities that are falling on him. It’s a lot on him and I just want to be able to support him and help him out, but I also need him to do his job and communicate with me.”

I told her she doesn’t need to be a trained therapist. That’s not her job. All she has to do is care and want to support him with the resources available to her to help her do that. At the least, if she can do that, she’s halfway to a win.

Together, we worked on brainstorming some options and tools she can offer along with how to revisit the conversation with him. 

A few things we discussed included:

  • Maintaining regular check-in’s
  • Creating a safe and trusted space for open dialogue and communication
  • Being available and accessible 
  • Finding common ground to personally connect

The last one was feedback she received from the broader team that they all appreciated in my client’s leadership style. She’s been vulnerable and transparent to share her own mistakes and mishaps when she was in their position, which went a long way with building trust.

With all the responsibilities leaders are managing, the emotional and mental wellbeing of employees is often left out of the equation or at the bottom of the list. 

We live in a society that celebrates being ‘busy,’ working long hours or overtime and call it successful. In truth, they’re the perfect ingredients for stress. This year has tested us in more ways than one and the way we live, let alone work is up for re-evaluation. It forced us to prioritize ourselves in multiple ways despite what our culture has been conditioning us to believe is true.

It’s time we look at how we lead and continue to transform our leadership to supporting employees like human beings first, workers second.

For other resources that might be helpful as you’re looking for additional ways to support your people:

Pack your patience – life at work post-COVID-19

Learn 5 ways to manage change that actually work

How to thrive on the ‘inside’ in uncertain times for a long-term win

I’m curious and would love to hear from you in the comments. 

As a leader, what’s one thing you do to support your employees during stressful times?

To your success,


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