We all know there’s stress, and then there’s STRESS.
“Normal” stress that we all experience as part of the everyday human condition offers some challenges, to be sure, and we talk about ways of creating personal resilience that can help offset some of those challenges so we can go about our days in a more productive, positive way. Whole careers are built around answering those challenges.
What about those times when we’re humming along and *~WHAM~* we get hit with one of these “pressure cooker” type stressful situations? Pressure cookers work by trapping steam inside the pot, speeding up the process significantly. That’s great if you’re in a hurry to cook dinner. Trapping stress inside your company can lead to catastrophic and unexpected effects.
Maybe your organization finds itself embroiled in a high-stakes legal situation, or a major merger/acquisition. Maybe you’ve got a sudden loss of a highly respected leader, or have a sudden shift in regulatory or marketplace landscape that requires a quick pivot on strategy. While most of us won’t deal with these in our daily work routines, it’s likely that your company will face at least one major stress-filled experience, and let’s be brutally honest. Meditation classes and free breakfasts probably aren’t going to be sufficient to support your teams and keep them performing at the level you need/want them, and we usually don’t have the luxury of just hitting the pause button on our operations while we figure out how we’re going to respond to those situations. Here are some ideas for building (or improving) your company’s “Stress Response Plan”
An Ounce of Prevention is Better than a Pound of Cure
Don’t wait for these high-stakes situations to start talking about resilience and workplace stress. While we can’t always plan for those “pressure cooker” situations, we absolutely must acknowledge that stress exists and start including stress-management techniques in our workplaces. If your company offers health coverage, there may be some group resources available through your provider that can benefit your personnel, at minimal additional cost.
Many companies are looking at ways to include mindfulness practices into the workday, to provide a bit of a “steam vent”. Dedicating a conference room for meditation a couple of times a day can be a worthwhile investment. Some companies find that having a “Resilience Topic of the Month” campaign can raise awareness and provide tips and tricks, with links to information, videos, book recommendations on the topic, and any related community resources can be invaluable!
There are also a number of smartphone apps to help people identify symptoms of stress and individual ways to deal with them. Many of these are free, and many are available for both iOS and Android users. Can you provide space for employees to recommend apps they like? Depending on your organization, you might consider a physical bulletin board in your cafeteria or a virtual list on a shared intranet for people to discuss their favourites. Bonus: You’re encouraging people to take an active role in proposing solutions!
We also know that creating environments where people have healthy relationships increases their baseline resilience and ability to rebound faster when crises occur. Intentionally designing processes to foster compassion among colleagues can drastically improve well-being and directly improve psychological safety, and people are far more likely to speak up on both problems and solutions if they don’t fear retaliation or other negative repercussions. Bonus: This may help ward off some of those “pressure cooker: crisis situations altogether, as people feel safe addressing problems when they are easier to resolve, instead of waiting for the eventual explosion.
Collaborate, Don’t Isolate
If you’ve already created healthy working relationships and psychologically safe teams, people will be less likely to isolate when met with crisis. Still, during uncertain times, it is human nature for people to withdraw to what feels like a safer, less vulnerable situation while they wait to see what the fall-out will be. Leaders can influence this in several ways.
Have honest and transparent (as transparent as possible — some situations have hard-coded limitations on what can be shared) conversations with your teams so they have as much information as you can reasonably provide, and ask them directly what they need to manage the foreseeable future. This should include both every-day expectations and goals and “crisis management” type information and related additional work, if any. Even if you haven’t had stellar relationships or a strong sense of psychological safety previously, this can help stave off some of the suspicion and distrust that tends to feed, rather than mitigate stress. And if you have challenges with gossip, now is the perfect time to address that head-on!
If you have remote employees, fighting isolation is especially crucial. Remote employees already have significant challenges feeling cut off from the organization under good environments, so it’s extra important to reach out and bring your remote folks into the fold during times of high stress. If you can’t physically bring them in for face to face conversations, consider having more video conferences or phone calls and less emails and text messages, and try creating more opportunities for them to interact with the team (careful not to just add more meetings to their days, though! You rarely decrease stress by adding more responsibilities!)
Work Smarter, Not Harder
Speaking of more work — You will not win hearts and minds, and you certainly will not decrease stress, if your answer to every high-pressure situation is to ask your employees to tighten their belts, do more with less, work extra hours, skimp on quality in favour of volume, or other short-sighted messages that are common responses to these “pressure cooker” experiences.
Now, we all know that sometimes, those things are actually necessary, or at least partially necessary. If somebody leaves unexpectedly, their business-critical tasks still need to get done. If there’s a sudden financial crunch, priorities need to be clearly identified and communicated, and cost savings opportunities can become a true need.
To avoid crushing your people under this weight, though, it’s incredibly important to take a good, hard look at what the desired outcome is, and that outcome probably should not include burning out your personnel. One way to help avoid burn-out is to critically evaluate ways to do more by actually doing less. People typically cannot sustain 16, 18, 20 hour days week after week, and even if the spirit is willing, the quality of their work is very likely to decrease, which will predictably exacerbate the stress rather than relieve it. No good!
Hint: If everything is a priority, you probably don’t actually know what your priorities are, and that’s an absolutely necessary step in the process.
We conduct safety drills because we know that in high-stress environments people tend to react instinctively, not pro-actively. Don’t assume that your managers, supervisors or really any of your people are going to magically be able to handle these pressure cooker situations in the way you want, and more importantly the way you need to come out the other side in the best possible position. Consider creating a stress management plan that includes strategies for managing “pressure cooker” situations. Your people, and your business, will thank you for it.