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Dr Jan Smith: How business and HR leaders can work to reduce stress

23 November 2021

Story by
Dr Jan Smith,

Dr Jan Smith: How business and HR leaders can work to reduce stress

Stress, we all have it, and we all need it (to a certain extent).

When we experience something stressful, the emotional response centre of our brain (the amygdala) kicks into action and helps us prepare for emergency events.

This is good because it often means we can react in dangerous situations to get us to safety. However, most of us don’t experience emergency events every day, yet this part of our brain is still triggered to act.

It is activated and works as if there is an actual threat when there isn’t.

So, thinking something terrible is about to happen will trigger it into action, changes in our body happen, like breathing faster, rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms.

Our brain then interprets these changes in our body as further evidence that something is wrong, activating it again, creating a vicious cycle.

We become more anxious and emotionally and physically overwhelmed.

This is when a helpful amount of stress has tipped into something that negatively impacts our wellbeing.

Research indicates many factors contribute to workplace stress.

However, the workload is the most significant stressor to staff, followed by people issues and balancing work and personal lives.

As leaders and HR professionals, you can try to reduce some of these by:

Setting Realistic Deadlines

By setting clear deadlines that are achievable for staff to meet will undoubtedly reduce their stress levels.

However, they will also need to be adequately resourced to be able to meet these.

Offer Flexible Working

We have learned from the pandemic that staff can work flexibly from home and remain productive.

Therefore, offering flexible working demonstrates trust in team members and autonomy for them to manage projects and their personal lives, which will undoubtedly reduce their feelings of stress.

Connect with Staff

Building relationships with staff can help you identify signs they are becoming more stressed.

Regularly walking around your organisation and staff knowing when you are available to speak with them creates opportunities for them to reach out for support.

Lead by Example

As a manager or HR professional, you can model to staff how you manage your feelings of stress.

Not only does this normalise that everyone at times feels overwhelmed, but it also reinforces there are workplace stressors that need managing.

Creating a Nurturing and Psychologically Safe Culture

Organisations with a nurturing and psychologically safe culture have a happier workforce that is more creative, productive, has higher staff retention levels and has lower absences from work.

Psychological safety is when staff can speak out with anyone in the organisation and share ideas, opinions, and feelings without fear of retribution, humiliation, or punishment.

Having a psychologically safe and nurturing culture in workplaces means that we can develop our resilience to protect ourselves in the challenges we face at work.

Men and women react differently to stress.

There will be life events they experience that will understandably impact them in specific ways.

For example, transitions to parenthood and menopause will undoubtedly affect both genders, the support they will need from their organisations will differ.

Therefore, as leaders and HR professionals, it is essential to be aware of this, have open lines of communication where staff can share how they are feeling and what they might need.

As an employee, there are many ways that you can manage your stress and optimise your wellbeing

Firstly, identify what signs that your usual amount of stress is increasing are.

If you struggle to know what these might be, ask those friends and family members who will constructively feedback on this information.

Secondly, do you recognise particular stressors at work that elevate difficult feelings for you, it might be a specific colleague, project, or situation.

In the case of stress, prevention is better than a cure.

So, when you know the signs of your stress and the stressors that exacerbate these feelings, the next step is to create ways to manage these situations and emotions differently.

For example, you might rehearse what you might say to a tricky colleague, implement boundaries to give yourself space and time or reassure yourself in the moment you are confident and competent.

Also, think about what you do outside work to manage feelings of stress.

When work is challenging, you might increase the frequency of meeting friends, engaging in hobbies, or having downtime.

There are many ways that organisations can alleviate stressors and their impact on the staff in the workplace.

Having vision, being creative, connecting with employees, and prioritising their wellbeing will ensure your workplace is a healthy place for staff to thrive.

It’s not buildings, equipment, or resources that make up organisations; it’s people.

They are the biggest asset of any business, and investing in their mental health and wellbeing is an investment that will reap multiple benefits.

Dr Jan Smith is a leading chartered psychologist that specialises in workplace mental health both for companies and individuals. 



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