As the COVID-19 pandemic winds down in the US, workplaces are slowly coming back to life. Along with navigating new logistical challenges, though, managers will have to tackle stubborn old issues that have never gone away. For many managers, this includes worker anxiety.
Few people have thought about this topic as much as Chester Elton and Adrian Gostick, authors of the book Anxiety at Work: 8 Strategies to Help Teams Build Resilience, Handle Uncertainty, and Get Stuff Done. I recently spoke with Elton to learn what managers can do to help employees reduce their stress levels. Here’s what he had to say.
Start with empathy. First, the bad news: if certain conditions aren’t met, getting a handle on anxiety can become an insurmountable challenge for employees. The most important requirement is a manager who’s open and empathetic, says Elton. “The number-one driver of your productivity and of your wellbeing at work is your relationship with your immediate supervisor,” he says. Every aspect of someone’s work experience is downstream from this relationship.
“If you can’t talk to your immediate supervisor about a mental health issue, what’s the result? Well in, our database, 75% of millennials and Gen Z said they left a job recently because of a mental health issue. So, you’re losing these just incredibly talented people because they don’t feel safe about talking about anxiety.”
Create emotional safety. As alarming as the above statistic is, it doesn’t have to be this way, says Elton. “People talk a lot about psychological safety, and I love Amy Edmondson’s work on that topic. I think the next level for leaders is to create emotional safety,” says Elton. One way that leaders can cultivate this is by being vulnerable. Trying too hard to come off as perfectly unruffled and completely in control can make you seem unrelatable, and thus unempathetic. On the other hand, disclosures that show you, too, have struggles can bring all sides together. “I’m always amazed at how many high-achieving CEOs, authors, thought leaders, and even people in the worlds of sports and entertainment suffer from severe anxiety. And their way of finally coping with it was telling their story,” Elton says. (Ever the proud Canadian, he cites the example of actor and native British Columbian Ryan Reynolds who, just a few weeks ago, went public with his own anxiety struggles. If the former Sexiest Man Alive, action hero, and husband to Blake Lively is wracked by self-doubt, surely us mere mortals can cut ourselves a break.)
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Employees want you to listen, says Elton. “The one thing that I would ask managers is, do you know your team members’ stories? ’Cause once you know somebody’s story, everything changes.”
Overcommunicate. One major cause of worker stress is not knowing what to do, or exactly what a boss wants, but being too afraid (or proud) of speaking up about it. One way you can get around this is by well, reminding them. “We do a lot of executive coaching, and we say, ‘Look, when you think you’re communicating too much, it’s probably about right,’” says Elton. “Sometimes that message has to come through three, four, five times before people actually get it. So be really flexible there.” As any couple will tell you, a lack of communication rarely makes things easier. It’s the same in the workplace.
Communication is especially important for younger workers, who for various reasons are more likely to expect consistent feedback. In the absence of information, our instinct is to often assume the worst—and then work ourselves to the bone to make sure it never happens.
Set (realistic) expectations. You can help avoid worker burnout by being clear about what you expect from an employee (Elton suggests explaining, “This is what I want, this is what I need, and when I need it.”). If they know they exactly what their mission is, they’ll have a stronger sense of boundaries, leading to less stress. Managers who are honest with themselves—and their own managers—about what can and can’t be done are much more likely to earn employee trust.
Ultimately, these tips come back to the same theme: strong relationships. When someone hits a rough patch, as they inevitably will, it makes a world of difference knowing their organization has their back. “You know, there’s never going to be a perfect workplace,” says Elton. “But if I’m in a workplace where I believe that my manager and supervisor cares about me as a person, that my voice is heard, and that I’m not alone when things get bad, things can get better.”
For more on this topic, you check out the Anxiety at Work podcast with Elton and Gostick.