Overwhelming stress is impacting my team culture.

Some jobs are more stressful than others. But in today’s world of “doing more with less,” high stress has become the norm. People might work hard during the day, but they’re running on empty by the end of the day. It impacts their sleep and their home life, and they’re looking for an escape. 

It feels like stress is the enemy—but in a business context, it can be our best friend if it’s the right kind and in the right amount. Stress is like the strings on a guitar. If there’s no “stress” or tension on the strings and they’re simply hanging loose on the instrument, they can’t produce the sound they were created to make. When we tune the string, we add the right amount of tension. If we add too much stress, the string breaks. The goal is to have the perfect amount of tension for the string to play exactly in tune. 

That’s why we have “stress management” courses, not “stress elimination” courses. A leader can help their team members get back “in tune” by addressing three areas: 1) rethinking and communicating the negative and positive side of stress, 2) evaluating and triaging the workload, and 3) focusing on the things the team has control of.  

As you talk with your teams about stress, help them understand the positive side of stress while brainstorming creative ways to deal with the abundance of stress in the environment. It won’t just be getting rid of some of their work, though that’s part of the equation. It will probably focus on the way they’re working and their attitude towards the process.   

Consider some of these questions to create an environment where stress isn’t as overwhelming: 

  • Are there projects or tasks that could be postponed or eliminated? It’s easy to assume that something is essential just because it’s always been part of the workload.
  • Are there tasks that could be reassigned between team members who have greater skill and interest in a particular area? If a creative person is responsible for building a spreadsheet report each week while an analytical person is writing copy for the company newsletter, explore the option of switching tasks. 
  • Can you adjust people’s schedules to provide more balance and downtime?
  • Will collaboration on certain tasks make getting results easier since they’re not working alone? 
  • Do your team members know how to prioritize their work, or do you need to provide training? 
  • Do they know how to say “no” in an honest and professional way? 

Ask team members during 1-on-1s how they’re doing with the stress in their work and life. Don’t offer quick solutions; just listen for understanding and empathize with their concerns. Think about what they’ve said for a day or so, then have a second conversation to consider options. It shows that you are invested in them to listen, process, and continue the conversation. 

If possible, work with each person to eliminate just one of their stressors. It won’t solve everything, but the act of removing one thing from their plate gives them hope and builds trust. They know you’re on their side and working toward a resolution. 

One more thing: Don’t forget about your own stress. Take care of yourself before taking care of others. It’s like putting on your own oxygen mask on the plane before helping others with theirs.