Following the immense stress and pressure we endured for the past two years with a global pandemic wreaking havoc on our personal and professional lives, we now enter the recovery season. Welcome to the season where we can start to breathe again, re-evaluate, pivot, and grow.
Since we have been operating in fight or flight mode for an extended period, it becomes increasingly difficult to regulate ourselves and our nervous systems again. Yes, recovery is a very personal journey for each individual, but what can we do as leaders to support our employees while they migrate from the high-cortisol- high-stress state to a more functional state? What are the signs we should be aware of when an employee is trapped and finding it difficult to shake the heaviness?
Ongoing high levels of stress are not good for the body. Research conducted by Safety Management reported that 73% of employees who are under stress experience psychological symptoms. A further 26% indicated that they frequently feel burned out or stressed at work. Another survey showed that employees’ stress levels have increased by 20% in the last three decades. This is due to various reasons, including the pressure to learn new skills, the fear of losing their job, and juggling too many balls at once.
Many industry leaders noticed that many individuals who survived Covid showed symptoms all clustered around the PTSD syndrome. Research is being conducted by The National Institute of Mental Health as we speak with the hopes of better understanding post-Covid PTSD.
Let’s take a step back to understand what happens in the brain when we are stressed or burned out.
When we enter a place of severe stress and pressure, we act from a place referred to as our reptilian brain. This is the part of the brain where our basic bodily functions stem from, but it’s also the part of the brain that constantly scans the outer world for threats. It’s ready to react to the threat by eating it or running away from it (speaking in reptilian terms). Unfortunately, when we are functioning within this part of our brain, our logical thinking brain, called the Neocortex, switches off. The Neocortex is the center of the brain that allows us to think logically, empathize, be creative, etc.
Hence, a super stressed-out person will not be able to access the brain’s parts, leading to innovation, problem-solving, and rational thinking. Instead, we can expect to see a lack of motivation, disengagement, and even distant or numbed emotions.
Can we get out of this state? Absolutely. Can we prevent ourselves from going there in the first place? Most definitely.
Perhaps it’s appropriate to understand the difference between stress and burnout, as we use these two phrases interchangeably.
Simply put, stress involves too many pressures that demand too much of someone physically and mentally. However, someone experiencing stress often still sees the light at the end of the tunnel. On the other hand, burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by prolonged excessive stress. People who are in a state of burnout typically do not see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Stress can be characterized by over-engagement and often results in symptoms such as:
- Reactive or overreactive emotions
- Sense of urgency and hyperactivity
- Loss of energy
- Physically tolling
Burnout can be characterized by disengagement and often results in symptoms such as:
- Blunt or distant emotions
- Sense of helplessness
- Loss of motivation, ideas, and hope
- Emotionally and physically tolling
Consider the following statistics on the causes and effects of burnout:
Is there a much larger responsibility weighing on our shoulders as
leaders when it comes to the stress and burnout of our employees?
But what can you do better?
Start with your WHY
Why is it important for you to invest in the well-being of your team members?
Why will well-being initiatives make business sense to you?
Consider the small steps that can make the most significant difference
Minor work routines or communication changes can significantly impact our team members’ well-being. We suggest the following:
- Clearly communicating expectations, roles, and deadlines to rule out any confusion and overwhelm.
- Keep the lines of communication open by scheduling regular one-on-one check-ins with team members to talk about where they are at mentally, emotionally, and work-wise. This way, you will have a better indication as to whether he/she might feel overwhelmed or in need of some additional support.
- Well-being workshops and coaching sessions often result in increased engagement and better stress management due to employees being equipped with the right tools to become more self-aware and more intentional about their own well-being and self-care routine. They know their limits better, as well as how to communicate effectively when they enter an unhealthy state.
- Offline is something we don’t quite understand. Some groups of people expect others to be online 24/7; others find it difficult to steer clear of the productivity guilt. It’s important as leaders to be clear on switching off times in the afternoon when it’s inappropriate to contact another team member with work-related matters and ultimately to practice what you preach. That also means switching off when you need to!
- Encourage conversations around leave days by pushing the agenda to prioritize rest. Rest is as important as performance, and without the needed
rest, nobody will be able to perform at their peak. It’s almost never easy for an employee to discuss leave, especially when they are met by a grumpy, irritated leader. What if we shifted the focus and changed our approach? Why not consider having these discussions early on in the year, allowing the employee to plot out their periods of rest while assisting you in managing workloads and perhaps rolling out a buddy system where two team members dovetail with one another?