An Open Dialogue About Stress and Workload

Leaders need to have conversations about the negative consequences of mental health challenges and about what employees need to thrive mentally and emotionally.

When I was 9 and my sister was 7, our Swedish au pair, Orsa, abruptly quit. My mother’s father had just died, my sister and I were both sick with chicken pox, and my mother needed to leave right away for the funeral in Los Angeles. What precipitated Orsa’s impulsive resignation? She asked my sister to turn off the bathroom light. When my sister responded, “Do it yourself,” she threw up her arms, and exclaimed, “That’s it. I’m done.” And that was the last of Orsa in our household.

A version of this scenario happens at companies. The employee plugs away, quietly unhappy and suffering, and then blows up emotionally on the job and either quits or is fired for the tantrum. What if Orsa’s real struggle, and that of the employee with the meltdown, isn’t just the challenging job, but an underlying mental health problem that the job exacerbated?

The solution is never letting employee stress and dissatisfaction get to the boiling point where their work starts to suffer and, eventually, they, themselves, give way. I was intrigued when I saw an article by Lora Jones on the BBC Website that mentioned how dating app company Bumble was giving its entire workforce a mental health week off to de-stress. “The company announced in April ‘that all Bumble employees will have a paid, fully offline one-week vacation in June,’” Jones writes. “A spokeswoman for Bumble said a few customer support staff will be working in case any of the app’s users experience issues. These employees then will be given time off to make sure they take a whole week of leave.”

The company had grown quickly, and found its pace accelerated during the pandemic, when there was a huge market for online interactions—the only kind of interactions being encouraged. As a company that prides itself on having a sensitive, “kind” culture, with touches such as the “Mommy Bar,” a “private lactation space” for nursing mothers, employee mental health appears to be a priority.

If a company like that could end up with a workforce so tapped out that it needed to essentially shut down for a week so its employees could regroup, how are employees faring at the average, not-so-“kind” company?

An article in Forbes by Garen Staglin looks at practicing “preventative mental health” to keep such collective meltdowns from happening. Staglin notes the importance of acknowledging that this nearly post-pandemic period is stressful for some employees. He says companies should set a goal of having everyone feel they are thriving rather than just surviving. “Right now, employees are craving connection. Leaders would be smart to leverage this moment as a golden opportunity to start an open dialogue in the workplace, not just about the negative consequences of mental health challenges, but also about what employees need to thrive mentally and emotionally,” Staglin writes.

What does, or would, an open dialogue about mental health sound like at your company? For me, it would be getting beyond the kneejerk response, “Well, we’re all working hard,” when employees voice concern about their workload. Instead, managers could ask the employee to lay out in writing what their typical work routine and workload is for each day of the work week—breaking it down, if possible, hour-by-hour. You’d be surprised at what a relief it can be for overwhelmed employees to share this information after being asked by managers to take on more work, which they do not believe they can handle.

One time in my career, for instance, a manager asked me to write 20 additional articles per month for a sister publication, on top of the eight per week I was already responsible for writing and/or editing for my own publication along with my Website management duties. I stayed calm, telling him I would evaluate my schedule to see where the additional work could possibly fit in. I then did just that in a literal sense. I e-mailed him a weekday-by-weekday, hour-by-hour breakdown of the work I was doing. When I did that, his request appeared foolish and born of ignorance of my workload. I never heard further from him about taking on additional writing and editing work. I remember the great sense of relief in sharing exactly what I was dealing with.

“I want to ask how you would feel about taking on a few additional assignments,” a manager could say to an employee. “How are you feeling about your current workload? Are you able to keep regular working hours? Let me know if taking on this extra work would mean you working well beyond 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. The last thing I want is for you to be working until 8 p.m. or 9 p.m., or later, every night.” Some employees may smile, and agree to take on the extra work, genuinely not minding the added burden. While others may, in all honesty, express concern.

Make it an OK response for employees to say they are feeling overwhelmed by letting managers know that having conversations with employees about workload capacity is a good thing. Employees who don’t want to take on additional assignments are not necessarily lazy or unambitious. It may be that they are as concerned about their mental health as they are about their professional goals.

Do you train managers to have the workload capacity and stress conversation with employees?