Can You Train Your Way to Stress Management?
Some people are not as sensitive to stress as others, so when their peers are biting their nails and pacing anxiously, they sit relaxed, leaning back in their chairs and calming thinking. Were these people trained more effectively by parents and past employers to manage heavy workloads and responsibilities, or is it an innate characteristic to be able to remain calm in the face of intense stress?
I suspect that calmness is a natural tendency, but that doesn’t mean a company shouldn’t offer training on coping strategies and teach managers to spot the signs of a struggling employee—one whose work output is good and acceptable, but who shows signs of psychological duress.
Marc Zao-Sanders, co-founder and CEO of Filtered, explores the opportunities for companies to help employees learn how to manage stress in his recent column in Quartz, “Can the dreaded compliance meeting save our workforce from a mental-health crisis?” Zao-Sanders’ company uses artificial intelligence to make tailored recommendations for workplace learning. “People who use our products want our algorithms to specifically recommend content that addresses a growing workplace stress crisis,” he writes. “These leaders want their workers trained not just to improve their own mental health, but to also become more attuned and equipped to look out for the mental and emotional wellbeing of their colleagues.”
Zao-Sanders recommends “culture-change training” in which employees are taught to promote mental health awareness across their organization and points out how anyone, especially managers, can offer support. He notes the importance of teaching employees that there is no shame or stigma in admitting they are psychologically struggling.
One way for an employee to broach the stress management/psychological struggle conversation with managers is to frame requests for additional work completion in terms of the other tasks they have been charged with. When my department head suggested I might write an additional 20 short articles per month, I put aside my initial panic and horror to calmly write out in an e-mail to him and other department leaders what my schedule currently looks like each day of the week. I gave a blow-by-blow description of how I apportion my time, and let them know that if they could find openings in my schedule, I would be happy to do the additional work. I noted the small breaks in my schedule where I could possibly squeeze in additional work. Not to jinx it, but I never heard from my department head again about the request for the additional 20 articles per month. He could see I genuinely did not have the time to do what he was asking for unless I took work home every night and worked through weekends—something he did not want me to do (and which I would not have agreed to).
Similarly, when I first started my job, and my boss was surprised I hadn’t responded to e-mails he sent over the weekend, I calmly let him know that while I didn’t mind putting in an extra hour or two to stay late during weekdays, the weekends were my own, and regularly doing work on a Saturday or Sunday was not an option for me. He didn’t fight me.
Stress management learning could begin with teaching employees that it’s OK, and even encouraged, to share the details of their schedules with managers to work together to determine how additional work requests can be accommodated—or not. And that it’s also OK to refuse requests to work on weekends and beyond a certain point at night. Without that encouragement, many employees will be afraid to speak up, and will quietly swallow the stress of constant work until they psychologically break.
Do you know the signs of a psychological break in an employee? I wouldn’t know for sure since I have no professional mental health training, but I know from what I’ve seen of stressed-out colleagues, and myself, over the years. When I was a young woman at an internship, the micromanagement of my bosses stressed me out even though the workload wasn’t that terrible. I responded by shutting down and not being able to force myself to do the work. I was so demoralized I took naps in my car during lunch, and felt a great sense of dread come over me on my drive to work as I got close to the office. I didn’t even need to step inside to feel the dread begin. It was an unpaid internship at an age at which I didn’t have many responsibilities, so I simply left the job.
When considering workplace stress, it’s important to remember it’s not just the amount of work assigned, but the management style of bosses that can cause duress. Some of us are stressed and aggravated by micromanagement, causing us to shut down rather than deal with that irritation.
How do you train both employees and their managers to work together to create tolerable workloads, and to ensure the management styles of bosses are working psychologically for each employee?