How Bosses and Trainers Can Create Stress-Free Workplaces (Really)

4 steps to increase resilience and decrease stress.

People often don’t believe me at first when I tell them stress is a choice, and that—with practice—they can live without it. Some of us are even conditioned to believe some stress is a good thing, but if you stop and think about how stress actually makes you feel, it becomes obvious this couldn’t be true.

The disbelief and the misconceptions about stress spring from a poor definition of terms. One of the first things my colleague, Derek Roger, Ph.D., and I do in our resiliency trainings with companies and organizations around the world is properly define stress, and differentiate it from pressure.

Pressure is inevitable. We define it as the demand to perform, and it’s prevalent throughout our lives, not just at work. When people say some stress can be a good thing, they’re actually talking about pressure.

Stress is entirely avoidable. We create stress for ourselves when we ruminate—which we define as churning over emotional upset—about the pressure in our lives.

It’s likely easy to think of an example from your own life; maybe you were even ruminating this morning, lost in negative emotions about a last-minute assignment or dreading a task you know needs to be completed today. Through practice, it’s possible to develop resilience and recognize and stop this habit.

And plenty of people already have. Not everyone responds to pressure in the same way, and we’ve all seen scenarios where someone started to catastrophize an issue at work while someone else focused on practical solutions and didn’t waste time stewing. Rumination may be a common habit, but it is a changeable behavior.

Derek and I wrote a book together—“Work Without Stress: Building a Resilient Mindset for Lasting Success”that explores how individuals can banish stress from their lives. But there’s plenty that trainers, bosses, and other organizational leaders can do to decrease rumination in their workforce.

For example, Derek and I recently worked with a large energy company that was experiencing considerable change. After completing the resilience training, the president and CEO said the company “saw an immediate and positive impact on our team.” By following these steps, your organization or team can begin to make the same transformation to a stress-free place of work.

1. Give employees tools to deal with pressure. The aforementioned energy company needed to move quickly to address uncertainty in the industry, which would involve making deep personnel cuts, changing senior leadership, and transitioning the business’ focus. That sort of environment is ripe for rumination and anxiety, and the company wanted to equip its people—not just its leadership—with resiliency tools to avoid unnecessary stress.

The first step in moving forward is to provide the necessary tools and language to deal with pressure, beginning with the simple yet significant differentiation between pressure and stress. At the energy company, we began by training 130 top leaders, giving them the tools they could use and pass on in order to decrease stress. In turn, this taught them how to recognize their own rumination and how wake up from it, how to control their attention, how to detach, and how to let go of negative ruminative thoughts.

2. Cascade the tools. Expanding the impact of any training is crucial. That’s why each of these top leaders set up 30-minute meetings with their teams, playing a short video explaining the resiliency content, and then initiated a discussion about how the material applies to the whole team and its individual members.

It may sound obvious now, but how often do leaders receive trainings and fail to pass on the skills or tools acquired to the broader organization, or even their direct reports? By having each leader we trained take the next easy step of passing along these skills and language to their teams, they are able to cascade the tools throughout the company. At the energy company we trained, the resilience method reached nearly 1,000 employees within months.

3. Follow up and measure. As part of our program, we rely on a handful of different measures to assess and ensure implementation of the skills learned. One part of the approach involves the creation of “accountability partners” following the training, where each participant pairs with a peer for a follow-up appointment two weeks later.

When they reconvene, the accountability partners discuss what actions they’ve taken, the results, and what they would do next. These partnerships are one way to encourage participants to adopt the skills they learned and begin changing their behaviors. As part of our trainings, Dr. Roger and I took it a step further. For three months, leaders received a monthly seven-minute video with three or four accompanying facilitation questions to continue the discussions with their teams.

There are a variety of ways to measure stress, the most important being rumination, but also detachment and the ability to cope. With concrete metrics to gauge a shift in behavior, organizations can figure out where their employees are excelling and where the organization could improve. The various levels of check-ins, including the accountability partners, offer a chance for employees and leaders to report back.

4. Encourage feedback. At the energy company, as with other organizations we’ve partnered with, it was critical that employees felt comfortable expressing themselves and that they engaged in peer-to-peer learning for the greatest effect of the resiliency training to be felt. The follow-up meetings encouraged social interaction, allowing individuals to learn from each other’s progress and opened up a space for employees to give honest feedback.

“All the discussion around resilience, led by leaders, made it OK to have these sensitive discussions,” the HR director at the energy company told us. “It’s rare, at work, to have an employee admit feeling stressed or worried about the sustainability of the organization. But we were doing it—leaders were initiating those dialogues. We were building peer networks to help employees support each other and get through the challenging times.”

Importantly, the company listened. It incorporated employee feedback received in the sessions, thereby strengthening the organization. Our approach empowered the company during a challenging time where employees undoubtedly felt significant pressure, and reduced unnecessary stress to ease the considerable transition.

“Throughout the company, our leaders lead with a renewed sense of self-awareness and tangible skills to become more agile and resilient in the face of change, complexity, and challenge—resilience can be learned, we are proof of that!” the CEO said. “We are now better equipped to consistently work smarter and add greater value.”

By following these four deliberate steps, your organization can do the same.

Nick Petrie is a senior faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), where he works with CEOs and their teams to create resilience strategies, particularly as their organizations progress through significant change. At CCL, Petrie also serves as a lead trainer for CCL’s Leadership Development Program, and is responsible for the design and delivery of individual, team, and organizational custom leadership solutions.

In addition to his work at CCL, Petrie and his colleague, Derek Roger, run workshops for organizations that want to teach these resilience skills to their leaders and front-line employees. These methods are based on 30 years of research on stress and resilience, and have been taught to 10,000 people worldwide. Petrie earned his Master’s from Harvard University in organizational behavior and leadership development, and holds two undergraduate degrees from New Zealand’s Otago University.




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