Practice Management Articles
Managing When the Stress Doesn't Go Away
In recent years, Federal Government employees in several parts of the country have had to cope with rebuilding their homes and lives after a disaster while taking on new roles and responsibilities to help the community's recovery. Disasters are not the only source of long term stress that our employees may face. Threats of violence, whether from terrorism or street crime, can lead to severe stress situations which go on for weeks, and affect many people. Harassment campaigns directed against employees can be nerve wracking even when there is no apparent physical danger. The prospect of losing a group member to a slowly debilitating illness can produce a long period of stress for everyone involved. Organizational change can produce severe stress if employees feel uncertain and worried for long periods.
Getting the job done and taking care of employees under conditions of severe, long lasting stress can be one of the most difficult challenges a manager may face. It's not easy to take charge, develop innovative approaches, and be sensitive to the needs of others when you're at least as uncomfortable as your subordinates. There are, however, some management approaches that have proved helpful in these situations:
Take steps to reduce the sources of stress. If danger is a problem, call the right law enforcement authorities immediately, and get all the advice and concrete support you can for them. If employees are overwhelmed by competing demands in the aftermath of a large scale emergency, set clear priorities and make sure they are consistently followed. You probably cannot "fix" the entire situation, but you can improve it. Your employees will feel better if they know you are working on their behalf.
Communicate with your employees. This is always important, but even more so when everyone is under long term stress. In most stressful situations, one source of anxiety is a sense of being out of control. Your employees will feel better if they have up-to-date information and permission to approach you with their questions. Depending on circumstances, you may want to adopt new communications strategies, such as having frequent meetings, publishing an informal newsletter, and keeping an updated notice board in a central place.
Encourage teamwork and cooperation. Under long term stress, there is no substitute for a supportive, caring work group. Employees will find the situation, whatever it is, less painful if they are surrounded by co-workers who care about them, and will listen if they need to talk, or lend a hand if they need help. A group accustomed to teamwork rather than internal competition will usually be able to cover for members who are temporarily unable to function at 100% effectiveness.
Ideally, your group has always been strong and cohesive. If not, do what you can to help it pull together under stress. Encourage and validate teamwork and cooperation. Avoid any appearance of favoritism and make it clear that there is opportunity for everyone to achieve and receive recognition.
Set clear work standards. Doing good work is always essential, but even more so in times of high stress, since success can bolster self esteem and group morale. Keep your standards high, but allow as much flexibility as possible in how the work gets done. If you set clear standards, but give employees some freedom in working out ways to meet them, they will probably be able to develop approaches that fit the contingencies of the stress situation. Check on how much flexibility you have with regard to such conditions as work hours, administrative leave, alternate work sites, etc. It's natural to assume that the way we have always done things is the only way, but you and your employees may have options that you haven't considered.
Make it clear that this is a difficult period, and it's OK to share feelings of anxiety, fatigue, or frustration. If you set the example by letting people know you can do a good job even though you are not feeling your best, you can set a positive example. Define the situation in a way that emphasizes the strength of the group while acknowledging the challenges it faces. The tone should not be, "Poor us," but rather, "This is hard, but we're going to hang together and get through it."
Acknowledge the value of professional counseling, and encourage your employees to get whatever help they need. Long term stress can wear down the coping resources of the strongest person, and it makes sense to get extra support in order to preserve mental and physical health. One strategy is to bring in an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) counselor to talk to the group about stress management. Besides learning from the presentation, your employees will develop a personal contact which can make it easier to turn to the EAP if they need it.
Don't underestimate the impact of stress on you as an individual. Attend to your own stress management program, and use your resources for professional consultation and counseling. You will find it easier to take care of your work group if you also take care of yourself.