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Stress & the office: A leader's job is to make work low-stress

Mark Howe, Advantage Managing Director, writes on the importance of managing stress in the workplace for Mental Health Awareness Week.

As the MD of a small-to-medium sized business that provides ERP, CRM and IT Managed Services to other small-to-medium sized businesses, there isn’t a day that goes by where my team aren’t all-hands-on-deck. We’re a big enough team to get through it all, but there’s always plenty to do and a lot of competing prioritise that haggle and gnaw at even the most organised of our project managers.

We give it our all because we care. We want to do what’s best for our clients and sometimes that means going above and beyond what anybody expected us to do in the first place. We pride ourselves on doing our best and our best is what we’ve come to expect from one another, however, no matter the project, no matter the client, part of my job, a huge part of my job, in fact, is making sure that my team is doing their best without running themselves into the ground and letting the day-to-day stress of a project take over their lives.

Good Stress, Bad Stress, Low Stress

Stress is inevitable. If we care about something, we stress about it, and that stress can sometimes give us the energy we need to get it across the line. This is what I like to think of as ‘good stress'; the type of stress that’s almost indistinguishable from excitement and doesn’t persist because you know that your objectives are achievable and you’ve got a whole support network around you that’s helping you get to the finish line. This is the stress I’m happy having in my company.

I want my team to be excited and slightly nervous at the incredible tasks that lie ahead of them, but I also want them to know that we’re all here for them, especially me. I try to be ‘in the trenches’ with them while being careful not to overstep the line and micromanage everything they do. I want them to know that while they might be owning a project or client or lead, they’re not doing it alone and that a call for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

I try to treat mistakes in much the same way. Mistakes, or the fear of making a mistake, in my experience, is one of the biggest sources of bad stress in the workplace. Bad stress, for me, is that type of stress that very quickly turns into anxiety and has no end in sight. It’s the type of stress that rather than giving you energy, sucks the life out of you, and instead of helping you finish something, it prolongs the misery of having to do it until it becomes excruciatingly unbearable. The stress of mistakes, and therefore of failure is real, but it doesn’t have to be a negative experience and bosses in every industry should work to change their staff’s perception of what it means to fail.

A mistake or a failure is an opportunity to learn. In fact, sometimes it’s the only way we can learn. From mistakes come insights and sometimes even new opportunities. Rather than castigate employees for a thing which all of us do, we should extend our hands in solidarity and say, “hey, I’ve screwed up many times too.” Part of being a boss, a leader, a decent person to work with, is building those around you up, rather than trying to take them down.

'No stress' is impossible, there’s only so much any of us can control. But low-stress is certainly achievable and is something that one needs to work at every single day. Yes, ironic as it sounds, not stressing out can be an awful lot of work.

A final way I like to foster a low-stress environment in the workplace is by understanding my team on a personal level and recognising that they have lives outside the day-to-day craziness of the office. From an MD or CEO’s perspective, I realise that this can be difficult, but taking the time to personally invest in those that you work with helps you empathise with your team and see them as the human being that they are, rather than the action doing work machines we sometimes expect them to be. It’s okay to make it personal, after all, it’s persons that you’re working with.

This is especially true for team leaders, project managers and other senior-level managers: know your team members beyond their job function. Take the time to understand that Tim's wife just had their first baby and that this is an incredibly special yet chaotic time in their lives; know that you can only push Bob so far because his mother’s health is failing and she might not be around for much longer and he’ll want to be there by her side; let Sharon know that it’s perfectly acceptable for her to leave work early to go and pick up her children from day-care because she always gives 100% when she’s in the office and you understand how difficult it is to balance motherhood and a demanding career.

Treating your team with empathy and humanity keeps you alert as a manager. You start noticing the signs of stress, depression, self-consciousness, etc. much quicker. You can start to sense when things are slightly off and work through the issues well before they result in a botched project or an employee having a breakdown or even leaving the company. By treating people as people, you can open the door to good communication and a feeling of comradery and social safety. Being vulnerable or overwhelmed aren't signs of weakness, they're signs that you’re a mere mortal, just like everybody else.

This is by no means an extensive list of recommendations or even advice that should be taken as gospel. These are just a few of my thoughts on how I like to help my colleagues manage stress in the workplace.

The workplace is a stressful environment. There are deadlines and competing interests, politics and interesting personalities. It’s a place where the stakes are high and your reputation as a professional is constantly on the line. And while we can’t get rid of all stress and we can’t all be zen-filled yogis, we can try and work together, daily, to create a more healthy and low-stress workplace. I encourage all business leaders, managers and executives to take the time, during this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, to take a step back and really think about what they’re doing to make their offices as low-stress places as possible.

If you have any thoughts or tips on managing stress in the workplace, the team at Advantage would love to hear from you.

For more information on Mental Health Awareness Week, click here

Words by Mark Howe