Managing workplace stress in a high-pressure industry

As anyone who works in a high-pressure job will know, it can be a hugely rewarding, fulfilling and successful career choice. But high stakes and big expectations can also be stressful. It’s important that managers in high-pressure workplaces understand how to deal with stress and pressure in the workplace so that their team can stay healthy, happy and productive.

What’s the difference between pressure and stress?

No doubt you’ve seen or heard the terms stress and pressure used interchangeably, which might lead people to assume that they’re the same thing. But this isn’t the case. Stress and pressure are two fundamentally different things.

Pressure

The Yerkes - Dodson law suggests that we need a healthy amount of pressure to prevent us from feeling bored or unmotivated.

When employees are faced with pressure in the workplace, it motivates them to do their best work and perform successfully. Pressure creates a sense of urgency - to complete a task or hit a deadline for example. Pressure in healthy amounts helps your team to stay focused and productive.

Too little pressure and employees are more likely to procrastinate, get distracted easily, or struggle to concentrate on the task at hand. The optimum level of pressure helps people to focus and do their best work. It’s when the pressure becomes too much that can be the problem. High levels of pressure can cause people to feel agitated, anxious and stressed.

Stress

Stress results from too much pressure. It’s normal to feel stressed at work sometimes - when there’s a looming deadline for example, or you have to work overtime in a last-minute push to get a job finished. Short-term stress like this is easy enough to get out of your system with a little down-time, an early night, or a workout.

It’s when stress becomes continuous that it can be detrimental to your team’s health and productivity. Continuous stress without relief is known as distress or chronic stress, and it can have several negative side-effects. The following are a list of symptoms that are often associated with chronic stress.

Physical symptoms
  • Low energy and fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Difficulty sleeping or insomnia
  • Upset stomach, diarrhoea, constipation and nausea
  • Aches, pains and tense muscles
  • Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
Emotional symptoms
  • Agitation, frustration, irritability, anger and mood swings
  • Difficulty relaxing
  • Aversion to social situations
  • Negative feelings such as low self-esteem, loneliness, anxiety and depression

According to a study, 77% of people regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress, and 73% regularly experience psychological symptoms. Chronic stress is detrimental to the physical, emotional and mental health of your team, and it can lead to occupational burnout - a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion. According to Harvard Business Review, one in five highly engaged employees is at risk of burnout.

Causes of stress at work

There are many reasons your team might experience stress at work. As a manager it is important to be able to identify the specific stress triggers in your office. Doing so means you can take steps to minimize their impact.

Stress can be brought on by a combination of any of the following factors:

  • Poor working conditions
  • Poor management
  • Unmanageable workload
  • Long hours
  • Ill-defined expectations and responsibilities
  • Conflicting priorities
  • Conflict between team members
  • Low levels of trust
  • Lack of support
  • Lack of team collaboration

It’s unlikely that your whole team will be suffering from chronic stress at once, but a study has shown that stress can be contagious. Stressed out team members can have shorter fuses, and might snap at their co-workers, or behave in other ways that can cause the rest of the team to feel stressed too. So work-related stress can quickly become a problem for your entire team if not dealt with quickly.

The impact of stress at work

The MHA Mind the Workplace study found that 33% of respondents had missed work due to workplace stress. According to the American Institute of Stress, stress-related illness and injury costs the United States more than $300 billion per year. That’s including the cost of stress-related accidents, sick leave, employee turnover, reduced productivity, and direct medical, legal, and insurance costs.

Additionally, employees who are put under long-term stress feel less engaged and less motivated at work, and are less loyal to their team and overall company. Team leaders who want their team members to be healthy, happy and productive at work should make stress management a priority.

How managers can reduce stress at work

While some stress is inevitable from time to time at work, managers should take the necessary steps to reduce workplace stress for their team.

Office environment

Your team spend a large proportion of their day in the office, and their surroundings can have a big impact on their stress levels. Cramped, dirty, untidy or otherwise unpleasant office space will contribute to your team feeling stressed. Make sure that they have plenty of space to work, and that the office is kept clean and tidy. Other perks like a comfy break-out area, somewhere to prepare and eat meals, and stylish decor are optional, but they will make your workplace a much more pleasant place to be.

Feedback and feeling valued

People need to know that they’re doing their job well, and that their work is valued. If you find that your managerial style has focused too much on criticism or reprimands lately, it’s time to focus on positive reinforcement. Congratulating successes, celebrating big wins, and even simply thanking your team for their hard work will promote a positive working environment and increase motivation.

Communication

Create a work environment where every team member feels valued and involved by encouraging open communication. Team members should feel comfortable approaching you to discuss any work-related issues, and confident that their concerns will be taken seriously and dealt with effectively.

Clearly define job roles

Ill-defined job roles lead to confusion, increased workload, job insecurity, blame culture and conflict within teams. When every team member knows what their roles and responsibilities are within the company, they can work with purpose and feel accountable for their contribution to the team’s successes. Well-defined job roles give team members direction and helps forge a path for career progression.

Autonomy and trust

While on the one hand a lack of direction at work can be stressful, so too can being micromanaged. Trust your team to work hard without breathing down their necks. Giving them increased responsibility on tasks shows that you have confidence in their ability, and gives them the space to learn and grow.

Flexibility

Offering a more relaxed working schedule improves your team’s work-life balance and helps to reduce the stress on team members with other commitments. Allowing parents to leave early to collect children from school, or offering the opportunity to work from home occasionally can make a huge difference to your team’s stress levels.

Time out

It can be hard to switch off from work in today’s hyper-connected world, but taking time out to relax and unwind not only helps reduce stress levels, but gives your team chance to recharge and return to their job feeling refreshed. Encourage your team to take their lunch breaks away from their desks, ensure that everyone takes their entitled annual leave, and try to keep working late or replying to emails out of hours to a minimum.

How employees can manage stress

If you’re feeling stressed, there are a number of things you can do to help your mind and body cope better.

In the workplace

It can be difficult to know what to do to help alleviate stress in the workplace, but by addressing the source of the problem you’re taking the first steps in managing and reducing your stress levels.

Talk to your manager

Your team leader or line manager might be unaware that you’re feeling stressed. Talking to them can help to ease the burden, as they can take steps to reduce your stress. Whether they extend a deadline, delegate some of your work to another team member, or talk to the rest of your team to get to the root of the problem, your manager could be your greatest ally when it comes to workplace stress.

Ask for help

Aside from your manager, your fellow team members can also help to alleviate your stress. Let them know that you’re struggling with pressures, and ask if they can help in any way. It might be that some individuals are less busy than others, and are happy to take on some of your work.

Get organized

Sometimes your workload might seem impossible to tackle and you just don’t know where to start. This can be stressful, and once you’re stressed it’s difficult to collect your thoughts and focus on the task at hand. But if you take a step back and give yourself time to organize your workload, it can seem much more manageable. Write a to do list, prioritize tasks by urgency, and turn off email notifications so you can work more efficiently without distractions. You’ll be surprised how much you can achieve once you’ve got a game plan.

Consider a CRM

A simple, sales-specific CRM will help you better organize and optimize your time. This is the type of technology that helps your sales team focus their time on selling rather than wasting their time on complicated admin procedures.

The best CRM software acts as a three-pronged asset for your team:

  1. An assistant for you as a manager and for your individual team members
  2. A guided process to help focus and prioritize everyone’s efforts
  3. A champion to support, motivate and empower your team

You can take so much pressure off yourself with a quality CRM. So much of your tracking, monitoring and reporting can be automated so you have a simple and real-time view of performance. You can better manage your team by spotting and preventing potential problems early. So much last-minute stress can be avoided with proactive management - particularly in a fast growth environment.

Prioritize and focus

Similarly, a simple and easy-to-use CRM will make your sales team’s life so much easier. By minimizing admin time and prioritizing activities for team - the right CRM can make people feel so much more comfortable and confident in their day-to-day job.

The best CRMs make you feel like you have an extra team member just to handle all of your seemingly endless data entry, tracking and reporting work. A massive load is lifted off your shoulders to clear your mind and free you up to spend more time focusing on the right thing at the right time. This clarity will help you and your reps reduce that pressure and prevent the instance of stress.

Outside of work

Lifestyle changes outside of work can help you to cope with stress more easily. Leading a fulfilled, varied and happy life can reduce your levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and give you a sense of purpose that makes work-related stress seem less worrying and easier to deal with.

Healthy diet

A healthy and balanced diet is key to managing stress. Certain foods and drinks high in fat, sugar or caffeine can increase stress hormones, as can alcohol and smoking. If you’re feeling stressed, your diet can play a big part. Try to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, as well as lean meats, eggs and whole grains. Not only will you find your energy levels increase, but you’ll sleep better and notice plenty of physical health benefits too.

Exercise

Exercise releases endorphins - also known as the happy hormone. Just 30 minutes of moderate exercise a few times a week can work wonders in helping you overcome stress. Whether you get a sweat on in a gym class, cycle to work, jog around the park, or even try a workout tutorial at home, exercise is great for your mind and body.

Sleep

Difficulty sleeping can be a symptom of stress, but unfortunately lack of sleep can also be a contributing factor to feeling stressed. Try to get plenty of sleep if you’re feeling stressed, to give your brain and body chance to rest and recharge. Feeling tired, lethargic or lacking in energy means you’re less likely to be able to concentrate on tasks in work, and this could increase your stress levels.

Hobbies

If all your energy is going into work, you might not find the time to do the things you really enjoy. It’s important that work doesn’t take over your life, or stressful days in the office can really take their toll. Hobbies are a great way to zone out from work-related stresses and focus your mind on something enjoyable.

Talk it out

Opening up can really help people cope when they’re feeling stressed. Telling a friend or family member about your feelings can help to put them in perspective, and their advice, consoling words or even humour can lighten the mood to help you relax and feel better.

Get back to nature

We spend far too much time cooped up indoors these days. Getting outside, and more specifically, close to nature, is an effective way to de-stress. A study found that participants who walked in a forest had lower blood pressure and lower levels of cortisol afterwards than those who walked through a city environment. Spending time in parks, hills, woodlands, fields or even your own back garden can help you to relax.

Practice mindfulness

Many people find that a fast-paced, always-on lifestyle drains them of energy and leaves them feeling stressed, anxious, tired and irritable. Mindfulness is the practice of actively focusing on the present moment while accepting feelings, thoughts and sensations. Simply sitting calmly for ten minutes without any distractions can be extremely calming. It’s a therapeutic technique that has grown in popularity in the last few years, as people struggle to find time to simply live in the moment, away from their smartphone screens or to-do lists.

Switch off

Is your smartphone never out of arm’s reach? Smartphone addiction could be causing you to feel stressed. The urge to be “always on” can affect your quality of life, as you’re more easily distracted, less engaged in the world around you, and feel beholden to work emails, group chats and social media. Get your life back by getting away from your phone, whether you switch it off after 6pm, download an app that monitors how long you’ve spent on your phone each day, or ban it from the bedroom.

The link between stress and mental health issues

While people do experience mental health issues without any external causes, conditions like depression and anxiety can be brought on, or worsened by, events or experiences in life. The Workplace Health Surveys conducted by Mental Health America found that 63% of respondents felt workplace stress had a significant impact on their mental health.

Stress increases the production of the hormone cortisol, which can cause mood swings, depression and anxiety when present in high levels in the body. Work-related stress may be the sole factor, or one of many, that triggers an existing mental health issue.

Many of the symptoms of stress are similar to those of common mental health conditions, and stress experienced over an extended period can lead to mental health issues. Stress affects people’s general moods, sleep habits and eating habits, and can also intensify existing mental health problems, making them more difficult to manage.

Managing mental health issues in the workplace

Mental illness is more common than a lot of people think. A study conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness found that one in five adults in America will experience a mental illness each year. The World Health Organization has concluded that depression is now the leading cause of disability worldwide, with an estimated 332 million people experiencing the condition.

As a manager, chances are that, at some point, members of your team will be affected by a mental health issue. It’s important that you’re prepared to deal with them effectively. According to a study into lost productive time in the US workforce, the largest indirect cost of mental illness comes in the form of decreased performance due regularly missing work or working while sick. It’s estimated that mental health conditions cost the global economy a $1trillion each year in lost productivity.

According to Mental Health America: “proper training is the first step to creating a safe and supportive work culture.” Unfortunately, many managers are ill-equipped to address or deal with mental health issues in the workplace.

A guide to managing people with mental health issues

Although a lot of progress has been made in recent years towards ending the stigma around mental health issues, it continues to be a topic that many people are uncomfortable discussing openly. While some employees may inform you if they are struggling with their mental wellbeing, we know that many might not feel comfortable discussing it, and some could be unaware that their mental health is suffering. It’s important to be aware of the signs of poor mental health in the workplace, and to create a work culture of acceptance.

Signs of poor mental health to look out for in your team members

Spotting the signs of poor mental health in the early stages means that managers can address the issue before it becomes a more serious problem. If you have noticed any of these changes in a team member, it could be a sign that they may need mental health support.

  • A sudden, unexplained drop in productivity
  • Increased sickness absence
  • Becoming withdrawn and less sociable with other team members
  • Lack of care over appearance
  • Sudden weight loss or gain
  • Irritability, aggression or tearfulness
  • Loss of humor
  • Difficulty remembering things or concentrating on tasks
  • Increased consumption of caffeine, alcohol or cigarettes

It’s also important to note the above symptoms don’t automatically mean that they have a mental health problem, so it’s wise to approach the subject sensitively.

Talking about mental health issues at work

There are a wide variety of reasons why team members might not feel comfortable discussing their mental health at work, such as:

  • Fear of being judged or stigmatized
  • Fear they might lose their job
  • Fear of failure
  • Anxiety
  • Mistrust
  • Inability to express or articulate how they feel
  • Seeing the issue as a private or personal matter
  • Denial

The prospect of discussing mental health with a team member may be daunting, but early intervention makes it more likely that the individual will recover quickly, and acknowledging the condition can help you both to manage it better.

Find an appropriate time

The subject of mental health is a sensitive one, and you should make sure you find a good time to bring it up so that the individual doesn’t feel wrong-footed or pressurized. Arrange a one-to-one meeting to keep the discussion private. Find a time when you know you both have at least ten minutes and won’t be interrupted by other team members or conflicting tasks.

Clarify the purpose of the meeting

People often struggle to talk about their feelings, especially in a professional situation and if they’re worried it might have an impact on their job. Be clear that their position is in no way at risk and that they aren’t being disciplined.

Asking the question about their mental health upfront could be interpreted as insensitive or invasive, so asking how they are more generally gives them the opportunity to open up without being presumptive.

Listen to them

If a team member confides in you about their poor mental health, listen to them. The support from a manager can make a huge difference to how well individuals cope with mental health conditions in the workplace. Emotional intelligence is important while discussing such a sensitive subject - be responsive to their body language as well as what they’re saying.

Some team members might not want to admit that anything is wrong, or may even be unaware that they could have a mental health issue. If this is the case, it is important to make it clear that you’re always available to talk if they find they’re struggling. It could be that the individual isn’t ready to ask for help, or is afraid of the consequences if they do. But by making it clear that you’re ready to listen, they will feel more comfortable talking to you when they’re ready.

Offer support

According to Mental Health America, lack of support from management can contribute to higher levels of workplace stress and isolation. Be supportive and understanding if an individual wants to talk about their mental health condition. There are various ways you can support them during this difficult time.

  1. Reassure them that the information they have shared will remain confidential.
  2. Avoid making assumptions about how the condition might affect their ability to do the job. Many people manage mental health conditions and still perform to their usual high standard at work.
  3. Ask how the mental health condition affects them, and how you can help them at work. Remember that mental health conditions affect everybody differently and that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
  4. If an individual is struggling to cope at work, are there any reasonable adjustments you can make to help them manage their condition better? Conditions like depression and anxiety can mean regular tasks like getting ready for work, commuting or socializing in the office become more difficult. Flexible working hours or the option to work from home occasionally can make a world of difference.
  5. Advise the individual to visit a GP to discuss their mental health if they haven’t already. A health professional will be able to make an assessment and offer the appropriate treatment to help them manage their condition.
  6. Create a ‘Wellness Action Plan’ together, which details agreed adjustments, factors that can contribute to the individual becoming unwell, and early warning signs to look out for and how to respond.
  7. Don’t try to “fix” them. Poor mental health is like any other illness, and is a part of life. People may go through periods of poor mental health and recover, or they may be able to manage their condition effectively. A mental health condition should not be seen as a barrier or obstacle that needs to be overcome.

Follow up regularly

Scheduling regular follow-up meetings with the individual gives you both the opportunity to discuss how they’re managing their condition and how well they’re coping at work. It also helps them feel supported and gives them a chance to raise any concerns in private.

Creating a mentally healthy work environment

High-pressure work environments can be challenging, but they shouldn’t be damaging to your employees’ mental health. Managing expectations, workload and responsibilities can help to keep stress and pressure at healthy levels, and create a healthy and happy working environment, where everyone feels motivated and supported to succeed.

Normalize mental health in the workplace

If employers make the mental and physical health of their employees a priority, staff will feel more comfortable discussing their mental health. Normalizing mental health at work is the first step to creating a mentally healthy workplace.

Implement a mental health policy

Ensure that your company has a detailed guide on their policy for mental health in the workplace. This should outline employee and managerial responsibilities for managing mental health conditions at work, and should be available for all employees to access. If your company offers flexible use of sick leave to include mental health, mental health benefits coverage, or flexibility in work arrangements, it should all be detailed in the Mental Health Policy.

Identify stress triggers

Every workplace will go through busy, high stress periods. But a stressful few days or weeks shouldn’t become the norm. If you can identify common stress triggers among your team, you can take steps to help ease the pressure to more manageable levels.

Encourage feedback

Feedback gives your team an opportunity to share their thoughts and opinions on the workplace environment, your management style, and other areas that could be improved. Regularly scheduled anonymous feedback lets your team voice their opinions without judgement, shows that you value their input, and helps you to become a better manager.

Maintain realistic deadlines and targets

Stress can become unmanageable when targets and deadlines aren’t realistic. If members of your team are regularly having to work overtime just to meet targets, this can put them under increased stress. Adjusting targets or deadlines to realistic and achievable levels can help to reduce stress. Sharing the workload more evenly between your team can help to ease the pressure on individuals and promote teamwork.

Encourage positive working relationships

MHA’s Mind the Workplace study found that 35% of respondents felt isolated by a hostile or unhelpful workplace. In contrast, a Gallup study found that people who have work friendships tend to feel more supported and encouraged at work, and that their co-workers will help them during times of stress and challenge. Employees who have best friends at work identify significantly higher levels of healthy stress management, even though they experience the same levels of stress.

Foster a close-knit and friendly working culture so that no team member feels isolated or singled out. Organize regular social events outside of working hours, and encourage your team to take their lunch breaks at the same time. Set up mentoring or buddy schemes so that new team members can integrate easily and build positive working relationships.

Create an open and honest work culture

Encourage communication and openness in the workplace and try to prevent gossip, blame culture or other negative attitudes which could cause stress to your team. Be supportive when team members ask for help, and encourage your team to work together towards finding solutions to problems.


Mental health issues can affect anyone at any time, but with this guide you’ll be prepared to support your team and develop a healthy, happy workplace.

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Managing Workplace Stress in a High-pressure Industry | Pipedrive
Managing Workplace Stress in a High-pressure Industry | Pipedrive