Business Psychologist | Occupational Health POHP Limited
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How to deal with workplace stress as a new leader

We’re living through a situation no-one saw coming and the level of pressure we are experiencing at work could tip into workplace stress during these times. If you’re a new leader struggling to get to grips with this environment, there are five practical steps you can take to manage stress for yourself and those around you.

5th Oct 2020
Business Psychologist | Occupational Health POHP Limited
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Shot of a stressed businesswoman with headache in the office
iStock/VioletaStoimenova

The individual and organisational effects of workplace stress are tremendous, and the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted many factors that are associated with it. New leaders not only have to manage their own stress levels but now also consider those of their team.

Spot the signs

Suppose you are noticing increased staff turnover, sickness absence or lower morale within your team. You may also find that you are receiving emails at the weekend or late at night – a symptom of the ‘always-on’ culture. If this is you, workplace stress may be a problem.

We are collectively living through an experience for which there is no precedent. It’s ok to feel uncertain and make mistakes.

To find out if workplace stress is an issue, your HR department may be able to run a survey that includes a workplace stress assessment. If you don’t have an HR department, HSE offers a free indicator tool that can be used to assess and monitor the factors that may lead to workplace stress.

Either way, here are some key things new leaders can look out for to manage their own stress levels and those of their team.

Job demands

One of the six main factors that can lead to workplace stress is not being able to cope with the demands of our job. This might include a heavy workload because of colleagues being on furlough. The speed of change through the pandemic can also mean everything was needed yesterday, making time pressure a key stressor. Is there anything we can do to relieve this?

Work environment can also be an issue. If you or your team are working at home, do they have all the resources they need to be able to do this effectively? Do they have a comfortable and safe workstation? Do they know how to work all of the new technology that may have been introduced?

Poor relationships with colleagues can be another cause of stress. As a new leader, you may need to re-establish relationships with your team. You might want to sit down with each individual to find out what they liked about their last manager and what they would like to see from you.

future L&D leaders hub link

The right skills & abilities

The HSE also states that employees should have the skills and abilities that they need to match the demands of their job. As a new leader, you may have been promoted because you were good at your job, but now you are responsible for others rather than just yourself, and this requires a whole new set of skills.

According to McKinsey & Company, 83% of global leaders feel unprepared for their role. If this sounds like you, speak to your manager and create a development plan that provides you with all the training you need to do your job effectively. Then sit down with your team to make sure they have all the skills and abilities they need to do the same.

Dealing with change

Change is a significant stress factor, and you may currently have to deal with changes to your own role, as well as those of your team. We may not be able to control the frequency and impact of change during this period, but can we have a plan, aligned with our company goals, to reduce some uncertainty?

While change happens to us all, the subjective experience may be very different for each unique member of your team. Studies show that different personality traits like openness to experience, pragmatism, and resilience can all impact how individuals feel they have reacted to organisational change.  

Also, the emotions that are experienced through change can vary. Susan David recognises the need for leaders to allow themselves and their team to feel positive or sad or angry. Acceptance of our emotions can increase resilience, which research shows can be a buffer for anxiety and depression caused by high levels of stress.  

Create a climate of psychological safety

By allowing your team to notice and share their emotions, you are helping to create a psychologically safe environment. This is a challenging environment to foster, as it needs authenticity and vulnerability. If we don’t encourage it, research by Idris et al. (2012) suggests that our team might experience reduced levels of psychological health.

As new leaders, we can create this psychologically safe environment through our values, attitudes and, according to Laura Delizonna, an instructor at Stanford University, the ability to make mistakes without being punished. We can build on developing this psychologically safe climate for our team by being willing to own our mistakes.

Understandably this is scary. Our instinct is to show we are great, perfect for the job and deserving of our promotion – but how realistic is it that we will never make a mistake at work? Not very. As Brian Goldman suggests, mistakes are inevitable even in high stakes professions like medicine.

Positive steps

As a new leader, managing your own levels of workplace stress and those of your team is really tricky. There is a lot you can do, but don’t feel you have to do it all at once. Here are five practical steps you can take when you are ready:

  1. Have one-to-one meetings with your team to assess current stress levels, (re)set expectations and discuss any developmental needs – and then do the same for yourself.
     
  2. Communicate honestly and regularly. The CIPD has some great resources for how to communicate effectively through Covid-19 if you need some tips.
     
  3. Be ready to see, hear and accept different emotions from your team. One-to-one coaching can help identify emotional triggers and provide tools to manage (rather than avoid) them.
     
  4. Consider investing in a personality profiling tool to really get to know your teams' preferences.
     
  5. If something does not work as well as expected, own it! Talk about it and learn from it. Your team will respect you and will feel safe to try new things themselves.

Finally, remember that we are collectively living through an experience for which there is no precedent. It’s ok to feel uncertain and make mistakes. What matters is how you approach it and communicate with others around you.  

Interested in this topic? Read How to practise conscious kindness to improve mental health at work.

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