In the past three years, words like “unprecedented”, “extraordinary” and “unheard-of” have been flung about with such routine abandon we can be forgiven if the true strangeness of the times we’re living through no longer registers. Novelty has become the new normal. But whether we recognize it consciously or not, we have been subject to profound stress, as nearly every channel of our lives has been impacted by the range of physical, financial, political, and even civil, strife that has enveloped the last couple of years.
Stress exerts a very interesting influence on us, from creating states of heightened awareness and a capacity for improved focus, to triggering full-blown dissociative episodes that define extreme psychopathology. In short, a little stress can be positive, even necessary, for us to operate at our best. We’re designed to accommodate stress as part of the human adventure.
To borrow a particularly apt analogy, when we put a muscle under considerable stress, say through focused weight training, we make the muscle grow and become capable of handling greater weight. That is a form of productive development. But working with too much weight, or with too great a frequency, can actually damage the muscle and make us weaker. The sort of sustained, omnipresent stress that we have experienced over the last several years has had that sort of deleterious effect: we’re the worse for it, with burnout and disengagement increasingly common.
As leaders, we have two equally important concerns: both our own welfare; and the welfare of our employees. Our efforts to help our employees deal with stress lose a lot of credibility if we’re consistently showing up like we’ve just put our finger into an electric socket. No one is looking to take professional advice from the doc from Back to the Future. Extending yourself a little self-care and ensuring you are performing at the top of your game is the first priority. You can’t save anyone when you’re the one drowning.
Dealing With Your Stress
Self-care includes understanding how you’re wired: what are your behavioral motivators and behavioral blind spots? In effect, “what pushes your buttons”? If you’ve never had a simple behavioral assessment, consider investing 5 minutes of your time to get very concrete and reliable insight into what really motivates your best self. The results can be eye-opening, especially when you’re convinced you know yourself oh so well.
The Predictive Index (PI), for example, can even provide clarity around the specific areas of stress adaption that you are undertaking. You might not fully realize it yourself, but this simple assessment can pinpoint just how you are adapting to the current demands of your environment. Not only can that be a revelation, but it can also help you to consider ways to re-adjust your work focus to reduce those stress adaptations.
In a similar fashion, emotional intelligence (EQ) assessments can be particularly insightful, as they tend to provide measures on our stress response and areas of heightened sensitivity around impulse control. Taken together, behavioral and EQ assessments provide deep levels of awareness around how we respond to stress, including adaptions we make, and how likely we are to sustain engagement over prolonged periods of high stress.
Additionally, consider the need for meaningful time off: for time away from work. With the increase in remote work, it’s not unusual for individuals to be spending significantly more time engaged with work. Suddenly, the oasis that was your home life has become invaded by your work life and it’s increasingly harder to pull away. You find yourself rationalizing doing just a few more emails before dinner; or doing research on an upcoming project because your laptop is right there on the kitchen table and you have a few minutes to spare. However, for our mental health, these are two “friends” that deserve to remain apart.
Lastly, if you’ve never explored a meditation practice, or any similar practice that allows you to “disconnect” from the daily drama and create some space, this can be a transformative step. Even five to ten minutes of simply giving yourself permission to simply “be” can have a tremendous impact. If this sounds easy, or worse yet, seems too “airy” or too “new age-y” to be of consequence, try it. I dare you. Try to sit quietly for five minutes, without chasing your thoughts and while giving yourself permission for everything to be exactly as it is—no effort to make your experience different than it actually is in that moment. You’ll be astounded at both how difficult this is to do, and how powerful the outcome can be—especially over time. If you don’t do it for yourself, do it for those you love! They’ll thank you for it!
Dealing With Their Stress
When we’re operating at our best, we can focus on creating the right outcomes for our employees. Utilizing a behavioral or an emotional intelligence assessment with them can help both grow their own self-awareness, as well as appreciate operative differences between the two of you that can contribute to added stress and misunderstanding. Often, we mis-diagnose performance issues as problematic behaviors, instead of appreciating fundamental differences in how we are wired. Assessment work can take the emotion out of personality differences and re-frame our understanding of one another in more productive ways.
Assessments can also help us discover employees who have disengaged from their work and are at risk for leaving the company. The Predictive Index, for example, readily explores four areas of common disengagement:
- Disengagement driven from misalignment, or discord, with our leader
- Disengagement driven from our misalignment to our role
- Disengagement driven from misalignment to our team
- Disengagement driven from our misalignment to the culture of our organization
In each instance, the idea is that individuals become intellectually and/or emotionally disconnected from their work, either failing to connect with their boss, their role, their team or even the company itself. Not feeling like you “fit in” in any of these ways is a sure-fire way to disengage you and have you looking for the door.
But these are also excellent guideposts for you to use with employees to ensure they are not becoming disengaged. Meeting with them regularly to reinforce your commitment to their success and to develop their potential helps to offset these issues and provide assurance, when it’s most needed, that they are valued and have a future with the organization. These areas of potential disengagement can be excellent subjects to explore in regular coaching conversations. And their converse—areas of engagement—are a roadmap to creating maximum alignment and maximum performance from employees.
These are stressful times and they’re not likely to become less stressful any time soon. Learning to handle our stress is essential and starts with an honest assessment of how we react to stress itself. What adaptations does it put into motion? What is our stress tolerance and our capacity to maintain function over prolonged periods of stress? Greater understanding of our stress tolerance makes us a healthier and more effective leader—one capable of helping his or her employees to similarly acknowledge and combat workplace stress. Spending time understanding and developing a strategy for stress—both for you and your team—will ensure everyone continues to function at their best and will set your company up to succeed when others have lost focus or succumbed to the pressure.