Managing Stress for Leaders and Teams
How’s your stress level? Is it higher or lower than last week, last month, or last year? There are times when stress can be motivating, but many of us struggle with unsustainable and limiting levels of stress. For many of the leaders I work with in my leadership coaching business, stress is an unarticulated reason for seeking coaching. The reasons on the surface might be capacity challenges, workload, team performance, external pressures and concerns about the future. While stress is not the language these leaders are using to describe their challenges, all of these can elevate stress levels. Regardless of the language leaders use, their positive intent is to be more effective and have healthy, thriving teams.
There are many frameworks to define different types of stress. For our purposes, it is sufficient to know that we are all affected by physical, emotional and mental stressors. Some of these are temporary and some are ongoing. As leaders, it is important to recognize stressors in our own lives and get to know the stressors that our teams are facing.
For leaders, building emotional intelligence (EQ) skills can be one approach to personal stress management. Leaders with higher levels of EQ are typically better equipped to manage stress and cope with stressful situations. Here are EQ skills that connect to stress regulation:
Self-awareness: Individuals with high EQ have a greater self-awareness of their own emotions, including stressful ones. They are better able to identify the sources of stress and recognize how stress affects their behavior and well-being. Self-awareness of energy levels also contributes to effective stress management. Leaders who plan their days to take advantage of natural ebbs and flows in their energy levels can manage stress more effectively. In coaching conversations with leaders experiencing stress, we often reflect on the physical manifestations of stress. You can try this yourself by asking yourself where in your body you feel stress in tense moments. Building this awareness can help you recognize, anticipate and acknowledge what triggers stress and help you recognize stress sooner.
Self-regulation: Leaders must take care of their own physical and mental health to be able to support their teams. Using healthy coping mechanisms such as regular exercise, eating a nourishing diet, prioritizing relaxation, focusing on high quality sleep, taking time away from work, and using time management techniques can help leaders manage stress. Being attuned and in balance with your own emotions can create the needed space to have difficult conversations and manage challenging situations without experiencing overwhelming levels of stress. Energy levels come into play here, too. Knowing what feeds your positive energy can contribute to better self-regulation.
Social awareness: Understanding and empathizing with others’ emotions, including the stress of team members, colleagues, or clients can help leaders manage their own stress and stress on their team. Social awareness can help leaders recognize when team members are feeling overwhelmed and provide appropriate support. This is important because stress can feel contagious. Leaders who are aware of the social dynamics around them can help prevent stress from spreading across a team through regular check-ins and other approaches that we will explore below.
Leaders face a dual challenge of managing personal stress and helping to manage stress on and within their teams. EQ skills are important here, too, but there are also other effective management approaches that are not directly linked to EQ.
Relationship management: Leaders with high EQ are better equipped to manage stress in their teams and foster a positive work environment which can lead to higher levels of psychological safety within teams. They communicate effectively, listen deeply, appropriately delegate tasks, create a culture of inclusion and belonging, and provide support to help team members manage their stress.
Hold regular check-ins: Leaders who make one-on-one meetings with employees a non-negotiable part of their schedule have a better sense of what is happening on their team. These conversations foster transparency and trust while minimizing ambiguity around expectations. Lack of clarity is a source of stress for many employees. Employees know that they have dedicated time to problem solve with their leaders, ask for support and celebrate successes. Regular one-on-one meetings also set the stage for talent conversations which help employees connect to opportunity and purpose, further reducing stress.
Encourage work-life integration: Leaders can encourage their team members to maintain a healthy work-life integration by offering flexible schedules, telecommuting options, and paid time off. Setting realistic goals, expectations and workloads for teams can boost balance and decrease stress on the team. This can help prevent burnout and increase long-term productivity. That’s not to say that there won’t be times when the team needs to stretch to reach a goal or deliver expected business results. They will just be better resourced when those occasions arise.
Connect employees to resources: Sometimes an employee’s stress originates outside the workplace. Many workplaces have resources to help employees through challenging times, like wellbeing programs, Employee Assistance programs and mental health services. Reminding employees of the resources available to them can help the employee feel supported.
For teams to thrive, leaders must lead by example and model healthy stress management behaviors. When leaders take care of their own well-being, their teams are more likely to follow suit. This is part of establishing a culture that prioritizes wellbeing. A team that recognizes stress and proactively manages it is likely to have better engagement and employee retention which contributes to better business performance. And achieving your business goals seems like a good way to keep stress in check!
This article was also published on Medium.