Supporting Employees in Times of Stress

By Elizabeth Frye, M.D., F.A.C.P., WittKieffer, and Terence Bostic, Ph.D., CMA

We are living through a period of immense stress. Leaders, while feeling tremendous anxiety themselves, are also trying to manage it among their employees. Allow us to share our thoughts on how leaders can help their colleagues and teams to handle stress in an era where many workers are confined to their homes or are experiencing significant disruption in their work environments. While individuals face great concerns regarding the health and well-being of themselves and their loved ones, it may be possible to alleviate at least some of their anxieties regarding their work.

Research suggests that coping responses to stress fall into one of two categories: those that are solution focused (doing something to resolve the issue) and those that are emotion focused (doing things that make people feel better about the problem). If your car breaks down, you have the option to solve the problem (get the car going again) and the option of having people helping you feel better (calling a friend to commiserate with you). The most effective copers, research says, participate in solution-focused strategies first and emotion-focused strategies second. Solution-focused coping is therapeutic. It reminds people that they have a level of control with a circumstance.

On that note, how can leaders support employees in finding solutions and gaining control during this time of great stress? There are some simple strategies we recommend.

Communicate. At the root of anxiety is uncertainty about what’s to come. As much as possible, communicate regularly with your team so they can know your thoughts and outlook. Even if the message is not new or different, reaching out regularly has a calming effect. In most cases people prefer bad news over uncertainty.

Maintain a sense of normalcy. When possible, help others to maintain a regularly scheduled day to retain their sense of personal effectiveness. For those working from home, building out a daily schedule and sticking to it can be a great way to keep the normal rhythm of an organization on track. For those still at work, as many healthcare workers are, normalcy can mean scheduled breaks, training sessions and other “routine” interactions with colleagues even if the routine has been dramatically changed.

Operate “as if.” When operating “as if,” individuals work as if their anxiety does not have a large impact. While the dangers of our current environment are certainly real, our daily activities can be a great remedy for this anxiety. Continuing to adhere to a daily schedule of activities (work-related or personal) provides a cadence to keep people on track. It is also important to make time for self-care activities such as walking, running, meditating, or others to keep our mind full and our bodies healthy. 

Prevent isolation. For many workers, this may be the longest stretch of time they have worked without the company of others. Fortunately, technology has provided many remedies here. Veteran international travelers may be used to having dinner with their families via Skype. We may have much to learn from many Millennials, as their age group knows how to keep in touch via technology quite well. This same approach can be used at work. Scheduling videoconferences, in a very intentional way, gives people something to anticipate and builds a sense of camaraderie and connectivity, which will combat the isolation. Those can be staff meetings, team meetings or social gatherings just to say hello.

Strong leaders are those who stay attuned to the needs of their employees, and even more so during times of great upheaval. By providing workers with real solutions to their current stressors, executives can help their teams feel a sense of control through very uncertain times.  

Terence Bostic, Ph.D. is a managing partner in CMA Global, Inc., a market-leading assessment and leadership development firm. Elizabeth Frye, M.D., F.A.C.P. is the chief operating office of WittKieffer and a Physician Executive Consultant in the Healthcare and Academic Medicine and Health Sciences Practices.