Untie Those Knots

The alarm goes off. You realize it's Monday. You remember how much you have to do.

And immediately you feel that knot of stress tighten in your gut.

For most people - entry level employees up through the C-suite - work-related stress sets in from the moment they open their eyes. I know I feel it nearly every day (so much so I devoted an entire post to the psychological strain of being an entrepreneur). So when I learned it was Stress Awareness Month (SAM), I have to admit - I chuckled a bit. I mean, really - who is so sheltered that they're not even aware of stress?

But, of course, the goal of SAM is to be more than just aware of stress' existence; it's to understand the causes and dangers of our modern stress epidemic - and how to beat it.

Common sense (and a ton of research) makes it abundantly clear why work stress is so harmful to individuals and organizations:

  • Research cited in this Forbes.com article indicates that workplace stress contributes to at least 120,000 deaths each year and costs up to $190 billion in annual U.S. healthcare costs.
  • The latest Towers Watson stress survey shows that employers rank stress as the number one workforce risk issue - yet only 15% of them identify improving employees' emotional and mental health as a top priority of their health and productivity programs. Ultimately, this disconnect alienates employees, increases absences and drives unwanted turnover.

Employees of entrepreneurial organizations are particularly vulnerable to these negative consequences. By their very nature, start-ups create a host of potentially stressful work conditions for employees:

  • Lack of certainty
  • Lack of financial stability
  • Lack of clear organizational structure / well-defined roles
  • Heavy work loads

As an entrepreneur, what can you do to "untie those knots," and help employees manage the stress that comes with working for your organization?

  • Be honest. If you withhold information from your team in an attempt to protect them from worry, you may actually do more harm than good. Fear of the unknown can stress employees as much as harsh realities. So be upfront with your team, even when the news isn't great. An environment of open, honest communication fosters greater trust, respect and psychological comfort.
  • Encourage them to move more. If their work is sedentary, get your employees up and away from their desks several times a day. Brief periods of exercise (walking meetings, stretching, etc.) are mood-boosters that increase focus, while relaxing minds and bodies.
  • Celebrate frequently. Don't wait until you hit a big goal to praise employees. Each time a team or an individual reaches an intermediate milestone or has an unexpected success, celebrate it. You don't need a big cake and balloons; something as simple as a public announcement, a pat on the back, or a sincere "thank you" is enough to reduce stress levels - and keep your team working hard to achieve those big goals.
  • Have a good laugh. When your work environment becomes a real pressure-cooker, nothing busts stress like a good laugh. Find ways to break through tension by sharing funny jokes or stories (as long as the humor is appropriate, and not at someone else's expense). Humor may not change deadlines or workloads, but it will definitely change attitudes for the better.
  • Infuse more nature into your work environment. Buzzing fluorescent lights, wall-to-wall industrial carpet, bright monitors and ringing phones are about as far removed from nature as you can get. Break the tedium and stress by encouraging your employees to step outside frequently for a breath of fresh air. Then, bring a little of the outdoors right into your office space. House plants, Zen gardens, shells and geodes - even photos or posters of nature - help balance your workplace and provide a focal point for relaxation.
  • Promote greater work/life satisfaction. In the Towers Watson study referenced above, "lack of work/life balance" was cited as the biggest cause of workforce stress by employees. Help them find a healthier work/life mix by:

    • Providing adequate supplemental staff (e.g., fractional, interim or project-based support) to accommodate heavy workloads.
    • Offering flex work options (e.g., telecommuting, flextime, job sharing, extended leaves) to give employees adequate time away and reduce work/life conflicts.

  • Lead by example. If you run yourself ragged 14 hours a day, your staff will feel pressured to do the same. While it's virtually impossible for a successful entrepreneur to stick to a 9 to 5 schedule, make a point of leaving the office on time at least a few days a week. Model good eating and exercise behaviors. Smile at others and laugh at yourself. Set the tone for active stress management, and your employees will follow your lead.

Not sure which of these options will work best for your staff? Ask them! Distribute a short survey to gather feedback, or hold a brainstorming session to determine which of these stress management tactics will help your employees untie those knots.