Thank you to ACPNS Researcher, Dr Ruth Knight for this article.
What is workplace stress?
Most teams experience some stress and change at work. Sometimes a stress response can be an appropriate, even beneficial reaction. Associate Professor Daniela Kaufer suggests short-lived stress can improve alertness and performance and boost memory (Jaret, 2015). However, when stress is excessive, too frequent, or overwhelming it affects a person’s ability to think and perform their job well, because they are in survival mode. Chronic or toxic stress very quickly not only affects a person’s mental health, but their physical health and overall wellbeing.
Stress is a response that occurs in the brain. Whilst our brain has an amazing ability to change and adapt (look up neuroplasticity), leaders need to ensure the right conditions to help team members be less reactive and able to stay calm when faced with stressful or complex challenges. The aim should be to help people be resilient and open to change, because then they are more likely to remain highly engaged and satisfied with their work.
Whilst there are many different factors that can cause a stress response, ‘change’ is a very common trigger. Leaders should be very alert to the signs of people feeling stressed if people are being asked to change what they do or how they work, or if there is a lot of change going on at work.
How big is the issue and what is the cost?
Based on an analysis of Australian workers’ compensation claims considered ‘serious’ and lodged in 2016-2017, Safe Work Australia (Safe Work Australia, 2018) report around over 6,500 claims were linked to work-related stress or mental stress. The cost for individuals and employers is staggering as many people have to take a lengthy time off work to recover, it affects their physical and mental wellbeing and functioning. There is also often a direct cost for those employees that suffer from stress, with the median cost for these compensation claims being $28,400 in 2015-16.
It has been suggested that employee’s self-efficacy, energy, motivation to perform efficiently and work efficiently, decreases with increased levels of stress and they are more likely to leave their job if they do not feel they can manage workplace stress (Colligan & Higgins, 2006). Therefore presenteeism, absenteeism and turnover due to stress is most likely cost the economy billions of dollars a year.
Do leaders have a duty of care?
Yes. ‘Health’ is defined in the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (WHS Act) as both physical and psychological health. Safeguarding the health, welfare and human rights of employees when we design and manage our workplace is a legal obligation so all leaders have a duty of care to ensure that stress does not harmfully affect employee performance. Like all workplace health and safety risks, leaders of teams have a duty of care to identify the areas within the workplace that are likely to cause stress, assess and control the risks, and also review the controls and their effectiveness.
While we cannot avoid all stress and change, leaders do have a role and responsibility to help their team members prevent and manage work-related mental stress. Getting to know team members well, and staying alert to signs of stress, is critical. However, providing early support for employees and helping them to develop resilience has the best outcomes.
Ways leaders can help their team
While there are many different ways leaders can help and support their team, I want to review three team resilience strategies that neuroscientists and researchers suggest: curate positive experiences; create psychological safety and communicate the value of generosity.
Curate positive connections and experiences
Research by Ogbonnaya, Tillman and Gonzalez (2018) suggests that when team members feel positive about the team, and feel supported, this improves the quality of employees’ functioning at work. Positive experiences of the team can also improve employees’ sense of attachment towards the organisation, suggesting that even during times of stress, employee turnover can be minimised.
In the book Resilient: how to grow an unshakable core of calm, strength, and happiness (Hanson & Hanson, 2018), Rick Hanson explains that any kind of team work involves an opportunity for your brain to develop its neural structure or function. Experiences processed in the brain and remembered, become ways we interpret and think about future experiences. This can either be a good or bad thing, depending on what our experience was, how often it occurred and what we learnt from it.
An example is how we perceive others we work with in our team. If an experience with a colleague is respectful, kind, encouraging and helpful, this will affect your attitudes and perceptions of that person. The more similar experiences, the more likely your perception of them becomes embedded and you will act respectfully and helpfully towards them. If you have enough of those experiences you begin to internalise that working with this person is safe and satisfying. Imagine working with that person on a tough assignment, or on a complex challenge, or a difficult project? It is highly likely that because of your experience of your colleague being respectful, encouraging and helpful, you will be calmer, listen and share your thoughts more effectively, experience higher morale and learn more during the process.
When a team is going through stress and change Hansen suggests that leaders should help the team become much more conscious of positive experiences within the team, so that these positive memories register in emotional memory. He says that more attention needs to be given to positive expectations about oneself, others, and the future. This is the legitimate basis of “verified optimism”. This results in team members becoming happier through having repeated experiences of positive connection and safety, which gets encoded – installed – into the brain. Hansen reiterates that without installation, there is no learning, no change: in effect, the experience is wasted on the brain. Leaders must bring skilful attention to installing these experiences in the groups’ collective and shared consciousness, so that these experiences have enduring benefit for individuals and the group.
As an example, imagine a team leader who wanted to change the way his/her team members thought about and talked to each other about fundraising. Typically in this team fundraising had been seen as an awkward and uncomfortable topic, and something to be avoided by the team as it was the fundraisers job, not theirs. The team leader decided to start talking to the team about how the funds generated from fundraising were making a difference to their workplace and their clients’ lives. Every time to the team met at team meetings, supervision or other practice meetings, the team leader asked about how the results of fundraising made the team feel. The team leader consistently created a positive narrative for the team members, and eventually the team started to offer stories of how raising funds for the organisation had made a real impact. Once the team had experienced and heard repeated positive connections between what fundraising was, and what it achieved, the team members felt safer about the idea, that fundraising was something they could all support. Together they discussed some changes that needed to occur to improve their confidence and skills in relation to fundraising and asking people to support the organisation as donors. They decided voluntarily to become donors themselves so they could comfortably share with their friends and family how important donations were, and they started to think about new and innovative services for their clients that needed funding. This consistent narrative transformed the culture within the team, it helped the team embrace, not fear the changes that were needed. In addition, it supported the team to reduce the stress surrounding the challenges of seeking and securing new funders and donors. It helped the team think more creatively about working alongside the fundraising team, and working together to achieve their goals.
Create and foster psychological safety
Given that much of the work at Google is done collaboratively by teams, Google researchers conducted a study to answer the question: “What makes a team effective?” They discovered how teams worked together was the important factor and particularly what stood out was a team culture characterised by psychological safety. This refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk. Do they believe it is safe in that team to take risks without being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive?
It takes many learning experiences for a person to gain psychological safety within a team. They must experience (time and time again) people’s respect and understanding when they work together on a challenge or a stressful experience. Researcher Amy Edmondson, author of the book The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth (Edmondson, 2018), defines psychological safety as a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. She suggests that once a team feels psychologically safe their brain allows them to engage more easily in behaviours such as seeking feedback, asking for help, speaking up about concerns or mistakes, and sharing ideas. Positive experiences allow the team to feel safe about sharing when they are stressed, feel uncertain about change or feel vulnerable. If the team can share these thoughts and emotions, it leads to a supportive culture and increased team performance.
In her TEDx talk called ‘Building a psychologically safe workplace’, Edmondson offers three simple steps individuals can take to foster team psychological safety:
- Frame work as a learning problem, not an execution problem.
- Acknowledge your own fallibility.
- Model curiosity and ask lots of questions.
Psychological safety involves feeling sure that we will not be punished nor negatively judged for mistakes or failures or for challenging the status quo. But this isn’t easy, we have to feel confident there will be no blame and criticism when sharing ideas or speaking up. Researcher and author of Dare to Lead (Brown, 2018), Brene Brown suggests this blame is often at odds with vulnerability, an attribute that powerfully helps people cope with stress and become resilient. Brown suggests listening, staying curious, being honest, and keeping confidences help build team respect and trust, the attributes of high performing teams.
Research conducted by Ang, Uthaman, Ayre, Lim, & Lopez (2018) confirmed that the degree of resilience can determine job satisfaction and staff retention. They identified that there were found key factors that supported the nurses in their study to be resilient. They identified that religion and faith helps to build resilience; and having the support of others is important in overcoming work‐related stress and being able to perform duties despite adversities. They conclude that building resilience is important to improve and sustain healthy and effective functioning of employees but resilience is a dynamic process that develops over time so psychosocial support from managers may be a crucial protective factor for employees with stressful jobs.
To foster a culture that values psychological safety, The Greater Good Science Centre suggests that leaders should begin training their team members to gain the skills of non-judgemental talking and accurate non-judgemental listening. At team meetings, in the lunch room and whenever you connect with others during the day, team members need to replace (often unconscious) negativity and blame, with (conscious) curiosity and acceptance. Ask your team to trial this every day for a few weeks then share with each other what they’ve learnt, how they’ve felt and how it has impacted on their team relationships and ability to cope with stress and change.
Communicate the value of generosity
You might not immediately relate the virtue generosity with managing stress and becoming resilient. Yet there is research that has made the link. It appears that people who make generous choices report more self-reported happiness, and Gur (2017) conducted some studies to establish that generosity at work, especially when done genuinely from the heart, could promote a prosocial workplace climate and make the atmosphere more enjoyable and the work less stressful. This means that generosity can reduce the stress people experience, which then supports them to continue helping each other and maintain the prosocial climate of their team.
When stress affects individuals it can lower trust within the team. Stress can trigger fight-or-flight behaviour characterised by increased anxiety, which can ultimately affect social decision-making. Generosity can counteract this, so sharing information, showing emotional and physical support, communicating understanding during meetings, and showing gratitude towards colleagues, might be ways to help people feel calmer during times of change, and make better decisions.
A word of caution – generosity appears to work best before a team experiences toxic stress. If stress is already overwhelming an individual or team and they are unable to benefit from generosity because of poor trust and self-interested group dynamics, a leader may find that generous acts do not have the ability to significantly reduce the stress and additional strategies may be needed.
Most teams however are likely to benefit from generosity. Leaders can start promoting generosity by modelling transparency, communicating frequently, giving timely and constructive feedback, making fair decisions in the best interests of the team, informally and formally helping the team and supporting them to achieve their goals, being generous (in a genuine and fair way) with praise and encouragement, and building trust and respect within the team.
Generosity is a characteristic, not just an action, however your team will notice all the times that you authentically do something in order to help or support the team. The simplest kind and generous gesture might be all your team members need, to help them become more resilient.
Reflection questions for leaders and teams
- What are your perceptions of your team? Do you have strong psychological safety?
- How can you purposefully create new positive experiences and attitudes about how the team manages stress?
- How do you demonstrate and promote generosity within the team?
- Is building resilience a top priority for you as a leader? How can you make it a more important conversation and attribute of your team?
Ang, S., Uthaman, T., Ayre, T., Lim, S., & Lopez, V. (2018). A Photovoice study on nurses’ perceptions and experience of resiliency. Journal of Nursing Management. https://doi.org/10.1111/jonm.12702
Brown, B. (2018). Dare to lead : brave work, tough conversations, whole hearts (First edition.). New York: Random House.
Colligan, T., & Higgins, E. (2006). Workplace Stress: Etiology and Consequences. Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health, 21(2), 89–97.
Edmondson, A. (2018). The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. New York: Wiley & Sons.
Edmondson, A.C. (1999). “Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams”, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 44 No. 2, pp. 350-383.
Glanville, J., Paxton, P., & Wang, Y. (2016). Social Capital and Generosity: A Multilevel Analysis. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 45(3), 526–547.
Gur, S. (2017). Generosity at Work: Generous Identity, Organizational Context, and Organizational Citizenship Behaviors. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1927182049/
Hanson, R., & Hanson, F. (2018). Resilient : how to grow an unshakable core of calm, strength, and happiness (First edition.). New York: Harmony Books.
Jaret, P. (2015, October 20). The Surprising Benefits of Stress. Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_surprising_benefits_of_stress
Kompier, M., & Cooper, C. (1999). Preventing stress, improving productivity : European case studies in the workplace. London; Routledge.
Ogbonnaya, C., Justice Tillman, C., & Gonzalez, K. (2018). Perceived Organizational Support in Health Care: The Importance of Teamwork and Training for Employee Well-Being and Patient Satisfaction. Group & Organization Management, 43(3), 475–503. https://doi.org/10.1177/1059601118767244
Cauwelier, P., Ribière, V. M., Bennet, A. (2016). “Team psychological safety and team learning: a cultural perspective”, The Learning Organization, Vol. 23 Issue: 6, pp.458-468, https://doi.org/10.1108/TLO-05-2016-0029
Safe Work Australia (2018) Australian workers’ compensation statistics 2016-17 Retrieved from: https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/doc/australian-workers-compensation-statistics-2016-17
Van Lange, P., Ouwerkerk, J., & Tazelaar, M. (2002). How to overcome the detrimental effects of noise in social interaction: the benefits of generosity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82(5), 768–780. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1998
[R1]Add link https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroplasticity
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