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Controlling the Costly Effects of Stress in Your Team with SMaRT Strategies

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Stress affects the performance and objectivity of an individual—and then the team and its leader and, ultimately, the organization. Stress is sometimes easy to detect in individuals: it leads to complaining, highly emotional reactions, longer and longer breaks, distractions, and mistakes. Such indicators should propel a leader to take an in-depth look into the reasons behind the stress, whether it relates to work or personal relationships or health.

The Cost of Stress

  • Low productivity

An estimated one million employees miss work on a daily basis due to stress, and those who turn up are more focused on their stress than on their performance. Turnover is a primary cause of low productivity, and 40% of turnover is due to stress. One stressed individual can affect the morale of an entire team, if only as a result of repeated mistakes and the need to take on extra work in the individual’s absence.

  • Compromised Image of the firm

Mistakes, short tempers, gossip, and high turnover affect the image and the reputation of the company. Because of global connectivity, a single mistake could easily reach potential customers and potential employees in every location and demographic—not to mention the legal and restitution costs of a mistake. In one case, in 2000, the US District Court upheld a $730,000 award to an employee as compensation for blatant bullying by the president of the company; the cost of stress included not only the company’s finances but its image as well.

  • Financial losses

A stressed workforce spells financial loss. The American Institute of Health estimates that $300 billion is lost from stress because of absenteeism, lower productivity, turnover, and medical and insurance costs. Moreover, healthcare expenses are 50% higher for employees with stress, and stress-related industrial accidents are twice as expensive in terms of insurance claims as non-stress related accidents. Profit and financial inflow are guaranteed when services are at their best, and the only sure way to maintain that level of services is by having a consistent workforce show up ready to perform.

  • Shorter lives and failed relationships

According to statistics gathered by the American Institute of Stress, stress is the identifiable cause of 120,000 work-related deaths every year. It leads to practices that compromise health and also shorten lives, such as consumption of drugs and alcohol, smoking, and over-eating. The most stressed group is age 30 to 49, right in the prime of their careers and contribute to the company. Yet, 20% of them are spending hour after hour at work thinking about the causes of their stress.

TIP: Stress spreads outward; if the above statistics fail to convince you of the cost of stress, consider that the adverse health effects of second-hand stress have proven to be just as real as those of second-hand smoke—and you are vulnerable.

The Role of Leadership

Most employees identify the main sources of their stress as their boss—that includes the leader of their team—and poor communication. Again referring to the American Institute of Stress statistics, 94% of workers experience stress at work; only 40% of employees report their stress to their bosses, and only 40% of those are offered some type of help. The math is clear: out of 100 stressed employees, only 15 are ever given any support or relief, and in every team of 10, at least one person is struggling with stress without any help.

What can you do as a team leader to control the spread and cost of stress?

  • Take a hard line against bullying and discrimination; create a safe and supportive environment.
  • Refuse to buy into the social stigmas associated with stress and depression.
  • Keep on hand a list of free, online, or in-person services for those trying to cope with stress, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMHI) hotline (1-800-950-6264) and the Mental Health Alliance hotline (1-800-273-8255). Many states also have a Warmlines and resources for those not necessarily in crisis but need to talk (see the list at
  • Mentor employees in SMaRT strategies for reducing stress, such as setting priorities, delegating, using mindfulness and resiliency techniques, embracing positivity, and practicing SMaRT conflict resolution.
  • Watch your own tendencies toward creating stress in your team: do you overschedule, criticize, under-train, interrupt, or otherwise put pressure on your team?
  • Use your influencing skills to get your team the resources, time off, training, and opportunities they need; suit motivations to the individual.
  • Work on your communication skills—clear goals, clear deadlines, clear roles, and clear expectations reduce everyone’s stress; communication reduces the incidence of stressful surprises and makes change easier to accept and manage.
  • Attend to your own mental health; a stressed leader stresses the team.
  • Listen to your team, especially for information about stress triggers.
  • Improve the fit of each job to the person responsible for that job; employees want to use their skills, grow their talents, and feel competent.
  • Give employees a sense of control over how they do their work, even if you can’t control the why or what; consider flextime or remote work and engage your team in decisions that affect them.
  • Bring in outside help, especially if your entire team is showing signs of stress, and you are having trouble coping with your own stress; the cost of dealing with stress is far less than the cost of stress allowed to fester.

TIP: Praise is important for any individual and any team; some experts say that the most successful teams share six positive comments for every negative comment.

The Role of Stress Training

Stress training prepares a team to handle the stressful events that are most likely to occur or that occur with regularity. For example, a team needs to know what to do if a critical machine fails; if a weather or fire emergency occurs, or if the end of the quarter always brings a simultaneous rush to fulfill outstanding customer orders and make new ones.

For stress training to work, each member of the team must:

  • Be prepared—if the team knows that a stressful situation is imminent, they can prepare themselves (and alert their support team at home and work).
  • Recognize the signs and work-related triggers of stress.
  • Have the skills and resources to deal with the problem.
  • Practice in a safe way; for example, by acting out in advance what each person will do if the machine fails, engaging in fire drills, or gradually handling more orders at the end of a quarter.
  • Practice a positive mental attitude “this too shall pass,” “we’re all in this together.”
  • Attend to their own needs by using SMaRT strategies: “I need to take a break now,” “I need to ask for help.”
  • Offer feedback: is the training focused on the right problem and is the solution helping to reduce stress; is everyone in the team on the same page at the same time?

TIP: As a leader, practice your own organization, time management, leadership, and communication skills to ensure that you are helping and not hindering your team in dealing with stress.

Key Takeaways

Most working people experience stress at work, and they attribute it to first to leadership practices and second to the failure of communication. Your team deserves a workplace as stress-free as you can make it—for their mental and physical health and your own, as well as the financial health of your company. You have numerous options at your disposal, including SMaRT strategies, stress training, and enhancement of your own leadership skills.

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