If they tell you they’re anxious and stressed, they’re in good company. Stress among working adults is at an all-time high. And leadership is not immune: 80 percent of executives reported mental health issues in 2020. Thirty-eight percent said they even turned to drugs or alcohol to cope with the symptoms.
Whether your team is dealing with concerns about work, life, or some combination of the two, there are things you can do to help them dial down negative emotional responses to challenges. And that’s important because when stress is properly managed, people can more easily focus on their biggest professional and personal goals.
In a recent Insightful Leader Live webinar, Carter Cast, a clinical professor of strategy, shared tools to help leaders and their teams get a better handle on what often feels uncontrollable.
“We can train our brains to better manage stress and anxiety,” Cast says.
Stress and anxiety are a management problem
Perhaps more than high-stakes meetings or tight deadlines, ancillary tasks are among the biggest causes of workplace stress, Cast says.
Managers and team members field requests for their attention all day in e-mails and meetings, often leaving them time for little else. Rather than add to the clutter, consider where you and your team can make the biggest impact at work, and eliminate the tasks that don’t align with these broader goals.
“Cut the non-essential work that is keeping them from focusing on the essential work and giving them a lack of peace of mind,” he says.
In addition to removing non-essential tasks from the agenda, managers should also give teams more agency around how they structure their time. Doing so will get them out of what Cast calls “response mode,” where they bend their agenda to fit others’ needs.
He likes to remind his colleagues: “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will do it for you—and you might not like the results.” And, of course, the same can be said to managers: if you don’t help your teams prioritize their schedules, someone else will.
For example, Cast advises teams to try organizing their days into discrete segments for correspondence, strategic thought, and meetings. That way, people won’t be stuck in a cycle of constant interruptions.
The key to this kind of schedule-keeping is to be realistic about it.
“Batch your day, and create time buffers,” Cast says. “If you think the meeting is going to take an hour, slot in 90 minutes.”
And when plans inevitably change, reprioritize accordingly.
Give Weight to Wellbeing
Managers influence workplace culture in many ways. Cast says it’s important, then, that they create a space where people feel comfortable expressing their feelings—especially feelings of stress and frustration. The alternative is an environment where emotions spiral and grow unchecked.
Show people it’s okay to be vulnerable by putting your own feelings on the line, first.
“Design a culture in which talking about mental health is less stigmatized,” Cast says.
If you see a therapist for your own mental health, and you feel comfortable mentioning it, considering putting that out there. Making yourself vulnerable first could be the push someone needs to express themself freely.
You can encourage healthy habits in other ways, too, such as not modeling or rewarding unduly long work weeks or all-nighters—adults who get at least seven hours of sleep at night report lower rates of stress. And, in Cast’s experience, employees are simply incapable of working effectively for more than 55 hours per week over a sustained period of time.
Get Some Perspective
To reduce stress and anxiety, Cast also recommends a strategy used by cognitive behavioral therapists, which involves reexamining—and ideally, changing—how you react to certain thoughts and situations.
The strategy works like this: Describe a recurring thought that has you feeling stressed out, preferably using the words “should” or “should not.” For example, if your latest presentation landed with a thud, you might write, “The leaders of my organization should have been more open to my pitch for expanding into new markets.” Then, write a few sentences explaining why you believe this to be true.
Next, take the opposing perspective. In this case, you would say, “The leaders of my organization should not have been more open to my pitch for expanding into new markets,” and explain why that might be the case. For example, maybe you didn’t pre-sell your idea enough, or maybe the timing was off and leaders were distracted by the next day’s earnings release.
By forcing yourself to see an alternative reality, you can help curb your negative thought spiral, and can even devise a productive plan of action to respond.
“Maybe it’ll allow you to see things from a different perspective and feel a better sense of agency about moving forward,” Cast says.
For more details, check out the presentation slides and materials below.