Managing Stress During Difficult Times

Managing Stress During Difficult Times

Stress in the workplace has already been on the rise worldwide over the last few years. In 2018 one of the largest studies of stress levels in the UK showed that three quarters of people were so stressed that they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope at all.

It was found that one in three of these people felt suicidal and one in six had inflicted self harm!

The current situation is no-doubt a stressful one. Right now, stress levels are being multiplied. The vulnerable, and those with existing mental health issues aren’t the only ones who will suffer this time. Even those that were at one time quite ‘resilient’ will also be impacted. After all,

  • We under lock-down
  • We are isolated
  • We may be bored and disengaged
  • We may be more uncertain than ever
  • We may be financially struggling
  • We face higher health risks
  • We face loss of loved ones
  • Our lives have been turned upside down

What happens during stress?

During stress a chemical reaction is happening in our brain (in the amygdala) which looks out for any threat in our environment. The threat triggers distress signals throughout the brain and sets off two pathways. The first one triggers a fight or flight response – pumping adrenaline though our bodies.

The second pathway though increases our cortisol levels and other hormones in the body. Cortisol is often called the “stress hormone” because of its connection to the stress response.

Cortisol isn’t necessarily a bad guy. Both low or high cortisol levels are detrimental to the human body and either can cause serious illness. But it is needed so that it can help control blood sugar levels, regulate metabolism, help reduce inflammation, and assist with memory formulation.

These functions and more, make cortisol a crucial hormone to protect overall health and well-being.

When cortisol is released it allows the immune system to focus on specific areas in the body that feel threat. Cortisol can alter or shut down functions that get in the way. These might include your digestive or reproductive systems, your immune system, or even your growth processes.

How is stress created?

“Stress is a reaction to a situation – it isn’t about the actual situation. We usually feel stressed when we think that the demands of the situation are greater than our resources to deal with that situation. For example, someone who feels comfortable speaking in public may not worry about giving a presentation, while someone who isn’t confident in their skills may feel a lot of stress about an upcoming presentation. Common sources of stress may include major life events, like moving or changing jobs. Long-term worries, like a long-term illness or parenting, can also feel stressful. Even daily hassles like dealing with traffic can be a source of stress.”

From: “Stress”, Canadian Mental Health Association, 2018

Stress arises from the event and sometimes it may not be due to the event itself. It may not be the work it self that causes stress, but underlying activities, processes, people or systems that cause individuals to react adversely.

It’s important to start recognizing how you or your employees react to events. Doing so, doesn’t just help tackle stress related issues, but also tackles performance and motivation related issues.

Read: How to empower employees by looking at reactions rather than events.

What are other causes of stress in the workplace?

The current climate poses a threat to the emotional well being of a lot of individuals. As a business you don’t want to add to stress levels that your employees may be feeling right now.

In a typical scenario, a business can inadvertently conduct poor workplace practices that add to stress. In the current climate, those practices add fuel to the situation.

Unfortunately, there is little comfort when you must lay-off a large part of your organization. However, you must be sensitive how you do that – regardless of the fact that we are under crisis.

In fact, I would argue that you need to be more sensitive and empathetic right now, than ever before.

Under typical situations, work related stress can arise from any of the following:

  • poor communication in the workplace or poor flow of information
  • little recognition for good job performance lack of systems in workplace available to respond to concerns
  • not engaging employees when undergoing organizational change
  • conflicts in the role and duties of an employee
  • discrimination, prejudice, or harassment
  • lack of overall job satisfaction
  • lack of job security
  • lack of responsibility or too much responsibility
  • abilities or skill set does not match job demand

So if you’re still running business as usual, you need to be sensitive to the above. Do your workplace practices have or create the above?

It’s your job as the employer or manager to identify the various stress factors in the workplace. You should reach out to your employees regularly to assess how they are managing.

Here’s a free template you can use to create your engagement survey during a time of crisis.

How do we reduce stress?

Before we talk about reducing stress. I want to call out that stress is not always a bad thing! Stress can actually help you stay focused, energetic and get work done. You body actually experiences stress when you put it under load. For example, rigorous exercise, weight lifting, project with tight deadlines, or a sales meeting.

Remember, what one person feels as negative stress is actually something that another might enjoy. All the given examples above highlight this. Some people live off tight deadlines, while others hate it. Some people love a sales meeting, while others are stressed out by it, and so on.

Reducing stress where its not needed- requires a multi-prolonged solution. The ideal solution may be to remove the underlying reason for the stress – i.e. the event that creates the stress. Unfortunately, that’s almost never possible.

You can start by look at your existing coping methods. How are you dealing with stress right now? Is it through food? is it through drugs? is it through alcohol? is it through smoking? or is it through any sort of activity that you’re not proud of?

Do any of these habits give you a quick temporary fix, but make you feel worse afterwards? If so, then it’s time to deeply asses your relationship with these.

Let’s go through 5 things you and your employees can do to reduce stress and even increase performance during a crisis.

1. Focus on mental health

Reading, meditation, music, entertainment and humour play a big role in dealing with stress and other more serious mental health issues. People that use humour generally deal with stress much better than those that do not.

Research also shows that the number of symptoms arising from PTSD (post stress traumatic disorder) and burnout were generally far less for people that used humour as a coping mechanism.

Laughing releases hormones that help fight of stress symptoms. Not to mention that humor is also a great relationship builder. Using humour in the workplace reduces stress, while helping nurture great relationships.

You can easily encourage and foster a more ‘happier’ team spirit. Simple things like:

  • Putting in appropriate jokes or funny stories in your weekly comms
  • Using icebreakers and fun activities during daily stand ups or team meetings
  • Using humour in presentations and meetings
  • Setting up a ‘fun’ group on team chat where people share funny stories, memes, videos or GIFs

Reading also boosts performance while helping reduce symptoms of stress.

Starting a book club – which can work for both remote teams is one option to encourage reading. Books can be read as e-books. As a business you could even sponsor the book club if you have the budget for it.

2. Focus on physical health

Exercise has a profound impact on mental health also. Rigorous activity is a great way to reduce stress. It’s amazing what a good workout can do for you mentally:

  • High intensity work out
  • Short interval training
  • Power lifting or weight lifting
  • Sprints, swimming, or any activity that requires short bursts of power

There are a lot of things you or your employees can do to alleviate stress. As a manager you can encourage your employees to do the above. However, the following are something that’s easy to do:

  • Morning walks and walking as much as possible
  • Have regular breaks and go for a quick swift walk in between
  • Creating physical activities and games during team building activities – get everyone to do a quick physical activity at the start of a team meeting – even if you’re doing it remotely
  • Create an x-week fitness challenge

A balanced and healthy diet plays a big role in physical health. Diet, directly is also shown to reduce stress. So shifting from high sugar, high salt, and high trans fat towards a balanced diet is a good start.

However, diet is a complex topic and something you need to assess regularly. At least start with the relationship that you have with food itself. Do your eating habits and types of foods that you eat change during stressful events? If so, then you want to start there.

Food is one coping method of dealing with stress – it’s not the right approach – as usually people will overeat, or eat unhealthy food.

“I feel so stressed right now, a good fresh bowl of salad is exactly what I need”

Said no one ever

3. Get good sleep

Getting good sleep can be a challenge on its own. But a lack of it does not help reduce stress. It’s generally up to the individual to manage how they sleep. However as a business, there’s something you can do too!

With email and mobile interaction increasing, we’re breaching work-life balance more often. This has the impact of multiplying stress and its symptoms on the body. Work is generally starting to spill over into our spare time after hours.

It’s important to encourage employees to get good rest. Managers can help by not encouraging or conducting late night communication. It can be typical for workaholics and managers to send out emails and notifications during the night, after hours, or vacation time.

Granted some jobs require after hours communication. But you can prevent undue stress by avoiding unnecessary comms. Without realizing it, it can have a detrimental effect on your employees sleep and health.

4. Social proof yourself

Building a network of people that support you essential to combating stress. Research among children showed that a key to healthy development stems from healthy social interaction, stimulation and parental support. Likewise adults that can find dependable, supportive, close relationships can also combat stress more easily.

You can find support not just those physically present close to you. But creating support groups online can also help. Social channels like Facebook, LinkedIn Groups, or Reddit have communities that you can become a part of. You can encourage employees to setup communities in the workplace also.

5. Meditation and mindfulness

Meditation is known to reduce stress significantly. Research shows that just two months of practice can create changes in the brain that help with better emotional health and stress resilience.

Through mindfulness practice you can start training your mind and body to become more resilient to stress factors in life. A chemical called Neuropeptide Y (NPY) when released helps cope with stress – acting as an on and off switch. The chemical acts like a catalyst to turning your body’s response on to stress but then quickly turning it off when the danger is over.

An experiment on US soldiers who completed an eight week course on mindfulness showed a significant improvement in ability to cope with stress. After an ambush simulation, the solders were shown to quickly return to normal far quicker than those that did no mindfulness training.

Mindfulness gets your body and mind aware of the events and the reactions that these events create. There were several examples mentioned earlier, such as a tight deadline, or a sales meeting which can cause stress. Being mindful as you experience these events helps you become more aware of your feelings and reactions – giving you the ability to then cope with the stress.

What can I do as a business to help employees reduce stress?

Almost all of us know that a nutritiously dense diet, meditation, sleep, and exercise are good at helping cope with stress. But just knowing it and acting on on sporadically does not help manage stress in the long term.

As an employer you can become a catalyst for helping employees reduce their stress levels quickly.

Setting up a health and well being policy in your company is a great way to make health and well being a priority. Once it’s policy, you can encourage managers and individuals to start talking about it company meetings.

It’s important to remove stigma associated with mental health. It’s critical the everyone is able to talk about mental health issues, especially as it can be caused by work, or it impacts work.


Research indicates (and if personal experience is anything to go by) we find that some stresses are actually good for us! Pushing ourselves during a high weight gym session, watching a good horror movie, training for a new job, positive debating with a colleague, or what ever it is – some of these actually benefit us even though they are stressful activities. It will be up to the individual to decide on what stressors push them for the better, and which ones they need to avoid.

Generally speaking though elevated stress levels are harmful to everyone. A stressed out workforce can have a detrimental impact to the business. There are a number of things a business can do to reduce work induced stress. Some of these include encouraging physical activities, offering perks that encourage mindfulness, better mental health, and building resilience.

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