Reframing stress.

Something leaders frequently face is their teams coming to them and sharing feelings of stress. 

But here’s the problem, stress is contagious.

I came to write this article after hearing from my clients about the impact stressed employees have on them as leaders and subsequent impact on wider teams. They wanted teams to share their feelings – of course they did – and yet there’s a concern that stress is being transmitted to their own thoughts and feelings, and an apprehension around what to do when faced with language around stress. 

It’s useful to identify the impact stress has on our own feelings, and equally important to recognise that talking about feelings of stress will undoubtedly cause ripples of anxiety through the entire organisation. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it – far from it – rather we need to understand the impact our language has so we can look for ways to manage it.  

The trouble with stress.

How we feel – and in fact how we tell ourselves we feel – has a direct physical manifestation on how our body reacts. As the great Brene Brown says, ‘language shapes emotions’ – and that’s never truer than when we speak about feeling stressed out. 

A great definition of stress is when we evaluate environmental demands as being beyond our ability to cope successfully – this includes elements of unpredictability, uncontrollability and feeling overloaded. 

When we feel stressed, and when we share those feelings with others, we are allowing stress to take on its own power, it palpably radiates into the psyches of others.  

Don’t fall foul of ‘I’m too busy’

There is a real danger that our default reasoning for why we feel a certain way is a result of being ‘too busy’. When in fact that’s unlikely to be the nub of the problem. Disclaimer – this is in no way about dismissing or diminishing feelings, rather acknowledging that unless you’re consistently working 18 hours days, self-diagnosing symptoms of stress due to busyness is unhelpfully giving power to something universally ambiguous (and difficult to tackle). Stress is far more likely a result of more specific factors; feeling unsettled or unclear, or perhaps due to disorganisation or ineffective working – rather than an innate feeling of ‘busyness’. 

Stressed or overwhelmed?

As a leader, your first job when a team member expresses stress is to diagnose if it’s stress or overwhelm. It’s important to differentiate because whilst we can all manage daily stressors, overwhelm requires a different response. Overwhelm means an extreme level of stress, an emotional and or cognitive intensity to the point of feeling unable to function.  

If a member of your team is overwhelmed, then your first job is to take everything off their plate. Be that for an hour, a day or more – the only way to recover from overwhelm is through nothingness. People make terrible decisions when they are overwhelmed, they should do nothing and decide nothing. It’s your job to pick up – or delegate – everything during times of overwhelm. 

Jon Kabat-Zinn defined overwhelm as a feeling that our lives are somehow unfolding faster than the human nervous system and psyche can manage. If a member of your team is overwhelmed, then encourage then to take part in mindful play, non-agenda, non-doing activity. 

What can you do when an employee expresses feelings of stress? 

  • Try not to solutionise. As leaders we often feel the pressure to know exactly what to do and so head straight to a ‘solution’. Instead, try to get to the bottom of what is causing your team members stress – is it a specific project, or person fuelling anxieties? Do they feel out of control? Is there something happening outside of work that is impacting on their feeling of competence or ability to cope? Talking about the root problem automatically makes feelings feel more tangible and allows you as a leader to truly empathise and understand what’s going on. It also allows you to come up with targeted solutions to relieve feelings of stress. 
  • Help teams understand the language of stress better. Not only will it help them identify their own feelings correctly, but it will likely make them consider how much they bandy about conversations about ‘feeling stressed’ with colleagues. Recognising when they are ‘in the weeds’ and have lots of things going on (at which point they need to identify what help they need), versus feelings of true overwhelm (when they should stop completely), will help them become more resilient and careful around the language they use. 
  • Keep checking in. If a team member has expressed feelings of stress to you – be proactive with your coaching. Checking in with them frequently will release you of your own stress, and likely enable you to pick up on problems more quickly before they escalate and begin radiating to wider teams. 

A final thought

Whilst long-term, enduring stress quite clearly has negative connotations, it’s worth remembering that we do need some stress in order to grow, evolve and build up resilience. People generally adapt well over time to life-changing situations and stressful situations — in part thanks to resilience. “Bouncing back” from these difficult experiences can also involve profound personal growth. The best you can aim for as a leader is to provide support, empathy and enough knowledge to help the person struggling whilst minimising the wider ‘contagious’ impact of stress on yourself and others.



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