How to take control of your well-being

Employee stress levels should be a significant concern for leaders

Published: Oct 13, 2021 10:37:02 AM IST
Updated: Oct 13, 2021 11:16:42 AM IST

Many studies show that the blue light from our cell phones and other devices actually interferes with melatonin production, making it more difficult to get into a deep sleep state.
Image: Shutterstock

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a wide-ranging impact on the global workforce, from job losses, to layoffs, to salary cuts. But perhaps the most ubiquitous impact has been increased stress, which can wreak havoc on us both mentally and physically.

Even before Covid-19, 58 per cent of Canadians reported experiencing excessive levels of stress at work every day.  And in times of heightened uncertainty and rapid negative change, stress levels rise even further. In March of this year, my Rotman colleague John Trougakos and I launched a large scale study of well-being with workers from across Canada. We tracked over 700 employees for more than three months and in this article we will share some of our preliminary findings.

The first thing we found is that employee stress levels should be a significant concern for leaders. People are worried about their families’ health and their financial future. They are feeling increased pressure to perform, both as a parent or caregiver, as well as professionally. Employees across Canada are also feeling high levels of uncertainty and a lack of control, which some people told us has taken over every aspect of their life.

These are powerful illustrations of the complexities that Canadians are experiencing right now. The good news is that there are things we can do as individuals and as leaders to combat these overwhelming feelings. Given that each of us has a finite amount of energy, it is essential to take steps to conserve and replenish our inner resources on a daily basis - particularly in times of stress. This helps to avoid burnout and build resilience in order to deal with pressures and challenges.  We can achieve this in a number of ways, but two of the areas that I will focus on here are healthy habits and interpersonal connections.

Healthy habits. We know that sleep is incredibly important. It enables resource recovery and is directly linked to our mood states.  In fact, a lack of sleep is strongly related to levels of depression and anger.  We also know that sleep is highly related to the productivity and quality of our work.  

The increased work and family demands over the past few months have led many to have trouble getting the duration and the quality of sleep that they need. Experts say we should be striving for seven to eight hours a night. Given that many people’s schedules have been flipped upside down, we may be able to consider taking short naps in the day to rejuvenate our energy. These naps should be kept to under 30 minutes; otherwise you can get into deep REM sleep and you might feel even more exhausted when you wake.  

In a world where we are joined at the hip with our smartphones, it is also critical to defend our final hour before bedtime. Many studies show that the blue light from our cell phones and other devices actually interferes with melatonin production, making it more difficult to get into a deep sleep state. This means that at a minimum, for that last hour before bedtime, unwind and eliminate screen time. Last but not least, to the extent that you have control over it, trying to maintain consistent sleep schedules is incredibly important for rejuvenating your energy because it keeps your circadian rhythm in check.

In addition to sleep, exercise is a powerful tool at times of high stress. Not only does it stimulate chemicals that feed our brain like endorphins and serotonin, it also lowers the risk of illness and disease and alleviates depression and anxiety. In fact, it can actually make us feel happy.  

Nevertheless, many of us find it challenging to fit fitness in.  Recreation facilities and sports complexes have been closed during the shutdown, but there are many ways that you can exercise within the confines of your home. There are countless online programs and interactive activities available via virtual networks. Some of us may be lucky to have desk treadmills or other exercise equipment within our homes; but if we don’t, simply walking in place is a great idea.

Finally, try making a goal setting chart to track your exercise. Rotman Professor Gary Latham created Goal Setting Theory, and from his work and hundreds of other studies we know that the process of setting goals and putting up a chart to track them is enormously productive.  

Interpersonal connections. Another driver of rejuvenation is the connections that we have to other people. Research shows that strong relationships act to build our energy and are a primary driver of resilience. In fact, in times of stress, humans have an innate tendency to reach out and protect those they are close to, and a recent paper I published showed that leaders and managers have an innate tendency to want to protect their employee groups.  

It is important to note that while Covid-19 has led to increased physical distancing, it has not necessarily increased social distancing. People are finding ways to stay virtually connected during the pandemic, with many groups engaging in online chats using Zoom and other apps. One manager told us: “My team has become closer than we ever could have imagined. Everyone from line level to my managers are all looking out for one another.”  Another told us: “I am spending a lot of time staying in touch through group messages with friends and video chats with family. I feel connected to people digitally, but also because we’re all going through the same situation together.”

There are, however, some important caveats when we talk about maintaining and building interpersonal connections. The first is emotional contagion. We know that emotions spread very quickly from one individual to another. When we feel happy, our smile can prompt a quick smile in return and spread happiness around a room.  At the same time, negative emotions spread quickly, with feelings like fear and anxiety quickly escalating to outright panic among a group.  Awareness of emotional contagion is incredibly important during times of high stress, particularly if you are in a position of power. Research demonstrates that leaders set the tone and so it is critical to stay calm and collected to help minimize levels of panic and stress in others.  

Consideration of the mode of communication is also critical. Technological advances have made it possible for us to quickly engage in interactive video chats with small or large groups. This is a very rich mode of communication that provides us with invaluable information because we are able to see the expressions and reactions of those who we’re talking to which helps determine how they may be feeling and what they might be thinking.  

At the same time, we need to recognize that these technologies can be emotionally demanding. When conducting online team calls, people are engaging in impression management by controlling their expressions and emotions. As leaders and family members, we need to make sure that we don’t overburden people with constant video calls. It is essential to determine whether the goals of the communication align with the medium we are using. In many cases it may not be critical that we can all see one another at every single meeting. In some cases, simple voice only calls can work, and these should be mixed in to our videoconferences in order minimize stress levels.

Psychological Detachment. On a final note, research shows that it is not enough to just get physical and social rejuvenation; that in order to regain energy and maximize our resources, we need to couple this with mental recovery, or psychological detachment. This means that if you’re on the treadmill and you’re Googling updates on Covid-19, you are actually not capitalizing on that recovery experience.  When you’re exercising, try to detach your brain and avoid rumination. This can be accomplished by selecting activities that you truly enjoy or engaging in activities with family members or friends so that you can really keep your mind in the moment.  

To stay in the moment -it is also important to engage in mindfulness strategies like breathing exercises and mental focus activities. We can also minimize news and media channels, which often focus on the negative, and instead try to focus on the positive things that are happening in our lives. Emphasizing the positive in our interpersonal interactions is yet another invaluable technique - if we are on a call with our friends but we are spending the entire time talking about stress and negative news, then we are not maximizing our rejuvenation. Instead, we should consider fun ways to make our social interactions more positive. Many individuals are finding creative ways to do this, including interactive online games and theme parties that help to alleviate stress.

While it is always important to take care of ourselves, it is even more critical during times of extreme stress. We know from research that in order to rejuvenate our energy we need to get a healthy amount of sleep, we need physical exercise, and we need to maintain strong interpersonal connections. And at the same time, we need to find time to mentally detach on a daily basis. Together, these rejuvenation strategies lead to greater resilience, giving us the capacity to combat the stresses and pressures we face in an increasingly challenging world.

Julie McCarthy is a Professor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management in the Department of Management at University of Toronto Scarborough with a cross-appointment to the Organizational Behaviour area at the Rotman School of Management.

This article originally appeared in a recent issue of Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management.
www.rotman.utoronto.ca/connect/rotman-mag.



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[This article has been reprinted, with permission, from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management]

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