How to Keep Employees Focused When Stress Levels Are High

With Americans reporting increased stress levels, managers may start seeing their employees’ productivity levels drop. Here’s how you can support your staff’s wellness while keeping them on task.

With our 24-hour news cycle, it’s no surprise that Americans’ stress levels are high.

In October 2016, the American Psychological Association released its annual Stress in America report, which found about half of Americans were stressed over the presidential election. In a follow-up survey released this month, APA found that two-thirds of Americans—both Democrat and Republican—are stressed about the country’s future, with 57 percent citing the political climate as a source and 49 percent identifying the election outcome.

Between August 2016 and January 2017, the average American’s reported stress level jumped from 4.8 to 5.1 out of 10—due to concerns over politics, terrorism, personal safety, and police violence. This is the first significant increase in stress levels APA has reported in the 10-year-history of its Stress in America survey.

“The stress we’re seeing around political issues is deeply concerning, because it’s hard for Americans to get away from it,” APA Executive Director for Professional Practice Dr. Katherine Nordal said in a press release. “We’re surrounded by conversations, news, and social media that constantly remind us of the issues that are stressing us the most.”

And no doubt people are carrying this stress into their workplaces, potentially causing conflict and low productivity. Barbara Mitchell, human resources and management consultant, recommends ways employers can help their employees fight stress and stay focused.

While supervisors can monitor controversial conversations [ASAE member log-in required], they shouldn’t ban all political talk from the office, she said. Instead, association leaders should acknowledge how stress over politics may be hindering productivity while reminding staff of the organizational mission during department meetings.

Employees may also be distracted by the constant influx of news, whether that be politics, sports, or entertainment. Mitchell said the best solution is again to remind staff of their purpose, rather than limit phone or internet usage.

“You have to treat people like the adults that they are, and set real, clear expectations that this is what you are expected to produce in ‘X’ amount of time,” she said. “And if you can do this and still watch CNN, I guess that’s OK.”

But if political conversations or watching the news causes an employee to underperform, managers need to handle the situation as they would any other performance issue, she said. And if conflict arises in the workplace that the individuals cannot work out, supervisors should then bring in a mediator.

Beyond fighting the sources of stress, managers should also help employees reduce stress and break their routines, for instance, by moving meetings outside, hosting small surprise events or competitions, or bringing in a masseuse.

In addition, they can leverage their employee assistance programs and hold brown bags covering stress management, or host regular team meetings or times for open dialogue. Ultimately, it’s a process of creating a comfortable and inclusive work environment while maintaining a focus on mission.

“This is a great time to show that you’re a caring organization, that your employees are not just people that produce … but that you really do care about them as people,” Mitchell said.

And APA likewise reminds people to consciously manage stress as it can lead to health risks. “For many, the transition of power and the speed of change can cause uncertainty and feelings of stress, and that stress can have health consequences. If the 24-hour news cycle is causing you stress, limit your media consumption,” Nordal said. “Read enough to stay informed, but then plan activities that give you a regular break from the issues and the stress they might cause. And remember to take care of yourself and pay attention to other areas of your life.”


Alex Beall

By Alex Beall

Alex Beall is an associate editor for Associations Now with a masters in journalism and a penchant for Instagram. MORE

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