How to support an overwhelmed team

Communication  Leadership
26 February, 2018

Spot stress-related warning signs and help team members cope with the pressure

Our team members are working hard to try to finish the year strong, along with building the plans for next year. It is great to see how many of you are charged up and energised.

As leaders, we need to ensure that we are giving our team members the enabling space and our full support. Times like these can also cause stress. Many of us can occasionally feel overwhelmed and thrown off balance. This can lead to a slew of problems: declining quality of output, strained relationships with colleagues, plummeting morale, more serious health issues, and the imminent danger of burning out. As leaders, we need to help people regain their footing, and make sure they are equipped to do their best work.

So, drawing from this, my message this week focuses on how you can support an overwhelmed team – recognise signs of stress and help them cope with the pressure.

 Here are some of the most common indicators of stress, identified by Diane Dempster in How to Recognize That Your Team Members (or You) Are Stressed or Overwhelmed. Look out for these red flags in your own team!

1. Excessive control

In the face of feeling overwhelmed by uncontrollable circumstances, the natural human reaction is often to try and take back control in some other way. This can lead to the stressed person becoming excessively controlling and rigid about things that are insignificant or don’t fall in their domain.

2. Mindless “busy-ness”

To avoid feeling overwhelmed, a person might throw themselves into all kinds of meaningless tasks, fluttering from one to the next continuously. This keeps them busy and distracted, thus preventing them from thinking about their anxiety.

3. Uncritical agreement

If, as a leader, you have fostered an environment where open dialogue and discussion are welcomed, then look out for team members who suddenly stop debating issues and simply begin going along. When someone is extremely stressed, they may no longer have the mental capacity required to engage in critical thinking.

4. Tendency for solitude

Some people are more introverted and enjoy their solitude – which isn’t a cause for concern. But when a previously outgoing person suddenly starts spending more time on their own, then it’s worth checking in on them. This change in behaviour could signal that they are feeling mentally burdened and unable to share their worries.

If you identify signs that one or more of your team members are feeling overwhelmed at work, then it’s time to take action. Here are eight suggestions:

1. Break the taboo

Feeling anxious and overloaded at work is an extremely common phenomenon – yet, it is often seen as shameful or a sign of weakness. Stressed people therefore often retreat deeper into themselves instead of sharing the problem, which only makes matters worse. So, strive to create an open, empathetic environment where it’s okay to talk about workplace pressure. Leaders, especially, can destigmatise the issue by being honest about how even they feel overwhelmed on occasion and what coping strategies they have found to be useful. It becomes much easier to have a meaningful dialogue and offer support to colleagues.

In her Harvard Business Review piece, How to Work with Someone Who’s Always Stressed Out, Rebecca Knight talks about what to do if you’re worried about a co-worker’s anxiety levels. For instance, communications expert Holly Weeks recommends asking for a “read” instead of making assumptions:

“Say, ‘On a scale of one to 10, how worried should I be about your level of stress?’ Signal that you can’t read how bad it is for them.” The answers may surprise you.

2. Lead by example

If you want your team to take on an ambitious yet manageable workload, then your own habits should reflect this balance. If you work late most nights or send incessant emails all weekend, your team members will take their cue from you and push themselves in the same way. Instead, make it a point to adopt a pace that allows you to meet or even exceed your goals – but without taking a toll on your physical and mental well-being.

Of course, this motto must also apply to your interactions with the team; as a leader, the last thing you would want to do is stress them out even more. This means delivering feedback that motivates (rather than demoralises) as well as curbing after-hours communication. As Shawn Murphy puts it in his article, What to Do When Your Employees Feel Overwhelmed:

For the sanity of everyone, stop sending employees emails after 6 pm. Today’s email applications have the functionality to write and schedule emails to be sent during your team’s working hours. “Just one more email” is one more thing for employees to do when they should be enjoying time off from work.

3. Carve out focus zones

Research shows that we do our best work during uninterrupted “chunks” of time. Of course, this is almost impossible to achieve when you are being bombarded with constant emails and calls, not to mention interruptions from colleagues. As leaders, we must actively encourage team members to unplug from communication for short periods of time, thereby enabling deep, focused work. You could even set aside one hour each day during which the entire team engages in such work. (Making it a group goal increases its chances of success.) Over time, you are sure to see higher productivity and lower stress levels.

4. Fight for the team

Sometimes, your team may feel overwhelmed because of external forces or circumstances. In such a case, leaders need to make it clear that they are willing to take a stand and protect their team – through actions as well as words. Reiterate as many times as possible that you have their back, that you will support them in whatever ways they need, and that their success is your end goal. It is said that actions speak louder than words, but it is also very important for your team to hear these words from you.

5. Beat stress together

An intentional approach towards relieving anxiety as a team can go a long way during especially stressful situations, like the run-up to an important product launch or the final phase of a big project. Regular breaks, even brief ones, can reenergise the team’s flagging spirits and make the pressure more manageable. From the traditional (a quick meditation session or coffee break) to the unconventional (a dance-off or laughter session), different people swear by different strategies. The right choice for your team depends on the group dynamic as well as your leadership style, so try out a few methods to get an idea of what works well.

6. Analyse the workload

As a leader, it’s up to you to make sure your team is focused on its core goals, on doing what it is best at. Make sure that their time and focus isn’t eaten away by unimportant tasks that have landed up on their desks. When burdened with too many low-priority tasks, your team members will become unable to focus on high-priority work that demands their full attention and deep thinking. Leaders must act as shields to protect their teams from such distractions: assess the big picture, edit the workload, and say “no” to things that don’t align with your team’s core competencies and objectives.

7. Be ready to switch gears

In her article, 4 Strategies for Leading a Totally Overwhelmed Team, Jo Miller highlights the value of being nimble as explained by Tara Jaye Frank, Hallmark’s vice president of multicultural strategy. Frank identifies agility as a “killer” skill among top leaders:

“Sometimes, what you thought was a good decision yesterday, isn’t today,” says Frank. Staying the course risks burning out your team in pursuit of a goal that’s no longer the right one.

To be an agile leader, don’t be afraid to reexamine your goals and plans. Ask, “What has changed?” “What new information has come to light?” and “What assumptions have we made that are no longer valid?”-and if necessary, re-focus your team on a more rewarding goal.

8. Up your inbox game

In this age of relentless technology, poor email communication can play a critical role in adding to the stress burden of your team. The fact is that many leaders get emailing wrong – instead of improving clarity and time management, they create confusion and inefficiency. For instance, do you engage in endless back-and-forth emails with people sitting just in the next room? Instead of overwhelming them with a barrage of written messages, just have a quick chat in person to sort out the issue. Similarly, be open to using tools that save the team from dealing with excessive emailing: a quick calendar invite, for example, gets the job done far quicker than a day-long email chain.

As always, I look forward to your thoughts.



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