8 steps to address workplace stress when “reopening” during the pandemic

Businesswoman drinking coffee at work contemplative looking out the window of high rise skyscraper building during morning tea break. Workplace stress, mental health in the workplace.

"Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore." -- Judy Garland, The Wizard of Oz.

The world and workplace are reopening. And like Dorothy awaking from her vivid (not covid – couldn’t resist) dream, we’re beginning to realize that work and life aren’t exclusive of each other. If you ever thought you could “leave your work at the door” or “compartmentalize your life” this pandemic has certainly challenged those beliefs. Because, like this virus, anxiety knows no boundaries. Returning to “normal”? Not!  ... but not really. Things will be different, but not completely so. It’s more that now the “light” shines bright on the acts and actors of psychology, exposing shadows ever present, but now in vivid color. There’s going to be a lot more “color” now, in terms of people, their behavior and especially their feelings. And like a child waking from a bad dream, there’s going to be a need to comfort and reassure people at work, even if it’s in their home. Here, I provide a checklist of 8 steps to address workplace stress when “reopening” during the pandemic. (And they apply outside of work – whatever that is – too).

Getting down to work.

Workplace stress, and here I mean the non WFH place, is going to be a real issue for organizations (beyond the sum of individuals) for some time. Government imposed practices intended to limit virus transmission have already revealed psycho-social behavioral issues and conflicts. For some, uniform mandates have been a source of shelter. For others, they've been a source of infringement. To say they've been 'controversial' is an understatement -- especially in these times where everything seems controversial.

As restrictions originally imposed to mitigate the spread of CV-19 are relaxed, responsibility for one’s exposure to the virus increasingly falls to individuals – but especially on leaders of others. While organizations adopt their own policies in light of the pandemic such as those to enforce or support “social distancing” (a term I dislike), individuals will now primarily be responsible for their own “CV behavior” and may experience considerably more workplace stress.

Although stress isn't altogether bad, it almost always is when it reaches high levels. And like never before for most of us, we now live in a world of extraordinarily high stress -- especially in the workplace. Strong, confident, reassuring leadership will be paramount. Fortunately, research in psychology at work reveals practical steps leaders can take to manage varying levels of stress among employees.

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Psychological burnout is a lonely experience with lots of company. Here are 7 ways to help others out while avoiding it yourself

psychological burnout is a silent crisis that needs an alarm

Psychological burnout in the workplace is a painful, silent crisis receiving inadequate attention from both organizations and individuals. The social stigma of appearing weak prevents victims from speaking up and the need to be seen as virtuous in light of such a debilitating condition keeps organizations (i.e., leaders in control) from accepting blame, much less do anything about it. Despite, and as result of this comorbid “coverup,” everyone both knows what burnout from excessive workplace stress is, and knows a victim of it. This is a very personal affliction. What’s worse? Recovery from psychological burnout is extremely difficult – even with lots of help.

Anecdotal evidence of the increasing problem of burnout at work can be found in my typical day. Lately I’ve been taking an increasing number of calls from self-claimed victims (or near it). And these calls come from individuals both at, and out of, work. It’s clear to me that this is not a simple matter of the binary reality of having or not having work. Those who call “with work" wrestle with the question of whether or not they should quit, and those “without” work struggle with whether or not to finally give up the search for meaningful work. This is evidence of a third brutal truth beyond hushed victims and organizations in denial. No two people experience the stressors that lead to full blown burnout the same way. What one calls stressful to the point of ruin, another claims to be exhilarating. What all calls have in common is a deep and painful sense of lost relevance -- and loneliness.

Naturally, prevention is the best course of action. But for the reasons already mentioned, few (and increasingly fewer) organizations are ready or able to take action before it’s too late. The worse things get, the less willing and able organizations are to reckon with the causes of psychological burnout. The problem is more ominous than the mere absence of some innocuous organization stressors such as employee engagement or basic satisfaction with working conditions. Psychological burnout is squarely on the dark side of organizational behavior.

But the survival instinct is strong, and people experiencing stress will turn to independent means when outside help isn’t available. Too frequently, however, independent action exacerbates the problem causing more stress despite seeming innocent enough. Stress is like quicksand, you don't know how deep it is, it's very difficult to escape, and the struggle to do so can dig you in deeper. Some of these behaviors are actually helpful in the right circumstances but things change under stress. For example, taking time off is an obvious and popular means of reducing stress. The paradox here is that work and the stressors at work don't take a vacation, in fact they actually accumulate over the time when one is experiencing chronic stress. But some "go to" behaviors are clearly dysfunctional in the case of burnout and may create an even worse, vicious cycle, e.g., abusing alcohol.

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“I’m okay” – “I’m not okay”: The ultimate test

Picture of a US penny

At the end of the day, our ultimate test of well being boils down to one of two sentiments: “I’m okay” – “I’m not okay“.

This may seem a bit simplistic, but if you really dig deep into your thoughts, feelings and behaviors, this simple phrase sits at the crux of our prevailing psychological state. It’s so pervasive, that it even presents itself through our reflexes, and more complex states of unconsciousness.

Of course there are varying levels of “okay-ed-ness.”

One may be a little on edge, or, completely terrified. On the positive side, sentiments range from “whew, that was a close call” to “I’m on the top of the world” (see “Titanic”, or the Oscars that year). Regardless, there is a ‘tipping point‘ upon which our sense of well-being teeters.

So: When do we most often experience this? Continue reading ““I’m okay” – “I’m not okay”: The ultimate test”