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Four Steps Leaders Can Take to Help Identify and Relieve Stress Within their Teams

Although we cannot eliminate uncertainty or the anxiety it causes, everyone can take steps to manage it. Prof. Janet Reibstein, clinical psychologist and Professor Emeritus at the University of Exeter, and Sharon Patterson, CHRO with LHH, offer advice to help leaders alleviate stress at work.

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Posted On Apr 14, 2020 

If you’re finding yourself with increased levels of stress and anxiety in the past few weeks as COVID-19 has tightened its grip on our world, you’re not alone.

Recent research suggests many people experienced moderate to severe psychological impacts during the initial COVID-19 outbreak in China. This is a very normal response and one we can take some practical steps to manage effectively. It’s important that we do this for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, managing our stress levels has a significant and positive impact on our immune system. The World Health Organization has emphasized that boosting our immune system and employing adequate preventative care plays a crucial role in fighting the new Coronavirus. Taking steps to boost our ability to cope with the crisis will therefore also improve our overall well-being and the likelihood of fighting the virus.

It’s also likely that this situation will continue and possibly worsen in the weeks to come; it’s important that we put strategies in place now to deal with stress so it doesn’t overwhelm us, and we can continue to be there for our families, our friends and our colleagues.

To dive deeper into this topic, Mary-Clare Race, Chief Innovation and Product Officer from LHH recently talked to Prof. Janet Reibstein, a clinical psychologist and Professor Emeritus at the University of Exeter. She was joined by Sharon Patterson, CHRO at LHH. Together they discussed some of the most common scenarios faced by leaders and the people they lead in the face of this unprecedented global crisis.

Reibstein said there is little doubt that we are now living in “an unprecedented time of anxiety” that is largely due to intense uncertainty. Anxiety, if it is not addressed in a direct and concerted fashion, can trigger a whole spectrum of psychological disorders, she added.

Although we cannot eliminate uncertainty or the anxiety it causes, Reibstein said everyone can take steps to manage it. One of the first steps in that process is to separate “hypothetical anxiety” from “empirical, measurable anxiety.”

Everyone faces challenges that cause anxiety, she said. With some of these challenges, we can take action to remove the root causes of the anxiety. Other challenges, however, may be beyond our individual control. In these scenarios, Reibstein said it’s important to “park” those things that you cannot change.

“You can control your tendency to dwell on the problems that spark anxiety,” she said. “And in particular with things we cannot control, the ‘unmanageables,’ we can park those things and focus on the things we can manage.”

Solutions and suggestions that Reibstein and Patterson recommended during the webinar included:


1. Support leaders with coaching. Patterson said that shortly after LHH implemented a work from home policy, they offered EZRA, LHH’s virtual coaching application, to their senior leadership team. This allows senior leaders to contact a coach virtually to get advice on new or unforeseen challenges. “As HR people, we are always thinking about what we can do to help other people,” Patterson said. “But sometimes, we lose touch with how to help ourselves. Coaching turned out to be a huge benefit to the senior leadership team, giving them an additional layer of support to hone specific skills needed in this difficult time.”


2. Take time away from the crisis. Reibstein said that one of the most important pieces of advice she gives to her patients during virtual counselling sessions is to carve out 15 minutes at the end of the day where you are isolated from computers, televisions, social media and the news. “This is a time when we can focus our thinking on what is going on around us. It’s a time when we can separate out the things we can manage and those things that are unmanageable. Once you’ve done that, you can go find a good source of information, shut out everything else, and find a solution to something that is manageable.”


3. Buddy up. Reibstein noted that “virtual happy hours”where friends or colleagues gather via video call to get together and connectcan be a great way to stay in contact and relieve anxiety. Similarly, Patterson said she has been trying to establish virtual links between employees facing the same kinds of challenges. This could be someone who is trying to work at home and care for a very young child; or someone who may be isolated at home in a country where they don’t speak the language. “I started to make these little groups of people who are sharing the same experience but in different parts of the world,” Patterson said. “The feedback has been very positive. Just putting people with similar needs in touch with each other is a huge help.”


4. Turn your camera on. Both Patterson and Reibstein said it is essential for leaders to do whatever they can to get full participation from their teams in virtual or video conferencing. And that one of the key things you can do is require that everyone involved turn on their computer cameras so that leaders can not only hear, but also see how someone is reacting. “Sometimes people will hide behind an audio call and that makes it very difficult for leaders to tell how their employees are doing with working at home.” Reibstein agreed, noting that it’s essential that leaders develop the ability to “read the cues” from their employees to gauge their performance in a work-at-home environment. “We need to become better at reading audio and visual cues during these calls. We will be better at relating to our people if we can improve our ability to read these cues.”


This is a stressful time, but it is also an opportunity to change the way leaders relate to their teams. In another recent podcast featuring Keith Ferrazzi, a best-selling author and consultant, he talked about the current pandemic crisis opening a door to “recontracting” with employees. This involves working with teams to reflect on past performance, current challenges and how the team can move forward together.

The challenges we face as the pandemic stretches into the spring will no doubt produce seismic changes in the relationships between employers and their employees. Making an effort to help those employees manage their anxiety and stress will not only make things like virtual work more productive and enjoyable, it may help forge an entirely new and more positive relationship with the people you work with.