Combating Stress at Work: Managers share their best stress relief strategies

There’s a pretty glaring paradox when it comes to dealing with stress at work. Despite 80% of workers admitting to feeling stressed and saying they need support, few people ever ask for help.

The problem is, no one wants to look like they can’t handle the work they’ve been assigned.

There’s an unspoken fear that saying you’re feeling overwhelmed will reflect poorly on your abilities, rather than show you’re just trying to focus on what’s most important.

But nobody does their best work when they’re feeling stressed. So, as managers and leaders, how can we help identify, diagnose, and solve major signs of workplace stress?

How to identify (and solve) the most common causes of stress at work

Work has always been a source of stress. But for some reason, the modern workplace seems especially prone to stressing workers out.

With the constant bombardment of communications, pressure to always be productive, and a lack of feedback around priorities, it’s no wonder more and more people are feeling the effects of stress and burnout.

There’s a fine line between challenging your team to do their best, and pushing them into a place that can cause mental and physical harm. So, how do you know when you’ve crossed that line?

Here are 4 of the most common sources of stress at work and ways you can help your team deal with them.

RescueTime shows you exactly where your time is going each day (and what’s stressing you out at work). Sign up for your free account here

Problem: Too much time spent on communication

Stress at work - communication

Communication tools are necessary for getting work done. But they’re also a huge source of stress at work. Constant pings and dings are major interruptors to our focus. While “urgent” requests can quickly eat into time we’ve set aside for doing meaningful work.

And it’s not just the time spent directly answering emails or Slack messages that stress us out. Instead, studies have shown it’s the expectations around communication and responsiveness that can cause workplace stress.

One of the biggest signs you can look for is teammates replying to messages right away (no matter what time of day it is). While this might be good for you, it shows that communication could be getting in the way of focused work.

If you use a tool like RescueTime, you can also ask teammates to look at how much time they spend in communication tools and when they’re using them throughout the day.

Communication by hour

The solution? Lead by example and give your team permission to be unreachable

Due to our reliance on communication, it’s not the easiest source of workplace stress to deal with. However, there are a few strategies you can try.

First, lead by example when it comes to when and how you communicate. As Rich Fernandez writes in Harvard Business Review,

“Be intentional about when you expect team members (and yourself) to engage in the office or digitally, and be intentional and explicit about when not to engage. No emails after 8 PM or on weekends, for example.”

Next, suggest teammates deal with communication in batches. Not only have recent studies shown that communicating in “bursts” like this helps improve productivity, but according to Clever’s Head of Customer Success, Roxana Saxena, it also will help them stay focused and not get “bogged down” by communication.

Finally, give your team permission to be unreachable. In one study, Thomas W. Jackson of Loughborough University found 70% of all emails received were opened within 6 seconds of their receipt.

It might seem like a small detail, but letting teammates know they don’t have to always be available can be a huge stress reliever.

Problem: Working long hours or outside normal working times

Stress at work - long hours

When good workers are stressed out, they’re more likely to put their head down and just try to “work through it.”

The problem is that we have limited time during which we can be productive each day. Doing more work rarely equals doing good work. In fact, most studies agree that we only have around 2.5–3 hours of focused productive work in us each day.

If you work in an office, it’s usually pretty clear if someone’s burning the midnight oil. However, when it comes to remote teams it’s not always as easy to tell who’s working when (and for how long).

However, there are a few signs you can look for to see if long hours are causing your team to feel stressed.

First, look at email send times. Are they outside of normal working hours? If so, ask why?

Next, what does their workload look like? Are they tagged on every task and invited to a ton of meetings? If someone’s involved in more work and discussions than they need to be, there’s probably a good chance that they’re working longer hours to make up for that time.

The solution? Help your team disconnect

It’s not enough to just tell people not to work long hours. They’re most likely resorting to this because they feel overwhelmed with work or don’t know how to disconnect.

To start, help them identify the low-priority tasks that are taking over their day. Take time to go through their tasks and remove themselves from things they don’t have to be a part of.

Then, it might be a good idea to help them psychologically disconnect at the end of their workday by establishing a “closing ritual.” This could consist of writing down tomorrow’s tasks, closing open browser tabs and cleaning up their desktop, and spending a few minutes reflecting on the workday.

Research has found that this sort of detachment lowers work-related fatigue and helps promote better mental and physical health.

Problem: Unclear feedback around priorities

Stress at work - priorities

Not knowing what to work on can be paralyzing. Yet, in the modern workplace, it’s not always easy for team members to nail down their priorities. Everyone’s busy, deadlines need to be met, and most people assume they should “just know” what their most high-impact work is.

But with the added pressure of only having a few hours a day of uninterrupted time, that uncertainty around what you should be working on can be a major source of stress.

If projects aren’t moving forward, it’s usually not because people aren’t working hard enough. It’s more likely that they just don’t know what they should be working on. 

Are people constantly questioning what needs to be done or seem hesitant to take ownership of projects? They might need guidance to get them back on the right path.

The solution? Help your team find (and do) their most high-impact work

Doing too much low-impact work is stressful because we never feel like we’re making any real progress. But often it’s these low-impact (or urgent) tasks that take over our days.

One suggestion from Clever’s Roxana Saxena is to have teammates imagine taking a week off.

What are the must-do tasks that they would need covered in order to do this? Write them down and beside each item, write down the impact the task would have on the company and who else could do it.

Once they’ve found that high-impact work, you need to give them the tools to do more of it each day. Part of this might be around time management and scheduling, but you can also use a tool like RescueTime’s FocusTime to block out distracting sites and notifications during “heads down” work time.

Problem: A lack of meaning and flow at work

Stress at work - lack of flow

Stress at work doesn’t just come from the expectations people place on us. But the expectations we place on ourselves. More and more, our careers define our lives. And a lack of meaning and purpose around how you spend your days can be a major source of stress.

In fact, research has shown that employees find the opportunity to pursue meaningful work more important than salary, working conditions, or opportunities for promotion. On the other end, a lack of meaning at work has been linked to cynicism, stress, and burnout.

While some of this might just be the wrong fit, there are opportunities for managers to help their teams connect with the work they’re doing.

The easiest indicator to look for is simply team motivation.

When we spoke with hundreds of RescueTime users, they told us that on average, they only feel 60% motivated to do their work each day. In fact, out of hundreds of people, only 3 said they felt 100% motivated every single day.

A lack of motivation can show up in different ways. Maybe people aren’t volunteering to lead projects. Or are complaining and showing other negative behavior changes. Whatever it is, if you don’t find the source and deal with it, it can quickly spread.

The solution? Commit to personal and career development

Meaning and purpose come when we find our work engaging, see positive results, and feel like we’re in control of our future. To help your team get there, start by asking these simple questions from Stanford’s career assessment department:

  • What are your interests? And what sort of work are you excited by?
  • What are the values that motivate you? And, how does your career align with these values?
  • What skills do you have right now that you can apply to work?
  • What is your preferred working style? For example, structured or unstructured. Independent or on a team. Working with people or working with ideas.

Based on the answers, you can help guide your team members through what psychologists Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane E. Dutton call “job crafting”—the process of realigning what they work on with their goals and values.

Recognize that you can help lower workplace stress

As a leader, you want to keep your team challenged, focused, and doing their best work. And that simply can’t happen if they’re feeling stressed.

Look for the signs of stress at work and find ways to help lessen it. Because the more your team feels like their problems are being recognized and addressed, the happier, healthier, and more productive they’ll be.

How do you help combat stress at work? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.