Team Stress Management: How to Help Your Team Manage Stress & Avoid Burnout

Effective stress management is just as important to high-performing teams as it is to individuals.

When gymnastics superstar Simone Biles withdrew from the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, it sparked a global conversation about mental health. But it also served as an important reminder of the impact stress can have on individuals and teams.


As any coach will tell you, stress can help build team cohesion and push people to perform their best. Research has repeatedly shown that negative or stressful experiences are especially effective at promoting group bonding and cooperation — even more so than positive ones. 


It’s when stress becomes too much — as it did for Biles — that it can take a toll on individuals and the team as a whole. This is true not only for Olympic athletes but also for employees in the workplace.


At work, stressed employees are more likely to call in sick, quit, or engage in unhealthy behaviors like smoking or excessive drinking. What’s more, one stressed-out employee can have an unhealthy ripple effect that affects the entire team’s performance and morale. 


As a manager, you can’t eliminate stress entirely — nor should you try. But often there are steps you can take to help your team feel less frazzled. 


If your team is struggling to manage stress effectively, then it’s time for you to step in and introduce some changes that will help them cope in a healthy way.

Apply the 80/20 rule

The 80/20 rule, also known as the Pareto principle, states that 80% of effects come from 20% of causes. It’s often used in business to illustrate that 80% of a company’s revenue comes from 20% of its customers. 


However, the same principle holds true in other fields as well, including stress management. Lots of little things can add up and contribute to your team feeling stressed, like tight deadlines, heavy workloads, and home commitments. However, you can usually point to one factor that’s a major source of stress for employees.


Once you can identify which 20% of situations are causing 80% of your team’s stress, you can look for ways to take these off their plate. If it’s paperwork that’s making your team miserable, for example, can you automate some of that repetitive work with software? Not only will this reduce stress, it’ll also free up your team to focus on what really matters. 

Tackle your “big rocks” first

You might be familiar with the concept of “big rocks” that was popularized by Stephen Covey. Put simply, “big rocks” are your most important priorities. These include major tasks, projects, and goals.  “Pebbles”, on the other hand, are all the small things that tend to accumulate and fill up our time. 


If you start filling your metaphorical “jar” with pebbles first, you won’t have room for the big rocks. However, if you start with the big rocks first, you’ll have a better chance of fitting them all in.

“If the big rocks don’t go in first, they aren’t going to fit in later.” — Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Taking the time to define your “big rocks” can help avoid a lot of the stress and pressure that comes with trying to cram too much into your day. Be sure to think about the big rocks at every level of your organization. The business as a whole will have its own long-term objectives, which can be broken down into department initiatives and team projects. Each individual will also have their own “big rocks”, which should be aligned with the team and organization’s goals.

Encourage healthy habits

You’ve heard it a million times before: “Eat right, exercise, and get enough sleep.” Well, there’s a reason this advice is so popular. Research has found that these three habits are crucial to both physical and mental health. From an employer perspective, that equates to happier, less stressed, more productive employees. 


Not every organization can afford to provide a cafeteria or gym for their staff, of course. Still, there are plenty of ways managers can promote a healthy work environment and culture. Some ideas include:


  • Incorporate movement into the work day, such as by having walking one-on-ones or other meetings with team members
  • Stock the break room with nutritious snacks and bottled water, or offer to buy lunch
  • Develop flexible work policies so that employees can get their kids to school or manage other personal obligations
  • Encourage employees to stay home when they’re sick, and update your sick leave policy so they can do so without fear of losing their jobs
  • Offer benefits that include access to therapy sessions, and encourage employees to talk to a professional if needed


The key is to make it as easy as possible for your employees to take good care of themselves.


Easier said than done, we know. But if you’re constantly checking your email or fielding after-hours calls, it can lead to feeling like you’re working all the time. (That’s especially true when your dinner table is also your desk.)


Case in point: researchers at Virginia Tech found that just the expectation of having to check email during non-work hours causes stress and anxiety for employees. 


If you want your team to do their best work, they need time to rest and recharge. This could mean taking some time off from work. It could also mean simply setting Slack to Do Not Disturb at the end of the day. 


As a manager, you can help your team unplug by clearly laying out your expectations around when employees are (and are not!) expected to be available. Then, set an example by not emailing your team during off-hours or calling them on their vacation.

Connect to your purpose

Everyone wants to feel like their work matters. The research supports this, as 9 out of 10 people would be willing to earn less money in order to do more meaningful work. 


If your team doesn’t see how their efforts are making an impact, it’ll be difficult for them to feel motivated when things get tough. On the flip side, having a strong sense of purpose can help everyone stay engaged when work is stressful. 


Here at SETWorks, for example, our mission and purpose is to empower people who serve, and it’s the driving force behind everything we do. Keeping this at the center of our work helps our team stay focused and inspired.

Watch for signs of stress & burnout

Whether it’s a difficult client, a looming deadline, or a sales target you’ve got to meet, everyone experiences stress from time to time. However, stress affects everyone in different ways. Some people are naturally more sensitive to stress, while others seem to let it roll off like water on a duck’s back. 


As a leader, you have to know your team and their personalities, work styles, and stressors. This will help you to recognize when someone needs a break. If you notice your top worker is making more mistakes, or your usually sunny employee is grumpy lately, it’s a good idea to check in with them and find out what’s going on. 


Of course, just because someone seems outwardly fine doesn’t mean that they are. Research shows that high-performers — the ones you can always count on to take on an extra assignment or cover a last-minute absence — are at an increased risk for burnout.


What’s more, these people typically won’t complain, so you might not know anything is wrong until they’re handing in their resignation. This is why it’s important to have regular check-ins and make sure you’re not overloading your top employees.

Take care of yourself

Finally, remember that you can’t support your employees if you’re totally burned out yourself. It’s important for leaders to take the time to unplug, take a break, and recharge their batteries. Self-care will have a positive effect not just for you, but for everyone around you.

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