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Make listening an active part of leadership to support workers  

By: Sarah Friswell, CEO at Red Ant  

by uma

The ways we work individually and collaboratively are continually evolving as we’re adjusting to life alongside Covid-19. Although stress can originate from many sources, the physical distance created by hybrid and remote workstyles has played a part in generating stress for workers. 

The significance of Stress Awareness Month is that it prompts us to consider our strategies to support co-workers and business partners with health and wellness in the workplace. Stress can significantly impact a business and its workforce, affecting absence, performance and retention rates. In the current era, it’s more important than ever for HR and hiring managers to revisit existing strategies for a supportive work culture which will support and retain workers and attract new skills and talent. 


What stress looks like 

Most employers understand they are duty bound to support workers with work-related stress, yet the first part in achieving this is to understand how stress presents itself. Work-related stress can manifest itself in many different ways, both physically and psychologically. Common symptoms include apathy, fatigue, insomnia, headaches, irritability, palpitations and panic attacks, or any combination of these or other symptoms. These can develop into long-term mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression, as well as increase the risk of physical health problems, such as heart disease. 


Ways to minimise the risk of stress 

Stress can originate from many factors of the work environment – management style, excessive workloads, lack of support, difficult working relationships, undertaking too much responsibility, bullying or harassment, lack of career progression, or just not having interesting projects to work on. We must listen to our workers to identify problems before they escalate. 

Here are some key suggestions to build a thriving workplace culture that helps minimise the risks of stress: 


  • Consider an employee audit of a cross section of staff to gain feedback on how supported your workers feel and what they feel is missing. Engaging directly will identify where the gaps are so that these can be addressed. It’s hard to make positive change unless you realise how you’re missing potential goals. Exit interviews are also a useful stage to include information on an individual’s wellbeing support to apply metrics. 

  • It’s important to ensure the tasks we set workers correspond to their job descriptions and competency levels, especially with regards to less experienced workers. When we’re not in the same room to see how workers are coping with their work demands, managers need to take the time to assess their progress, and identify areas where they may be struggling.  

  • Without being intrusive, it’s a good idea to try and understand a little more about any acute challenges workers face in their home-working environment. With lifestyle issues now more present in their work ecosystem, it’s important for managers to be aware of pressures such as young family, pets, single parenting, or caring for older relatives. When we value our workers and help them to achieve a better work/life balance, they feel more motivated. For instance, a worker will appreciate a recurring 4.30pm meeting being rescheduled if it clashes with school pickup time. 

  • We must provide opportunities for workers to talk – It’s important to provide a safe and supportive environment where workers can share problems in confidence without fear of judgement, discrimination, or negative consequences. This must be both in policy and in practice and across all business functions. It mustn’t wait until their formal review – regular and informal chats, either virtual or in person, are a great way to do this. 


  • Empathy is a core value that is key to valuing workers and motivating them to succeed and must come from the top of an organisation and run through every facet of the business. Just having a policy is nothing without C-suite backing to embed this culture in the business. We were all more junior once too – empathy is key. 


  • Positive and proactive support is vital – Checking in with workers regularly, and not just at their formal review, can help to identify any issues. It’s recommended that key members of the team participate in mental health training to become aware of some classic signs that a person might be struggling. Using more open questions than “are you OK?” can help find out how workers are really feeling and what areas of their home or work lives make them feel under pressure.  

  • Assessing the company’s work ethic can be insightful. Are workers finishing within their assigned working hours or regularly working late? Unpicking the reasons and trends can revitalise the workforce. It’s important to ensure workers are taking breaks away from their screens and a break for lunch and moving as much as possible within the day to prevent aches and pains developing. 


  • Use tech collaboration tools wisely. Although Slack and other remote working tools are useful, if there are frequent notifications throughout the day as well as emails and communication on other platforms, it can easily become too much. Allow workers to take a break from these, as needed, to clear some work off their to do lists. 


  • Having a sixth sense isn’t useful unless you act on it. If you notice something unusual, asking a colleague how they are feeling is the next stage. Flagging any issues to HR or a more senior manager that can investigate or get professional help is the next one. Talking alone doesn’t solve all problems and we’re not always the experts. 


    Learn about each other 

    It’s so important that listening is an active part of leadership, and not a passive one. Ensuring that our support for workers is part of a strong work culture in policy and in practice is key to success. Despite the typical hierarchies in business, we all have a responsibility to notice each other, to engage and support each other, and to flag any concerns to HR or a manager. This way we learn more about what makes people tick. If someone is acting out of character or seems unhappy, they probably are. It’s surprising what talking less and listening more can do to make working a safe and less pressurised experience. 


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