5 Ways to help your people deal with stress in the workplace

Written by Marleze Blignaut

This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW) will run from 27 Sept – 3 Oct 2021. The theme is ‘take time to kōrero/mā te kōrero, ka ora - a little chat can go a long way’. Both the theme and timing of this year’s event seem fitting in these COVID-19 times. The changing alert levels and fears around the pandemic create heightened anxiety and uncertainty. Added to this are also the pressures of working from home or in new ways as we manage public health requirements, on top of existing challenges at work.

In the current work environment, the one thing we can guarantee our people is that there will be change. Organisational changes. Operational changes. Role changes. Technology changes. Hybrid working. Lockdowns. Returns to the office. The level of change can be overwhelming and if not managed well, can negatively impact on the individual employee, their team members, and your business.   

Constant change results in constant stress and as we know unmanaged stress for prolonged periods will lead to burnout. According to a recent Mental Health America’s Mind the Workplace 2021 Report:

  • 83% of employees experience early signs of burnout
  • 25% of employees experience severe signs of burnout, which include poorer performance, cynicism toward colleagues and apathy for the workplace, and
  • 71% of employees say workplace stress affects their mental health.

The Business NZ Workplace Wellness Survey[1] done in 2018, painted a similar picture for workplaces in New Zealand. In 2018, 7.4 million workdays were lost because of absence from work at a staggering cost of $1.79b. During the period 2016 to 2018 work stress had risen by 23.5%. Given the global pandemic, it’s likely that these figures have continued to rise.

So how do we help our people deal with stress in the workplace?

Since it is evident that this upward trend is not going to end soon, we need to start thinking about innovative ways in which we can support our people to deal better with stress in the workplace. Mental Health Awareness Week is a great time to think about what you can differently or better to support your people

Below are 5 ways to help your people deal with stress in the workplace. 

1. Normalise discussions about the impact of stress on people’s mental health

Lead from the front. Talking about your own mental health will encourage others in your team to share their mental health journey. Research shows leaders who make themselves vulnerable create real connections with their people.

Here are some ideas that you can consider:

  • Creating space for people to share their story. This can be achieved by dedicating 15 minutes of your team meeting to mental health.
  • Encouraging your team to tap into services such as Employee Liaison Service.
  • Appointing a check-in buddy for each member of your team.
  • Talking regularly about resources available such as Mental Health Foundation’s Te Whare Tapa Whā and the Five Ways to Wellbeing.

2. Get employees moving

Moving together will build a sense of connection. When people feel connected to a team it increases their sense of feeling worthy, they have more energy and can focus better on the task at hand.

Why don’t you make your next meeting a “walk-in-the-park”? Being outside can improve the overall mood and the extra oxygen will assist with creativity. If your team like cycling, arrange a pedal-ready event or simply hold your next meeting standing up. If the team works remotely, create a fun step-challenge in which staff can record steps taken for each day of the week. 

3. Create quiet zones

Open plan office or not, create space where people can be quiet and not be disturbed. Researchers at University of California, Irvine, found that a typical office worker only gets an average of 11 minutes between each interruption, while it takes roughly 25 minutes to return to the original task after an unscheduled disruption.

High levels of noise have been associated with high levels of cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone. Noise signals to the body that there is something going on and that it needs to be alert. This triggers cortisol production, which raises blood pressure and blood sugar. Constant floods of cortisol will result in burn-out. Periods of quiet are necessary for the brain to self-generate and reset.

A practical solution could include allocating different workspaces for different tasks, for example a writing booth for focused work, an area of the office with a ‘do not disturb’ policy and conversely a family table for morning tea or collaborating.

4. Practice preventative maintenance

In New Zealand, recent changes to Health and Safety legislation placed a focus on the Employer’s obligation to uphold staff safety.

In the workplace the focus shifts to healthy work practices rather than dealing with burnout. What can we do differently? Both leaders and individual team members have a role to play. On a macro level, as a leader you can help your team build a resilience plan focusing on their individual and group interests.

On a micro level you can encourage your team to keep a journal. Encourage your team to write about their wins, concerns, or gratitude daily can help them organise their thoughts, identify problems and improve their focus.

5. Encourage your team to disconnect

Taking a break and disconnecting is important because it gives the body and the brain an opportunity to reset and rid itself of toxins. Who of us cannot relate with the “checking emails while on holiday bug” otherwise known as “vacation-guilt”? We get so used to being busy that we struggle to disconnect, and we fear we might be missing out or hindering others. To prevent this from happening why not encourage an entire group to take off time together. For example, if the whole team are off over the Christmas period then they won’t be worrying about missing emails or holding others up by not being available.

Some companies have realised the benefit of having people well rested. Some offer a financial incentive for each full week of vacations being scheduled. Others may consider a policy changes such as ‘no email hours’.

In France, labour law changes were introduced so workers have the ‘right to disconnect’, this   prevents employees from receiving or having to respond to emails outside of typical working hours. This empowers people to be their best selves at work and to be fully present for themselves and their families when at home. As a manager you can both encourage this within your team and role model this behaviour, for example if you do need to work late use the ‘delay send’ function so you do not disturb others until the next working day.

About FairWay 

FairWay are experts in resolving conflict at work. Employers across Aotearoa partner with FairWay to proactively improve wellbeing, build internal capability and positively address conflict. FairWay provides a range of workplace services including training and workshop packages, Employee Liaison Service and dispute resolution services.  

If you would like to find out more about FairWay’s workplace services, please get in get in touch on 0800 77 44 08. 

About the author

Marleze Blignaut is a Senior Resolution Practitioner at FairWay.

She trained as an employment mediator and arbitrator, and for over 15 years worked in resolving workplace disputes. Marleze has worked across different industries, having facilitated industry wage negotiations, restructuring, workplace investigations and training. She has arbitrated a variety of disputes; including disputes involving senior employees, disputes involving union officials and disputes where expert witnesses were called.

If you would like to get in touch with Marleze, please contact her by email at Marleze.Blignaut@fairwayresolution.com 


[1] 2019-Workplace-Wellness-Report.pdf (businessnz.org.nz) issued in 2020