Question Time with Mentor John – Handling stress

Your employees are feeling more and more stressed at work. A 2017/ 2018 survey found that almost two thirds of employees in Singapore have elevated levels of stress. And while some stress may encourage them to reach for higher goals, too much leads to people feeling overwhelmed, with detrimental effects on health, which ultimately affect the business. What are the best strategies for keeping your team in a tip-top condition? Mentor John answers your questions:

What are the common causes of stress at the workplace? How do I reduce this?

We tend to think stress is external. It isn’t, it is, at least significantly, internal. We wind ourselves up with anxiety, usually about how we present ourselves, how we think we are seen by others, how we appear. Notice that is all “me, me, me”. Those who have a strong self-image, a balanced view of their capabilities and, above all, confidence, are seldom stressed.

But some external factors do contribute to stress. Chief among them are bosses. Traditionally we liked bosses. They gave us employment, made decisions we felt we wouldn’t make so well and looked after us if we had personal and family difficulties. That was once. Today, we see them as drivers, people on the side of the owners of the business prepared to do anything to extract the last dollar of profit from our sweated labour.

There are more bad bosses than is generally acknowledged. Not because most of them are brutes or predators but because they don’t spend enough time to understand what really makes their employees tick or how to get the best from them.

Being at the top is a very lonely place. My employees depend upon me for their livelihood and I’m afraid I’m letting them down. When the business faces difficulties, I keep it to myself, as I don’t want others to know. My blood pressure has been steadily rising. Help!

Nobody can operate in isolation. You need three sorts of support. Firstly, it is essential that you have someone in the business who acts as your No 2 even if that is not her or his title. They should be someone you appoint or confirm. The must be someone you trust. The may still be competitive with you but their first loyalty must be to you.

Your de facto No 2 is privy to all the information including your innermost thoughts about the business. Allow time for frequent ‘out-of-hours’ chats with this person. Seek their views but remember you are boss and you make the final decision. Having this person does not remove all the pressure of running the business. It allows you to try out ideas for making it less stressful.

Secondly, your boss’s support is critical, too. You don’t always choose him / her so you may not be lucky here. Even if you have a bad boss, try to be friends with them. They will have some redeeming features. Use those to get near to them. A boss you can confide in eases the stress greatly.

You partner at home should be your third support. Don’t just grumble to them or moan about how hard you are working. Ask them how to deal with problems. They may not know the answer but simply talking about it will make you clearer. It may also greatly help the relationship.

My business operates in a fast-paced, competitive environment. Many of my new employees come in showing great potential. But typically, after 6-12 months, they burn out and either lose motivation or quit. Is it possible to reduce stress, even when I need my team to perform regularly at their maximum ability?

My way of operating is not everybody’s, but it built a $1Bn business in just over ten years. I discussed many things with many people in the business. When I achieved something, even if it had been my idea in the first place, I gave others credit for it. I made work fun for everyone. Did it always work? Of course not. People let me down sometimes. I never sought revenge. I sought to understand why. I tried to help them even if they had been trying to destroy me. Odd? Yes, but most people responded very positively to such strange management.

Proof of the effectiveness of this was the attrition rate which was very, very low. Love them, consult them, pay them – in that order. They will work for you.

I was quite surprised when a few of my staff complained about being stressed at work, since employees rarely stay late or work over weekends. What are the warning signs of stress? What should I do if I feel staff are faking it?

You won’t see any warning signs of stress unless you engage with your employees. Most are used to hiding their feelings. Perhaps you have compelled them to. The wife of one of my employees died of cancer aged mid-forties. She was a lovely person and he – and the rest of us – were devastated. I wrote a poem to be read at her funeral. Most of the people who heard it cried.

I had complete devotion from that business from that moment on. I hadn’t done it for that. I wrote it because I cared for him and for her. When you show genuine care for your employees, they are more likely to genuinely care for you and the business. This should hopefully reduce the chances of staff faking anything.

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