An October survey of 3,100 employees conducted by CareerBuilder found that many employees take sick days because they’re stressed out and sleep-deprived, not because they’re sick. This is a troubling discovery.
Employees are struggling to manage their stress and maintain a healthy lifestyle, even after they punch out for the day. Meanwhile, employers are addressing this sick-day problem in a way that implies wrongdoing on the employee’s part. Some employers even go so far as to check employees’ social media profiles while they’re out sick, in an attempt to catch them in a lie.
But tightening sick-day policies by requiring doctors' notes, or tracking employees' activity while they’re out of the office, might in fact do more harm than good -- especially given the real problem, which is that employees are overly stressed.
Let’s take a look at how employers can reduce workplace stress so that their staff can stay healthy and productive:
1. Recognize the overwhelmed employee.
The term “overwhelmed employee” has become a bit of a buzzword. Deloitte’s Human Capital Trends 2014 report found that 65 percent of over 3,300 executives surveyed considered the "overwhelmed employee" to be an urgent, important trend; but 44 percent of those executives said they were not ready to deal with it.
How exactly do employers deal with overwhelmed employees? It starts with recognition. One of the most obvious signs of employee burnout is an increase in absences. Staffers may also be showing less commitment to projects, avoiding company events and complaining more.
Leaders who pay attention will notice when there's more cynicism in the office. Perhaps pleasant small talk and smiles and joking are on the decline in the breakroom. Maybe employees are playing the blame game or making excuses for missing realistic deadlines.
Look for these signs and identify who is starting to disengage. Rather than working on a case-by-case basis, consider the bigger picture: that the company as a whole may need a culture overhaul to address the systemic problem.
2. Give them a voice.
Encourage transparency in the workplace so employees can admit when they are stressed and feel overextended. Employees want to be heard. Open communication should be part of the organizational culture so it becomes the norm.
To start, it’s best to get a full picture of the current state of the workplace. Conduct surveys to gauge how employees feel about their workloads and levels of engagement and satisfaction, and what their pain points are.
Surveys are great because they’re anonymous, which gives employers an accurate read of their workforce. It’s best to conduct surveys on a regular basis to stay informed about how the staff feels.
Also, encourage regular meetings with leadership so employees can share feedback. Schedule time for this so it’s not always pushed off. When open communication is a priority, employees speak up when they start to feel overwhelmed. This way, leadership can help them better manage their work so they stay healthy and engaged.
3. Set clear expectations.
Employees want to know what’s expected of them. Wrike’s 2015 Work Management Survey found that missing information is a top stressor for employees, and negatively affects their job satisfaction and productivity. When they’re left guessing, they may experience a lot of frustration.
What can cause even more stress is having unrealistic expectations. Some 49 percent of the 1,464 employees surveyed said they experienced stress from the unrealistic goals they said employers placed on projects.
So, to minimize this stress in your workplace, be specific. Clearly define what "success" looks like for your employees. A strong leader is someone who collaborates with employees to develop meaningful goals aligning with those employees' values, career aspirations and the company’s vision.
Provide them with context so they see the impact they’re making. Show them the big picture and the large-scale organizational goals, then cascade the organization goals to illustrate how their performance impacts the whole team.
4. Create a balance.
Work-life balance is crucial to employee well-being. When they can’t manage their stress and are constantly struggling to hit their deadlines, they’re bound to get sick and lose sleep.
It’s no secret that employees want to be treated like people. Virgin Pulse’s Labor of Love survey from 2015 found that 40 percent of the 1,000 employees surveyed said they wished their employer cared more about their work-life balance.
Employers who invest in their employees’ health will see a dramatic decrease in the number of sick days being used. Be proactive about guiding them to better lifestyle choices.
To help them establish a healthy work-life balance, offer flexible work options, like telecommuting or flextime. This will make employees happier, especially if they feel that they need more time with their families or to pursue hobbies.
Consider starting a wellness program to encourage healthier lifestyle habits. When employees have the support from their boss, they're more motivated and determined to be their best selves.
Also, create an environment where employees feel comfortable taking regular breaks so they can stay focused and productive. Stepping away from the desk for a few moments between tasks helps employees clear their head so they can stay engaged and motivated.
5. Measure performance.
Overwhelmed employees need help with managing their workloads. If they’re burned out and not sleeping well, they need some support from leadership.
Use real-time performance data to track and manage employees' productivity and have productive discussions with them. This gives them an idea of how they’re doing and how they can improve. It also gets management involved and able to allocate projects and tasks in a way that won’t overwhelm employees.
Finally, create a culture of recognition on the peer-to-peer level, as well as from management. When people can celebrate their wins and congratulate one other, they are more motivated, engaged and happy.
Need tools to help? Consider a solution like Hoopla or similar software to engage employees by pulling performance data and providing immediate insights.