High-Stress Companies Need to Invest in Employee Mental Health

Some employees under 'serious level of stress and anxiety' that could lead to suicide.

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By Brian Fielkow • Feb 2, 2019 Originally published Feb 2, 2019

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CNN recently published an article looking inside Uber's Special Investigation Unit (SIU). The SIU is tasked with handling severe incidents reported by passengers. An internal memo commissioned by Uber determined that SIU employees were overworked, underpaid and, at times, emotionally traumatized. The memo cited a "serious level of stress and anxiety of team members," warning of mental health issues and even the risk of suicide.

It's important to note that Uber should be applauded for creating the SIU and for taking steps to improve passenger safety. The company should be recognized for commissioning the independent memo to identify problems and create a best-in-class SIU. The best companies know they are under a constant state of repair.

Related: How to Tackle Workplace Stress and Anxiety

The issues inside Uber's SIU create a learning opportunity for each of us. Many jobs are defined by constant crisis. Consider first responders, 911 operators and law enforcement. Unhealthy levels of stress and anxiety are not limited to professional crisis managers. Think about yourself and what it takes to run an entrepreneurial company: production pressures, financial and payroll challenges, employee turnover and the risk that your business could fail. There's no greater privilege than to accept the challenge of entrepreneurship, but it comes with many sleepless nights and often unhealthy stress levels.

Like crisis managers, many of us live with a chronic state of unease pertaining to our businesses and professions. When I first acquired my company, Jetco Delivery, I dealt personally with issues analogous to those described in the SIU memo. I allowed anxiety to define me. It impaired my ability to lead effectively, and I developed a plan to deal with it. Whether you work in a high-stress/crisis-driven environment or carry the tremendous responsibilities that come with entrepreneurship, the stress and anxiety levels can be similar.

Here is how I have learned -- often the hard way -- to succeed in high-consequence environments:

Separate yourself from the problem.

The SIU employees, for example, are solving a crisis created by another person. Each team member's role is to fix the problem, but he or she did not create the crisis. In our own companies, we must care deeply about fixing the crises that we inevitably will face, but at the same time we must separate our personal ego from the crisis. Think of yourself as an emergency room doctor. The doctor keeps an emotional distance from the patient. He doesn't treat family members. Only by separating ourselves from the crisis can we effectively address it.

Related: These 5 Stress-Relieving Strategies Work for Even the Busiest Entrepreneurs

Create calm.

If we have employees who are routinely working in high-stress situations, we must keep the calm. A leader has tremendous influence over employees' states of mind, whether a state of calm or of panic. The leader's essential role is to de-escalate, keep things in perspective, and create a relaxed, comfortable work environment so employees remain calm and execute with clarity. Projecting calm and confidence is even more important when a business is in crisis, while not sugar-coating the seriousness of managing the crisis.

Guard the gates.

Some people are wired to thrive in high-stress environments. Others will crumble. I love the fast pace and often high-stress environment of my business. I am built that way, and the same is true for many of my employees who succeed in our environment. As you add new employees, make sure they know the demands of the job. The Uber memo pointed out that some SIU employees went from being baristas or fast food restaurant employees to crisis managers. Did Uber do enough to ensure that new hires are fit to work in the SIU? To help avoid hiring the wrong candidates, allow prospects to meet with prospective coworkers. Using outside assessment tools, such as the Caliper Profile, identify those employees who perform best in your environment. Then, use the assessment tool to benchmark prospective employees with similar traits. By knowing up front whether the candidate is wired to assume high-consequence responsibilities, you will forego numerous headaches down the road, including workers compensation exposure.

Take your front lines with you.

Employees tasked with difficult jobs know the best ways to navigate. Be sure to incorporate their ideas into your operations. Let your employees develop best practices for diffusing unhealthy levels of stress. Allow them to take longer and more frequent than normal breaks. Let them regroup if the stress becomes too great. Create processes that are clear and easy to understand, including escalation triggers for particularly serious situations. Ensure your employees have access to outside professional counseling as needed.

We're not going to buy our way out of this.

The CNN article pointed out that Uber SIU employees are underpaid, but it raises the question of by whose standard? All jobs have a local market-based salary range. It may be a good decision to pay on the higher side of the market to attract the best employees. That said, Uber could pay 50 percent above the market, and the SIU challenges still would exist. Unhealthy stress and anxiety levels do not know socioeconomic boundaries. For instance, Prince William is refreshingly candid about his emotional struggles and the need to break the stigma surrounding mental health issues. We are dealing with issues that are common among all human beings, from British royalty to a first-time employee at his/her first day at the job. While money is important, it's not the solution to managing unhealthy work-related levels of stress and anxiety.

Related: Why Your Mental Health Is the Key to Your Success in Business

Know when enough is enough.

Create a "bill of rights" for your employees. For instance, the customer is not always right, and if the customer crosses a line (e.g., threats, vulgarity), your employees must be empowered to stop the conversation. Your employees are there to fix problems, not to serve as human punching bags. Employees must know they are cared for and operate within established protective boundaries. For your employees to execute properly in high-stress situations, you've got to put them first. I am reminded of how Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher dealt with one difficult passenger who chronically complained. He wrote to her, "We will miss you, Love, Herb."

Regardless of the position we hold, we will be confronted with unhealthy levels of stress and anxiety. It may be a daily occurrence, or it may be sporadic. Prepare for it now by developing your own plan to overcome these challenges so that you can think, lead and live with focus and clarity.

Brian Fielkow

Business Leader, Author, Keynote Speaker

Corporate culture and management advisor Brian Fielkow is the author of Driving to Perfection: Achieving Business Excellence by Creating a Vibrant Culture, a how-to book based on his 25 years of executive leadership experience at public and privately held companies. With a doctorate in law from Northwestern University School of Law, he serves as owner and president of Jetco Delivery, a logistics company in Houston that specializes in regional trucking, heavy haul and national freight. 

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