Understanding Times of Stress as an HR Professional

The work environment does not exist in a bubble. People have their own lives and the state of the world around them shapes their personal and professional lives at any given time. As an HR professional, it’s important to be aware not only of the potential stressors in the workplace itself but also external factors that might be affecting employee mental health and productivity.

Over the past few years, the pandemic has been placing enormous stress on workers. We’ve all had to make changes to our lifestyles, and some people have had to juggle new responsibilities in addition to working. On top of that, concerns over potentially catching COVID-19 have been weighing on many people, affecting their sense of safety and security.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has been placing sustained stress on the workforce, it’s hardly the only source of stress in the world. Communities may go through natural disasters or other tragedies. Individual organizations may go through times of uncertainty and stress that will affect employees.

As an HR professional, it’s important to understand these times of stress and be mindful of them when managing the office environment. Although many people don’t understand the many critical roles HR fills, all HR professionals should be willing to help employees get through difficult times and stay with the organization.

How Stress Affects Productivity & Absenteeism

HR professionals have to balance the needs of the organization with the needs of the individual. People are not robots and they will have varying levels of productivity, which they should not be penalized for. With that said, sustained unproductivity takes its toll on the organization, especially if many employees are working at low productivity and engagement levels.

During stressful times, HR needs to understand the context of the situation. Stressed people typically have trouble focusing, might be sleeping poorly, and will likely be less motivated. Chronic stress can also have an impact on creativity and will affect mood, which could contribute to overall poor morale in the office.

Additionally, stress can have physical consequences for employees. You might see more people calling out sick due to the effects of stress during a crisis. Both mental and physical health can be impacted, causing rates of absenteeism to rise within an organization. Absenteeism is very expensive for an organization and reducing it should be a primary goal for HR.

Ways to Mitigate Crises: Offer Understanding, Flexibility, and New Workflows

When one or more employees encounter a time of intense stress, you can help in two simple ways: offering understanding and flexibility. We all go through stressful times and worrying about keeping your job while you’re trying to sort out your life adds another layer of stress.

Most organizations can offer employees some amount of flexibility, at least in the short term. Very few tasks are time-sensitive enough that you can’t offer a day or two off or flexible hours for a while. Whether someone is dealing with the death of a loved one or multiple employees are faced with the aftermath of a natural disaster, flexibility can be a lifesaver.

Understanding is free and it’s something we all deserve. Empathy is in short supply in our modern world and a little compassion goes a long way. HR professionals should remember that people are an organization’s greatest asset and should be supported during difficult times.

When employees are out of the office due to a crisis, it presents new logistical challenges for HR professionals. You may need to train other employees on an absent worker’s responsibilities or make adjustments to workflows to ensure that everything gets done. This might also mean putting lower-priority projects on the back burner until the crisis is resolved to reduce the potential for burnout on employees who are shouldering new responsibilities.

Checking in is important whenever major changes occur in an organization’s daily operations, even if these changes are temporary. It’s extremely important to offer support and understanding both to employees who are out of the office and those who are “holding down the fort.”

Stress Reduction Techniques for Employees

If everyone in the office is experiencing stress, then it might be a good idea to offer some tips for stress reduction to all employees. While not everyone will use these tips, sharing them can send a message of empathy and the importance of self-care. Reminding people to take care of themselves can be powerful!

Some stress management techniques to try out can include:

  • Regular exercise—suggest that employees take a walk on their lunch break, sponsor gym memberships, or offer yoga classes.
  • Meditation/Mindfulness—provide information on beginner meditation techniques or pay for your employees to access an app.
  • Breathing exercises—create a handout describing different exercises to try.
  • Healthy eating, sleep, and smoking cessation—offer resources and support.

Meeting with each employee to see how they’re doing and asking how you can help is also a good idea. Everyone is different and it’s important to work with each person to evaluate their workload and adjust as necessary. If you can reasonably make changes and accommodations that help people work well under stress, doing so will help improve morale, goodwill, and likely productivity.

Unique Challenges of the Virtual Workplace

During the pandemic, many people learned that transitioning to a virtual workplace has its challenges. HR professionals scrambled to ensure that employees had everything they needed to work effectively in their own homes. It was a difficult transition for many, especially those who had never worked from home before.

Many people feel isolated when working from home and may have trouble focusing. HR professionals can help by making team-building a priority and emphasizing regular communication. Although there are many benefits to working from home, HR professionals must anticipate and reduce the pitfalls in order to maintain productivity and morale within the team.

Connecting Employees with a Larger Purpose

Many people have felt disconnected, fearful, and sad since the beginning of the pandemic. When a collective crisis hits, it puts a lot of pressure on people. Those who begin to feel listless and sad may have trouble engaging with their work or feeling like what they’re doing is worthwhile.

One way to help with this is to connect employees with a larger purpose. What values does your company hold and how are individual employees contributing to those values? What positive force is the organization providing to the world?

If you’re having trouble coming up with answers and you’re not getting support from higher management, see if you can engage people in a team-wide volunteer effort that can help them feel a sense of purpose. Everyone wants to feel like they’re doing more than just helping a company make money and collecting a paycheck.

Know When Enough is Enough

While there are so many ways to help and accommodate employees during times of crisis, the reality is that HR exists to help both employees and the organization. If someone isn’t contributing, despite understanding, support, and flexibility, you have to make some tough decisions.

Choosing to let someone go is never easy, especially if they are struggling. However, every HR professional needs to know when enough’s enough for the sake of the company. Paying someone long-term who isn’t making an effort isn’t fair to the other employees and makes no business sense.

Prevent Issues Before They Occur

There are some crises you can’t prepare for as an HR professional. But it never hurts to consider the potential risks to your organization and do your best to manage those risks.

For instance, you can’t prevent a global pandemic, but you can prepare for your workforce to easily switch to remote work in case another virus threatens your community. You can’t prevent hurricanes, but you can create a response plan to help employees who are affected by these disasters and ensure that the business can continue to operate.

Risk management will look different for each organization and it’s something you will need to discuss with company leadership. But being prepared can make a huge difference during a crisis.

Don’t Take it All On Yourself

HR professionals should do everything they can to help employees manage stress during difficult times. But it’s also important to remember that you can’t fix everything. A crisis like the pandemic affects each person differently and you can’t solve all the problems going on in employees’ lives.

You’ll stress yourself out and might even become burned out if you take these responsibilities home. Make sure you’re practicing self-care so that you can maintain your mental health and stay helpful and productive when you’re in the office. The best thing you can do is to leave your work at work when you log off, whether you’re working from home or you’re commuting to the office.

Be kind to yourself. During a crisis, you’ll be helping your team members get through a difficult time, but remember that you’re human too. You’re not exempt from the stress that can come from these challenging moments and you deserve the same kindness as your colleagues!

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