Recognizing and Responding to Employee Stress and Anxiety | SOS Podcast

Recognizing and Responding to Employee Stress and Anxiety | SOS Podcast

Given that a majority of the incoming generation struggles with mental health, companies have an unprecedented need to prepare for the inevitable challenges they will face. In this episode, host Joe White discusses the signs and symptoms of workplace stress and anxiety and offers suggestions for responding to it.






The SOS Podcast is a production of AEU LEAD, an organization redefining how mid and frontline managers are developed.

Joe White:

Hello, and thank you for joining us. I'm Joe White, and this is the Supervisor Skills: Secrets of Success. Today's episode is our fourth released in 2023, and it's the 32nd overall. Whether you're a first-time listener or returning one, we value and appreciate your time and continued support. We would also like to encourage you to help us spread the word. If you know of someone that might benefit from the SOS Podcast, please pass along a link with a recommendation to check us out. Today's episode is one of utmost importance. It broadly represents a topic that's gaining prominence in every part of our lives. I'm covering stress and anxiety in the workplace. While the topic is one that was avoided in the not-too-distant past, we find ourselves at a different point in time in facing an entirely new set of circumstances. Poor mental health is now considered a modern epidemic by a number of leading healthcare institutions.

For most companies, it's not a matter of if you'll experience the effects of it. It's a matter of when. Through the course of our conversation, I hope to raise awareness to the topic, share some thoughts about how to recognize symptoms of it, and, most importantly, leave you with some tools for responding to it. Let's jump right into it. We're currently living at a point in time with unprecedented levels of enduring stress. In a recent mental health America's workplace study, 83% of respondents indicated they felt emotionally drained from their job. Also, among their findings, nine out of 10 workers believe job stress affects their mental health. Among other researchers, the Harris Poll has conducted an annual Stress in America survey for 15 consecutive years. Based on their findings, stress levels have steadily increased over the past decade and are now at an all-time high. According to a spokesperson for the agency, we've reached unprecedented levels of stress, and our ability to cope is becoming increasingly challenged. Evidence supporting the existence of this trend is beyond debate at this point.

The mental health challenges organizations now face is real and will become increasingly more apparent with time. Moving forward, we must adapt to this evolving situation and better prepare ourselves for the inevitable circumstances we're going to face. As for our topic today, stress is a naturally occurring physical response to any given situation we may encounter. Its function is primitive in nature and helps prepare us for threats or circumstances where heightened levels of awareness are required. In and of itself, stress plays a very valuable role in human behavior. Regarding anxiety, it's a response or reaction to stress. Anxiety is an emotion experienced as feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and even physical changes such as increased blood pressure. As for the differences between stress and anxiety, they're subtle but important. Stress is caused by external triggers like an argument, a missed deadline, or an embarrassing situation. In most instances, when stressful situations are over, the emotional response to them quickly subsides. Anxiety, on the other hand, isn't as clearly tied to a specific triggering event and generally persists even in the absence of stressors.

As for signs and symptoms of stress and anxiety, there are several worth noting. Mood swings, being withdrawn, loss of motivation, commitment, or a drop in confidence are an example of a few. Others involve an increase in emotional reactions, such as being unusually sensitive, tearful, or aggressive. Establishing rapport and getting to know your employees helps. More than anything else, if an employee starts acting differently or you see a sudden shift in their mannerisms or demeanor, that could be a sign of stress or anxiety. In addition to these symptoms, also pay attention to patterns. If an employee's performance suddenly drops off or they start arriving for work late, there's an underlying reason for the shift. It's quite possible it could be stress related.

Just as important as recognizing the signs and symptoms of stress and anxiety involves your ability to effectively respond to it when you see it. The role of the supervisor is limited to engaging with the employee to acknowledge observations and to offer help in the event it's needed. It is not to counsel or offer guidance of ways employees should be dealing with or responding to their emotions. Mental health counseling is an area of competence requiring extensive training and in some cases, professional certification. Steering someone in need to train professionals through existing company resources is the best course of action a supervisor can take.

To put this into some sort of perspective, here's several recommendations for how you can help an employee that may be struggling with stress or anxiety:


1. Familiarize yourself with company resources and mental health benefits. 

Most organizations have employee assistance programs known as EAPs that provide professional counseling, referrals, and follow-up services to employees in need. Supervisors should familiarize themselves with these services and be capable of providing needed contact details upon request. In addition to EAP assistance, it's important to follow company policies and laws regarding confidentiality. If unfamiliar or unclear, speak to a company representative that can help you get a better handle on what you can and can't do.

2. Promote mental health awareness. 

Simply acknowledging with your employees that you genuinely care about their overall well-being is important. When an employee feels supported and understood, they're far more likely to discuss struggles involving stress they may be dealing with. By promoting mental health awareness, supervisors create an opportunity to identify needs employees may have sooner than later.


3. Encourage open lines of communication.

Employees struggling with stress or anxiety often reach a tipping point. In many instances, when that occurs, they want to talk. By encouraging open lines of communication, you are able to connect the need to speak with the need to be heard. In many instances, these moments come without warning and can be anything but convenient. Recognize the importance of the situation, however, and do everything within your power to accommodate the employee in the moment.


4. Routinely connect through check-ins.

In an attempt to get ahead of the tipping points previously mentioned, supervisors should routinely check in with employees. Check-ins help build rapport, provide an opportunity to recognize subtle shifts in behavior, and encourage collaboration. A simple "how are you doing today?" can be all that it takes for an employee to open up about struggles they may be dealing with. If you're not doing so already, build some time into your calendar to interact with employees and to check in with them.


5. Trust you instincts.

When you suspect an employee is struggling with stress or anxiety, the way you approach the situation is important. Acknowledging your concerns and asking if everything is okay isn't always easy, but it's ultimately what you need to do. In addition, you need to respect the employee's response and any request they may have. If an employee indicates they would like support, your role is limited to helping them make needed connections. Where this is provided, it can make all the difference in the world.

Poor mental health is recognized as a modern epidemic. The World Health Organization has called upon employers to step up their game and to accept responsibility for more active involvement in providing for the mental health needs of today's workforce. While companies, in many instances, have made mental health resources available, most have not trained or prepared frontline supervisors to identify or effectively respond to those in need. It's my sincere hope that through the course of this episode today, we've raised your awareness to this important topic and have provided you with some tools you'll be able to apply for the benefit of those reporting to you. 

Thank you for joining us today. We value your time and continued support as a listener. We also appreciate feedback and welcome suggestions for topics you would like to see us cover. To reach us by email or phone, please use the links in the show notes accompanying this episode. We look forward to joining you again soon, as we'll be back in early May with an episode covering diversity, equity, and inclusion. That's it for now. Stay safe, and thanks for listening.

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About the Author

As Director of AEU LEAD, Joe White focuses on helping members transform operational goals into actionable plans through a structured change management process. Prior to joining AEU, Joe was a senior consultant for E.I. DuPont’s consulting division, DuPont Sustainable Solutions (DSS). He joined DSS in 2011 to develop the next generation of safety practices using extensive research in behavioral sciences he’s compiled over a period of nearly two decades. His efforts resulted in the development of The Risk Factor, which is now the flagship instructor-led offering for the consulting division. Combined, Joe has 26 years of operational safety experience, the majority of which was with DuPont. Joe has been published in Occupational Health & Safety Magazine for his prominent work in safety relative to behavioral and neurosciences and is an event speaker at many leading industry conferences including National Safety Council (NSC) Congress and Expos, American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), and National Maritime Safety Association (NMSA). Joe is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University and has a B.S., in Safety and Risk Administration.

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