Conversations: the key to combatting stress at work

OpenBlend explore three ways that effective conversations can reduce stress and drive performance at work.

Conversations: the key to combatting stress at work

At OpenBlend, we're big on conversation. Not only is it good to talk, but it’s also essential for our mental health - and as the saying goes, a problem shared is a problem halved. An effective conversation can completely change how someone perceives a problem or situation, and it will help them navigate towards the right solution. Not only that, but conversations are also key to managing stress, both at work and in our personal lives.

The thing to remember here is that prevention is always better than cure - and effective conversations form the basis for that prevention. The goal is to treat the symptoms of stress before they have time to manifest into a bigger mental health issue. 

So if conversations are key to combatting stress, and with research from Gallup showing that employee stress is at an all-time high, surely the answer lies in enabling more regular manager-employee 1:1 conversations around the issues that matter most to the individual?   

We certainly think so, but for anyone who still needs convincing, here are three ways that effective conversations can reduce stress and drive performance at work:  

Regular check-ins = more transparency

We’ve all been there at one time or another. Exhausted, drowning in deadlines, and struggling to keep our heads above water. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t have to be that way. 

It may sound obvious but ensuring transparency around an employee’s evolving workloads and schedules is essential to managing stress at work. And the best way to achieve this? Regular 1:1 conversations enable employees to flag when they have too much on their plate (or equally, when they have capacity to support a colleague who is overloaded and stressed). This is how we break the age-old cycle of stress because it’s a simple case of cause and effect: allow people to struggle and watch them sink, or understand what they need, provide the right support, and reduce their stress.

Understanding stress triggers 

Another thing we love about effective conversations is that they’re self-multiplying. Great conversations lead to more great conversations, as well as a happier, healthier, and high-performing workforce. But this can only happen if conversations extend beyond the day-to-day to include the employee’s specific needs, wants, and personal circumstances. Only then can the manager form a complete view of the individual, the unique challenges they face - and crucially, how these impact their stress levels. 

In this way, conversations are not only hugely empowering for employees, but for managers too. Through regular dialogue with their direct reports, managers can equip themselves with the knowledge they need to understand what triggers a particular employee to feel overwhelmed and stressed - and when applied in the right way, that knowledge will have a tangible impact on stress reduction and improved performance. 

Early intervention: spotting the signs

Similarly, and as managers and employees have more and more effective conversations, their relationship will naturally become stronger. They will understand one another better so that if and when the employee begins to struggle, their manager is likely to spot the signs more quickly and take corrective action before productivity dips or they need to take time off work with stress. 

It’s no exaggeration to say that, with these factors in mind, conversations are the critical component of good stress management. Few would deny that but many organisations are yet to apply the theory. So how can these companies set themselves up for less stress and more success? 

Creating a culture of wellbeing conversations

HR and business leaders must first make it known that conversations about stress and mental health are encouraged as an integral part of the company’s culture. 

The vital ingredient here is trust. For this to work, manager-employee conversations must be underpinned by psychological safety so that employees can speak openly about their concerns without any fear of judgement or penalty. Remove trust from the equation, and employees are not only less likely to open up, but there’s also every chance they’ll actively avoid speaking to their manager. And the upshot of that? Even more stress. 

To support this, managers will need the right training and tools to guide them in how to talk to an employee who is struggling with stress or anxiety, or any other sensitive issue for that matter - and in fact, coaching managers in how to have these conversations should be a formal item on the corporate learning agenda. 

Avoidance is never the answer

This training is especially important when it comes to handling difficult conversations with employees. As humans, our natural response is to avoid uncomfortable discussions - and that’s understandable. But if managers fail to broach these issues (or if employees feel unable to raise them), they’ll only be doing a disservice to the individual who actually needs their help and support. 

The key takeaway here is that avoidance is never the answer - and with the right guidance and tools to help them, managers can (and will) create effective outcomes from difficult conversations. 

As part of this, managers themselves are encouraged to model the right behaviours by talking about mental health at work and helping to embed a culture of wellbeing. Modern managers should be anti-presenteeism (it’s ok to stay home when you’re sick!) and anti-leavism (stop sending emails when you’re on holiday!). They should make sure that conversations are happening often, particularly with employees who are prone to stress or who live with mental illness. By embodying these behaviours at work everyday, others will follow suit - and before you know it, you’ll have created a culture of conversation that empowers people to bring their whole selves to work, safe in the knowledge they are supported and able to thrive. 

To learn more about enabling broad and effective conversations in your organisation, get in touch with our team.

For helpful resources on how to support an employee struggling with ongoing anxiety and mental health issues, please visit Mind or the NHS website.  

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