I have a new book called Happy Employees Make Happy Customers. To summarize it, the book is about how Customer Experience exists within an ecosystem, and policies and procedures to manage it are not enough. If you want to have great experiences, you need to look out for your employees. If employees are happier, then they will provide better experiences for your customers. To have happy employees, you need to manage stress, whether it’s yours or theirs.
That is easy to say but not easy to do. Moreover, we are living in exceptionally stressful times right now. Today, I am sharing the advice of an expert in dealing with stress that we hosted on a recent podcast.
Stress is a significant part of our lives, with or without a global pandemic. We feel pressure about our jobs, job performance, and relying on technology in new ways (and managing it) to get work done. We also have anxiety from our personal lives. Moreover, this year, we stress about COVID-19, stay-at-home orders, and the related economic fallout we all face.
Carmen Mohan, MD, FACP, is a doctor of internal medicine in the Atlanta area and founder of Hello Health, a comprehensive executive health and wellbeing program. Dr. Mohan and the team at Hello Health take care of leaders and their team and work within the intersection of health and wellness and leadership. Dr. Mohan coaches leaders and mentors about their health, as well as the health of their teams. She spoke with us about how we can manage our stress and then our teams’ stress to the best possible outcome in these difficult times.
The First Thing To Know about Stress: You Are Not Alone
From the beginning, Dr. Mohan takes a consultative approach to stress management. Leaders often feel alone in their experience. She says the first thing leaders should know is that they are not alone. Another issue is that even when feeling overwhelmed, leaders keep going, pushing through the stress to ensure they meet others’ needs. Dr. Mohan says leaders allow themselves time to step back from the situation. Failing to do so, per Dr. Mohan, leaves leaders prone to what she calls marginal thinking, which describes how employers think around their businesses’ margins rather than approaching the problem with a clean slate mentality. Dr. Mohan says that when you can’t figure out where to get started, it’s because you’re thinking around established systems that are no longer working or are disrupted by new developments. In this case, she says, it is a global pandemic, so that is understandable. However, Dr. Mohan says that wiping the slate clean of what “used to work,” taking a few deep breaths while stepping back, is the place to start.
I couldn’t agree more about the wildcard the pandemic has been for everyone. I was talking to somebody recently, and I said, “This is my first pandemic. I don’t know what to do. But I will know next time.” Part of the stress level we feel is about the uncertainty we have surrounding the pandemic. Dr. Mohan also says grief is involved for what we used to have that we completely took for granted. Moreover, we have no time to process that grief because we have so many problems to solve. The inability to put a framework around what will happen to us in the future in conjunction with the barrage of high-stakes decisions that leaders are making creates a lot of stress.
Then, of course, there is the need to manage employees’ stress, which may mean protecting them from organizational stress coming from senior management. This situation raises the leaders’ stress levels even more. Dr. Mohan says that leaders knowing that they are not alone is helpful, even if it doesn’t help solve any of the problems described.
Stress also doesn’t stop at organizational boundaries. Employee stress can seep through to your customers. Moreover, customers might be bringing a fair amount of pressure to the situation as well. None of these are ingredients for an excellent Customer Experience.
How to Manage and Cope With This Stress At All Levels
There are a few ways to begin the coping process for stress. Dr. Mohan says we all need to acknowledge where our battery levels were before the pandemic and where they are now. How did you feel before the pandemic hit? Were you at 80 to 100 percent, or was it more like 10 to 20 percent where you were already at risk for burnout from making fast-paced and critical decisions? Next, Dr. Mohan suggests identifying the sources of stress you feel. By naming them, you identify areas that you would like to manage. Dr. Mohan says that you get it out of your head once you get it down on paper (or screen). Then, you can categorize it. Finally, she wants leaders to start with one or two behavior changes or tactics to begin the coping process. By breaking it down into micro-steps like this, leaders can reduce their stress, which then enables them to pass the system along to employees so they can manage their stress, too.
For example, is your tension because you have fires to put out and you can’t slow down? When you feel rushed, Dr. Mohan says it’s hard to tell if you are making the right decisions. If so, try reframing how you think of yourself. If you think of yourself as a first responder, you can borrow from Dr. Mohan’s experience of treating first responders. The prescription for a first responder is to define boundaries between work and home.
There is also a sense of feeling overwhelmed by professional and private life responsibilities. Dr. Mohan, a mother of two, says there is a whole new clutter level because of the pandemic. Distance learning puts parents in the role of an unpaid teacher’s aide. In her case, Dr. Mohan says she has had to pay special attention to her self-care due to these new responsibilities.
Dr. Mohan has prescriptions for her patients who feel rushed at the constant urgency of their days. A symptom for this group, she says, is that they often aren’t getting enough sleep. It’s hard to sleep when things are always urgent. She suggests that “power is in the pause.” She urges her patients in this situation to prioritize protecting their sleep, which is the body’s most healing and therapeutic pause. (However, she also admits that even she has trouble taking her advice!)
The Critical Nature of Sleep for Stress Management
When I feel stressed, it affects how I sleep. Lack of sleep leads to more unsatisfactory performance the next day. For someone who responds to urgency, the pause is paramount, and the best break, per Dr. Mohan, is to invest in sleep by giving yourself a protected, eight-hour sleep opportunity.
Dr. Mohan suggests that we should intentionally shift our mindsets toward the positive in cases like mine, particularly at the end of the day. She recommends we write down one win from the day. It doesn’t matter whether the success was in your personal life or professional life, but writing it down is imperative. Then, your mind starts to focus on that thing and look back on your day with a sense of accomplishment. If we shift intentionally into a positive frame of mind or even one of gratitude, it’s easier to fall asleep at night because your work is “done for the day.”
Excellent and effective leaders recognize the importance of these pauses for their people, too. Leaders should encourage employees to take them and give them space to relax. The benefit is they will be far more productive for you the next day. If you keep piling on massive workloads with unrealistic deadlines, employees end up falling over with stress, and productivity grinds to a halt. Instead, have them write down what they accomplished and then praise them for what they have done well. Dr. Mohan says everyone needs to woo more positivity.
When I used to work at Mars Confectionery, my boss had me write down the things I had done. I was in the field and not in the office with him, so he couldn’t see what I was doing. However, this exercise could serve two purposes, per Dr. Mohan. The report gives your boss an idea of what you are encountering on the “front lines,” and two, it presents an opportunity to celebrate your weekly accomplishments.
Dr. Mohan says another essential practice for managing your sleep is to calm your mind and shift towards the positive at the end of the day and plan what you’re going to do first thing in the morning. One way to do this is to get away from checking the phone first thing in the morning. When you open your phone, the first thing your mind sees is all the email and text messages they missed. As a result, you start your day in a rush.
Dr. Mohan encourages us all to put ourselves first every day instead. Decide what is enjoyable that brings energy to us first thing in the morning. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, either. It can be three deep yoga breaths before you grab the phone or a cup of coffee out on the deck watching the birds. The point is to ensure the first thing you do each day is not to meet other people’s needs but meet your needs instead. She says this strategy allows the mind to rest in a deeper sleep and results in more healing energy for you.
Moreover, she recommends providing that opportunity for our employees. One way to do this is to lead by example. From a tactical perspective, she thinks one of the best ways to do that for your team is to set up a message that goes off at 8 or 9 pm in the time zone where your team operates that reads:
“If you receive this email and you’re reading it between the hours of 10 pm and 6 am, you are not bringing your best self to work tomorrow. You can expect me to respond to this email during business hours.”
Decompressing Is Vital, Too
Dr. Mohan has a different prescription for patients that have no physical or time-based boundaries. As a result, they often work in situations with tons of interruptions. (We are looking at you, working parents with virtual classrooms practically in your laps.) Dr. Mohan says this group is continually toggling between responsibilities, which is particularly difficult for caretakers of other people. She says it is essential to reconstruct the boundaries so this group can decompress. In the past, it might have been the commute home. However, the commute is gone for people who are working from home. In some cases, she jokes, parents have begun to miss traffic jams.
To reconstruct this time, Dr. Mohan encourages a walk outside by themselves to transition from one activity to the next. Per Dr. Mohan, walking has been proven biologically to help our brains think.
Dr. Mohan also recognizes that some people have the opposite problem. Instead of getting interrupted by people constantly, they spend too much time alone. In that case, Dr. Mohan encourages them to call someone on the phone while they walk.
Keeping Your Mind in the Present Can Alleviate Stress Also
Dr. Mohan says that another group exists, one that feels the stress of others. She refers to this group as The Weathervanes. Weathervanes are peoples whose life is going great during the pandemic job- and money-wise but feel stress because they know that other people are struggling to make ends meet. Or maybe they are introverted, so they find all this alone time to be excellent while knowing that some people feel sad and depressed by the isolation.
For this group, Dr. Mohan prescribes investing in activities that help them be in the present. Occupying your mind keeps you focused on the now instead of worrying about the past or future. Activities like journaling, especially when in the stream of consciousness style, or yoga and meditation, help our minds stay in the present. Mindfulness is another way to occupy yourself, she says, by practicing being in the here and now, too.
In my experience, occupying my mind with another task is helpful. For example, I’m learning to play the guitar, and it’s bloody difficult. However, because it’s difficult, playing guitar occupies my mind, and I’m not thinking about all of the problems and issues.
So, What Should You Do With This Information?
Dr. Mohan says that all these prescriptions are sequential steps that add on. So, if you’re overwhelmed, you’re going to protect your sleep. If you are a juggler and you’re constantly interrupted, you’re going to replace that decompression by putting a walk onto your schedule every day. Finally, if stress comes from empathy for others and not being in the here and now, mindfulness can help.
From a leadership perspective, Dr. Mohan has suggestions for how leaders can help their teams manage and cope with stress. Maybe the leader reimagines lunch to be creative about how to invest in the group. For example, Dr. Mohan’s Hello Health practice also does workshops that put everybody on the same page. The Hello Health team teaches these strategies to the team. However, she advises leaders to practice what they preach. If you don’t take care of yourself and don’t employ these strategies, your team won’t either.
Her final tip is to put yourself and your pauses into your work schedule and put that time on first before allowing other people to use your time. Your time, she says, is your most valuable resource, and if you don’t make time for yourself, you won’t get the time.
I agree and add that you should be aware of what they experience at your company. You should take an outside-in approach and walk the experience as if you were a customer or employee. If you don’t feel comfortable, have an outside perspective shed some light on it. Our Experience Health Check service is growing in popularity because we do the leg work for you and bring in a fresh set of eyes to a situation with which you are all-too-familiar. Then we provide recommendations for changes that would improve the experience.
When we discussed this, it struck me that there are many platitudes we can drop about taking care of your employees and how all of these things are interconnected and other stuff like that. However, we must facilitate them with our actions and not only our words.
You can’t provide a great customer experience unless you’ve got great people who are engaged and want to be working if they’re full of stress. If they’re not sleeping properly or have no time for self-care, that’s a recipe for disaster. If you believe that your employees need to be happy, do some self-examination. What are you doing to facilitate your employees taking time for themselves or encouraging these moments of reflection? Frantic, last-minute changes and non-stop scheduling make emergencies seem like just part of the workday. Instead, we should ease some of the stress on people’s schedules.
So, in other words, if you say that this matters to you, step up, make these changes and allow for this kind of accommodation. Your actions speak louder than your words.
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