Five ways to support employees under pressure

Think back to a time when you felt the pressure at work. Maybe it was leading up to a tight deadline, or when you took on extra work because of a lack of resources. It can be healthy to have a bit of stress to spur you on – some people relish it and produce their best work when the heat is on.

But continuous pressure over a long period can lead to employee burnout, and in extreme cases, mental health problems like depression or anxiety. So, when the chips are down, employees need to feel they have the backing of the business and are not beavering away or taking the flak in isolation. They need to be able to discuss problems openly and to feel it’s OK to say if they are not coping.

So what can HR do to support employees when the pressure is on?

1. Build a supportive atmosphere

Often, it’s the small actions that count the most. A team dealing with a crisis, for example, will appreciate someone senior taking an active interest, providing clear guidance and maybe even rolling their sleeves up to help. People who are working up against seemingly impossibly tight deadlines need someone to notice they haven’t had time to eat and to order the pizzas in.

Think about how you can put support mechanisms in place and encourage people across the business to develop a shared sense of responsibility. ‘In the moment’ support has proved to be highly valuable, so companies should help facilitate this by giving staff the opportunity and space to access support from their peers. The mental health charity MIND recommends designated spaces where staff can share their worries when they’re under pressure, whether that’s a meeting room, private corner or a coffee breakout area.

2. Help employees maintain balance

Employees are more likely to thrive in a culture that supports flexible working and takes account of their priorities, situations and the way they feel they work best. Alongside flexible working, there is also the opportunity for organisations to promote activities that might encourage people to maintain a balanced perspective and lifestyle include healthy eating initiatives, exercise classes, book clubs and music clubs, or participation in CSR initiative, such as helping out at local charities or providing mentoring. You could ask for funding to kick-start internal initiatives, reach out to local organisations in need of help and, of course, invite ideas or publicise activities and positive outcomes through your HR portal.

Saying it OK to switch off from work is important too. In our modern, ‘always on’ culture, it can be difficult to leave work at the office door now we can check emails before bed on our smartphones, or take calls when on holiday. HR can do their bit by making it explicit that down time is important and discouraging out of hours communications (emergencies aside); some organisations have gone as far as banning employees from sending emails out of working hours altogether.

3. Communicate a clear purpose

Some companies have a clear purpose that is easily identifiable and understood by the people who work for them. This is not, however, the case in every business. Communicating the purpose and vision clearly to employees helps them make sense of what they are doing and understand how their personal contribution fits into the bigger picture. This is particularly important during tough times, when people need some kind of ‘reference point’ to help them cope with change and ambiguity.

4. Build skills and confidence

Providing opportunities for people to learn and grow is an important part of helping them feel equipped to cope under pressure. While some employees thrive when thrown in at the deep end, the majority don’t. Managers need to help people in their team build confidence by identifying individual training needs and helping people improve their skills through appropriate support and development. This doesn’t have to mean sending people on expensive training courses – coaching, mentoring and job swaps are all effective ways you can help people build their skills, and help create a sense of community and shared responsibility at the same time.

5. Ensure regular conversations

People cope with pressure in different ways and it is not always obvious to managers who may be struggling. Creating a culture of frequent informal check-ins, backed by more regular and structured performance reviews, can help managers pick up on team members who are under stress and not coping well. Just putting time aside to talk to people, and give them a chance to air their concerns and explain properly what is happening can make a huge difference.

Organisations that invest time in understanding the pressure their employees face, and in developing strategies to help them cope, will create a healthier work environment and a more resilient, engaged and ultimately more productive workforce. The key is to learn which kind of initiatives work best in your business and to respond flexibly depending on the situation.

How have you supported your staff when they’re feeling the pressure? We’d be interested to hear what worked well for you.

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