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How to manage stress and fear at work


Tight deadlines, massive workloads, micromanagement and uncertainty – all realities that make your employees want to cringe. Why? Because they all lead to stress. And if excessive enough, they could even cause your employees to become fearful about their jobs and their future with your company.

Those emotions can be a slow poison to any business, not only affecting employee health but also their levels of production.

That’s why, as leaders, it’s imperative that you learn how to manage stress and fear at work.

But, in order to do so, you’ll need to understand workplace stressors and recognize fear within your people – from the hardest-working employees to your most reserved.

Understanding stress and fear 

At work, stress can affect any person at any level. Though some perform well under pressure, others could develop more serious issues like anxiety, depression, fatigue and burnout.

When employees are extremely stressed at work, that can lead to fear. Though fear may be a short-term emotion, it can also be paralyzing.  

For instance, as a hard deadline creeps up, someone under duress may begin to panic. They scramble to finish and are succumbed to fear, asking themselves, “What if this isn’t good enough? Will I be reprimanded? Should I just quit now?” or worse, “Will I be fired?”

In a state of fear, people compromise their ability to process thoughts and situations rationally. For some, their natural reaction is either fight or flight. Fight could be confronting their boss and demanding something. Or flight, keeping their head down and avoiding their boss all together.

These workplace adversaries can leave your employees resentful, intimidated or insecure. If left unchecked, that could cause them to become disengaged or even quit.

What contributes to workplace stress and fear?

People become fearful when they don’t feel safe. And when it comes to the workplace, that could be as literal as physical safety or lack of job security. Coupled with worldly worries, like a pandemic or an economic downturn, stress and fear at work can be at an all-time high.  

Here are some other factors that may impact employee emotions:

  • Lack of input into business decisions
  • Lack of support from managers or colleagues
  • Lack of clarity or uncertainty
  • No recognitions or rewards for contributions
  • Lack of continuity
  • Personnel conflicts
  • Working late or working overtime
  • Discrimination

Recognizing stressed and fearful employees

Often, the hardest-working people prioritize their work over their health. Just because someone isn’t crying out for help, that doesn’t necessarily mean they couldn’t use some. 

Here are signs someone is struggling to handle their stress and fear at work:

  • Fatigue
  • Frequent health issues
  • Sweating
  • Irritability
  • Negative attitude
  • Frustration
  • Indecisiveness or loss of confidence
  • Forgetfulness
  • Constant worry

What tactics help employees overcome fear and stress?

Handling stress and fear in a healthy way is no easy task. Let alone helping others around you. Fortunately, if you can first recognize it in your people, you’ll be able to help to reduce it before it impacts your entire team.

Here are four ways you can help employees engage and overcome stress and fear:

1. Demonstrate emotional intelligence and empathy

Let your employees know you understand how they feel. Remind them that you’re there for them and work to motivate them.

The mind is a powerful thing, if they work to eliminate negative self-talk it can decrease their stress. It’s easy to see the glass is half empty rather than half full. Encourage them to think positive.

2. Be honest and vulnerable

Let them know how you feel, too. Be transparent. Tell them if you’re also scared or worried. Share some of your own stressors. This builds trust with employees faster than anything.

3. Know when to pivot

It’s never too late to adjust your leadership style to better support your employees. Try new things with your team and see what works.

For example, consider if meetings are more effective in the early morning or late in the afternoon. Ask employees how they feel and adjust according to their needs and wants.

4. Communicate and offer support

As a leader, it’s important to be the support system your people need. Communicate with them often. Hear them out. Share your own tips for reducing stress and fear.

Here are some ideas to suggest:

  • Encourage more breaks – Don’t work non-stop for 8 hours
  • Establish a “groove” – Learn what hours you work best, so you can be more effective and more productive
  • Don’t play the “what if” game – Don’t worry about things that haven’t happened or things you have no control over
  • Count to 10 first – This allows your brain time to fully process the situation
  • Be aware of your hot buttons – Know your triggers, so you can control your responses

What about employees who aren’t vocal?

Everyone has their own behaviors and react to stress and fear differently. That’s why, as a leader you should make every effort to build communication with your team, even those that are seclusive.

Try asking them directly if they’re feeling OK and let them know they can be honest with you. If that person is still uncomfortable to share their concerns with you, here are a few other things to try:

  • Show that you care – Let them know that you care about them as a person
  • Acknowledge or recognize their work – Let them know you’re aware they’ve taken on lots of work and show your appreciation
  • Reduce their workload – Move people or tasks around to lighten their load
  • Ask them indirectly – Check with a close colleague or friend if everything is OK

Ridding fear and stress from your work environment

As you work to disarm stress and fear in your workplace, it’s important to distinguish where it already exists. Employees under extreme pressure may not wave a white flag. They may not under perform. And they may not react until they’re at they’re brink.

Before they’re completely trapped in a morass of fear, demonstrate empathy, offer support, make changes and be transparent.

Though stress can never be entirely eliminated from any workplace (as much as you would like it to be), you can aim to create a workplace where fear is extinct.

To learn more about dealing with different kinds of employees and handling conflicts that may arise, download our free e-book: A practical guide to managing difficult employees.