Spotting the Signs of Stressed Staff


How to recognise when things aren’t going well

As a leader it’s vitally important to be aware of how your staff are doing and to know the signs to look for that could indicate mental distress.

The NZ Mental Health Foundation announced in 2021 that depression is on the rise with 1 in 4 New Zealanders now experiencing a mental health challenge. Risk of burnout has tripled over a 19 months period according to researchers at AUT, increasing from 1 in 9 kiwis to now being 1 in 3. 

It’s clear that you’re highly likely to have staff within your team who are struggling at times. Putting your head in the sand and ignoring this, only exacerbates the challenge.

Withdrawal, sadness, anger and outbursts are commonly known signs to watch for. The following are some of the other signs that may not always immediately come to mind.

9 Signs To Look For

1. Temperament 

Get to know your staff well so you can notice any change in mood or behaviour. If someone is naturally quiet or reserved that’s not necessarily a warning sign. It’s more if you notice a change for example those that are normally outgoing becoming withdrawn or the opposite.

2. Appearance 

A lack of grooming, or no longer taking care about how they appear can be a sign as well. I can recall this personally, many years ago when I was in a workaholic phase and not in a good head space. I would dress all in black, tie my hair in the same bun every day so I didn’t have to style it and never wore makeup. It was really a symptom of feeling overwhelmed and lacking time or effort to even do the basics. Wearing black certainly isn’t a ‘sign’ but seeing changes in people’s standards of personal grooming can be.

3. Lack of Interests 

Take note if your staff are no longer taking part in or being interested in hobbies that you know they normally are. If you ask how their painting is going, what’s growing in the garden or where they’re been mountain biking lately and they respond in a flat uninterested way or say that they’ve stopped or haven’t made time for it lately it, that’s a sign to watch for.

4. Change in Decision Making Ability 

There are two ends of a spectrum with this one. Watch for people being overly rash and making lots of hasty decisions. Also watch for people being excessively indecisive and procrastinating or having an inability to make a decision at all.

5. Pace 

Sometimes people will speed up their pace in an attempt to trying to fit everything in and block out time for too much thoughts or reflection. They can appearing hyper in their actions and their speech.

6. Control 

Again this can be different ends of a spectrum. People lacking the ability to control their emotions for example becoming upset at a time and place that’s difficult to understand the reason. At the other end, people may seem overly controlled, being stoic and not displaying any emotion as they’re trying to hold everything in.

7. Memory 

Becoming forgetful and missing small day to day things can be a sign. Ongoing stress interferes with the brains ability to think clearly. It impacts on normal decision making, reasoning and memory. Watch for confusion and regularly forgetting things.

8. More frequently unwell 

Ongoing mental distress can supress the body’s immune system function. Take note if you hear staff complaining of ongoing minor illnesses or increasing sick leave.

9. Personality 

Take note if normally sociable people withdraw and avoid colleagues. Sometimes people can become more easily irritable, angry or cynical. Listen for the language that’s used.

It’s so important to know your staff well, so you can notice any changes in behaviour. this can be more challenging with more and more staff working from home. Equally important to knowing your team, is being authentic and real about your own struggles. 

When leaders have the courage to be vulnerable and able to say things like “I feel really under the pump at the moment” or “I’m quite disheartened right now” or “I’m not sure what the best option is – what do you think?” this sets the example to staff that it’s actually ok to be real at work. This is human-focused leadership in action. 

Are you a Tower or Bamboo?

Are you strong enough to be what I call a ‘bamboo leader’ – organic, real and flexible rather than a ‘tower leader’ – stoic, artificial and holding everything behind an artificial facade. If you always wear the ‘I’m fine’ mask it’s hard for your staff to relate. Studies show that leadership stoicism can increase mental health problems within teams. Instead we need to be transparent and ‘real’ as leaders. 

Some people may fear that being vulnerable will lead to disrespect, but in fact the opposite is true. The more you can share openly, the more staff with respect you for it and the more they’ll be able to share with you in return.

Rather than causing the ‘floodgates to open’ setting an authentic example helps create a high psychological safety (high-trust)environment where people know they have permission to speak their mind – respectfully – or to share their feelings, regularly in small ways so that things don’t build up behind a barrage, ready to crack at some point.

When you open up, others will follow your lead and that’s a very good thing. It may not always be comfortable or easy, but it’s definitely positive. Being listened to and feeling heard and validated often goes a long way to improving how people feel. Plus they may be able to let you know that for example they feel anxiety in certain situations and what their common triggers are. You can then take care to give them the meeting agenda early so they can digest it, or not single them out for praise in public, as you now know what works best for them. 

Knowledge is a power and it will help you ensure the workplace environment is structured to help your team members be at their best. That benefits everyone.

If you’d like to find out more about setting up a network of Wellbeing Champions in your workplace or training your leadership team with the skills to know how to respond to staff distress, find out more about Wellbeing Champions here.

If you or someone you know needs further help, reach out. Don’t try to solve everything on your own. Reach out to the services below

New Zealand Contact Details for Further Assistance

Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor.

Lifeline – 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP).

Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO).

Samaritans – 0800 726 666 

 International helplines can be found here.

I’m interested to hear your thoughts. Leave me a comment below…

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