How to Help Teams Cope With Prolonged Stress

June-July 2022
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Just over two years after the COVID-19 pandemic began, we’re seeing many positive signposts on our journey to a new normal: More employees are back to working in the office or in a hybrid environment. Schools are no longer virtual. Virus testing and vaccines are widely available. People are traveling again both for pleasure and for work.

So why are so many of us still feeling exhausted and anxious?

Understanding the impact of severe stress

These feelings are typical reactions to prolonged stress, and psychologists suggest we’re collectively dealing with general adaptation syndrome (GAS) — the physiological consequences of severe stress. This syndrome has three stages: alarm, resistance and exhaustion. When we’re in the beginning phases, our fight-or-flight response gives us energy. 

But that’s not the case in the exhaustion phase. The American Psychological Association says this stage is, “characterized by breakdown of acquired adaptations to a prolonged stressful situation; it is evidenced by sleep disturbances, irritability, severe loss of concentration, restlessness, trembling that disturbs motor coordination, fatigue, jumpiness, low startle threshold, vulnerability to anxiety attacks, depressed mood and crying spells.”

Beyond the physiological and psychological reality of our stress response, they suggest many of us judge ourselves for feeling so exhausted, thinking, “With things getting back to ‘normal’ shouldn’t I be feeling better?” 

Investing in employee well-being

The ongoing reaction to the severe stress we’ve experienced continues to impact employees both personally and professionally. It’s critically important to keep investing in the health and well-being of employees and to be empathetic to each person’s unique experiences and state of mind. Be especially mindful of the mental health impacts of the hybrid work environment. 

Employees going back into a physical office may experience increased stress related to commutes, socializing and change in general. Know that employees of color may experience this change differently, depending on the level of belonging and psychological safety they feel to be their authentic selves at work. Employees continuing to work remotely may experience more intense feelings of isolation or a sense of exclusion, while others are working and collaborating together in-office.

Creating strong daily practices

Introducing daily habits that support well-being is one of the most important ways organizations can help their teams — and it’s also a way to unify employees (no matter where they work) with all-in opportunities. 

Consciously investing in daily practices has helped Beehive team members build our energy reserves during challenging times. These include: priority setting, daily intention, focused power hours, mindfulness, gratitude, reflection, movement, nutrition, sleep and hydration. 

• Set your top three priorities. Before you dive into your email inbox each day, pause to set your top three priorities for the day. (Or, better yet, set your top three priorities the night before.)

Ask yourself this: If nothing else gets done today but three things, what is most critical? Write them down in a highly visible spot. This approach helps you become intentional and proactive with your time instead of reactive. It improves productivity, reduces frustration and gets better results.

• Set an intention. Much like setting top three priorities helps you be intentional about where you spend your time, setting a positive daily intention can help you be intentional about where to direct your energy and how you experience the day.

• Do something you love. Make choices and prioritize doing something each day that you genuinely love or that you know will lift you up, restore your energy, refresh or recharge you. Examples include: laughing more, spending time in nature, getting more sleep, connecting with friends, listening to live music, trying a new hobby, taking a midday break to stretch or move.

• Take part in a “Power Hour.” Everyone wants to get more done and feel more satisfaction each day. But that doesn’t mean you need to work harder or longer. You can accomplish more by working more efficiently, in a way that maximizes your natural rhythms to help advance what matters most. At Beehive, we do that by implementing “Power Hours.” How do they work? 

1. Commit to 60 minutes (or your own ideal time frame) and set an alarm.

2. Turn off all notifications to eliminate digital distractions. 

3. Focus your attention and experience a state of flow that comes from concentration and immersion.

4. At 45-60 minutes (or whatever works best for you), take a renewal break and invest 5-15 minutes in a nondigital activity that renews your energy.

This pattern of focus plus a break matches a person’s natural “ultradian” rhythms by alternating intense bursts of work activity with equally intense periods of rest.

• Practice appreciation. Genuine appreciation deepens our collective sense of purpose, motivates collaboration, inspires great work and supports well-being. By regularly practicing gratitude (taking time to notice and reflect upon the things you’re thankful for) you may: sleep better, strengthen your immune system, increase metabolism and reduce stress.
How can you incorporate appreciation into your organizational culture and day-to-day work?

• Be reflective. Developing a consistent reflection practice helps us strengthen energy, celebrate our successes, better understand our strengths and identify barriers to success. Take time during the day to check in with how you’re doing and feeling and to reflect on your progress. This practice can help reduce anxiety and provide a much-needed new perspective.

• Move your body. Exercise plays a critical role in stress/anxiety management, improved focus and productivity, disease prevention and sleep quality. Set movement goals that fit your lifestyle, life stage, schedule, level of health and more. Remember to be realistic and flexible. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good when it comes to exercise. All movement counts. 

• Nourish your body. Since our brains are working hard 24/7, they require a constant supply of fuel, which comes from the food we eat. What we eat directly affects the structure and function of our brains and our mood. Selecting high-quality, nourishing food fuels our brain for productivity and our bodies for better energy and longevity.

• Drink more water. An adequate water intake has the power to improve mood and reduce tension. Water carries oxygen and fuel to our cells and flushes out bodies of toxins. It cushions our joints and regulates our temperature, not to mention that it’s an easy addition to a daily routine.

 • Get more sleep. Sleep plays a vital role in helping us manage stress and anxiety, fight illness/disease and improve focus and clarity. In fact, sleep is now regarded by many wellness professionals as “the single most effective thing you can do to reset your brain and body for health.”

Share these daily practice ideas with employees and develop some all-in team challenges or initiatives that incentivize participation and reward progress. Support each other by sharing wins and challenges. 

And remember that strong employee well-being is foundational to thriving organizational cultures and business outcomes. 

The pandemic and our work lives may be changing, but employees continue to need support and empathy as they manage change, ongoing stress and exhaustion. 

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