Let’s talk about stress baby

#letstalkaboutstress was what we wrote on the walls of BlendleHQ, to get the conversation going.

No, we did not ‘fix’ the problem of people experiencing too much stress from time to time. Honestly, I came to the conclusion that there is no real fix. Not a tool, not a management style, not a course, no hashtag, not even a good HR lead can fix this ;).

It’s a constant, ever-changing issue, which will present itself in a different way every time you encounter it.

But there is hope! With awareness, knowledge and some practical to-dos, you are able to spot problems when they pop up and take measures to prevent them. But be aware: it takes hard work and will need constant attention.

When I started reading about this topic, we’d just had our first few cases of people calling in sick because ‘it was too much’. The first thing I noticed was that I knew sh*t about this and I was very naive and even short-sighted on this topic.

For people who have never experienced too much stress or even a burnout, it’s hard to grasp what it is and what it does to you. The most lethal (and even dumb) thing to do is to discard it as an issue of just that person or as a stand-alone incident. It will cost you money, and — more importantly — it will cost you people. So please, take this seriously.

Phew, that was a heavy-hearted intro right? Don’t let it get you down, because here are a few things that worked for us.

Step 1: Accept it

The first step is a bit fluffy. You might be in denial. At least, I was. The fact that your company is a stressful environment can be hard to accept. It’s not as bad as discrimination or sexual intimidation, but still: it feels bad. And definitely not cool. Especially for a startup it’s pretty uncool to say: hey, we’re a stressful environment, come work for us. Would you put that in your job ad? Next to unlimited holidays and flexible working hours?

For us it was pretty hard to accept. ‘What? Blendle a stressful environment, where it can be hard to keep a healthy work-life balance? But we have all these great people, no bitching managers, a great product, and we’re chill about holidays and working hours.’ Yes, but there are other factors that play into this (keep reading).

Point made, right? Accept the fact that there are factors in your company that make people feel stressed.

Step 2: Know the basics

You accepted it, great! Now let’s lay a proper foundation and educate yourself. If you want to take this seriously, you have to get some background intel before you start doing anything.

I read a lot on this topic and there is a lot on the interwebs that I wouldn’t recommend reading at all. As a quick fix, I recommend you read at least these 3 pieces:

Here are my 5 key takeaways from these articles (I really recommend reading the articles though ;)).

  • It’s never one thing, it’s usually the result of many little things. A so-called ‘death by a thousand cuts’. Don’t try to look for ‘the problem’ or ‘a fix’ and don’t jump to conclusions too fast.
  • Most of the time it’s sudden. You don’t see it coming and it’s very hard to spot upfront.
  • There are some common factors that play into being too stressed, which you can spot and actively work on (as a person and as a company). Check step 4 and read the articles for the factors.
  • Recovering takes time and will have ups and downs. Going on a long holiday isn’t going to cut it. With recovering there are also a few common things that work for most people, so that is something you can already share with your people.
  • Last but not least: It’s hard for the person going through this. Don’t take it lightly. It’s very personal and it’s tough to admit that it is too much for you. People can be afraid what might happen to their job or contract. It’s not something you bring up at the Friday drinks.

Step 3: Talk and survey

Okay, so you accepted the fact that your company potentially is a stressful environment and you’ve gained some basic knowledge about the topic. You’re all set for the next step: ask your people. I would recommend doing it in two ways: first actually talk to your people and secondly send a survey. Oh, and don’t forget to listen.

First: talk to a random set of people and ask them specifically about how stressed they feel and what factors add to their stress level. Try to look for ‘themes’, so you can use it in your survey.

Second: do a company-wide survey (anonymously). You want to know ‘what’ and ‘how big is it’. You can use the input from your talks for drawing up the questions: Is everybody talking about the insane deadlines? Everybody working late all the time? Bizarre night shifts? Bullying? Bad pay? Corporate and hierarchic work methods? Bad management?

After that we based some questions on common knowledge. So add questions about factors that have proven to tie in to the feeling of too much stress (impact, freedom, challenge, growth, perspective, feedback and praise, clear expectations). Here’s a link to the Happiness Survey I did at Blendle. It’s a bit broader, but a good place to start. Feel free to use it.

Step 4: Inform: create awareness and get the conversation going.

The talks and the survey gave us great insight. We got to know our strengths (working with good, smart, fun people, in a great environment, making impact, belief in the product) and our weaknesses (vague expectations/perspective, changing direction/roadmap, hard to maintain work-life balance, stressful deadlines with the runway in mind).

You also get a sense of how big the problem is (is it 2 or 20 people who feel like this?), which steers you into a direction. At Blendle, we found that we should start with creating Blendle-wide awareness. No drastic decisions were necessary, but that might not be the same for you. If 80% of your people are saying that the management sucks, you have a serious problem and ‘educating’ and ‘creating awareness’ isn’t gonna cut it. So depending on the outcome, you have to decide what is needed. Let me continue explaining what we did.

I made a Notion (wiki-like) page about stress. It explains the basics: What is stress and where is too much stress? It also gives some context about Blendle being a startup and therefore having the risk of being a stressful environment.

When we were done covering the basics, I made a page about ‘What can I do?’ and a page about ‘What can Blendle do?’. Both contain really concrete steps, actions and questions on this topic.

‘What can I do section’. This is not the complete page, but just to give you an idea. This section starts with a self test https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTCS_08.htm

Then we askedd how they scored, and added a really concrete to-do list for each outcome (I’m good, I’m okay-ish, I’m not good):

Screenshot Notion page ‘What can I do’ first section

We finished the page with a drop down menu with quick wins, additional good reads and concrete tips and tricks. Here is how the drop down menu looks:

Screenshot Notion page “What can I do’ last section

The ‘What can I do’ part is just one part of the story of course. I made a pretty concrete ‘What can Blendle do’ page too, which is as important.

Screenshot Notion page ‘What can Blendle do’

Step 5: Work with it

Wow, here you are, you made it. It took me a few months to get here, so props.

You acknowledged the fact that your company can be a stressful environment. You got to know the basics about stress and burnouts by reading something about it. You talked to your people and got an overview of the size and factors of the potential problem by sending a survey. You analysed the problem with the survey as input and started to inform your people. Now the fun part starts. While having the conversation together, you can decide together what steps to take next to improve the work environment.

The goal isn’t to be a stress-free environment. Stress can be a really good thing. And more importantly: it’s part of life. The goal is to lay the foundation to build a company which is aware of its stress level and has ways to deal with it. Get the conversation going, let’s talk about stress.

That’s it, but there is so much more I discovered and would like to share. I hope these tips/ideas got you thinking. I also hope you don’t hesitate to contact me if you want to know more or want to tell me more about this. Feel free to send me an email at roland@blendle.com.

Big thanks to Anna and Jochem for rooting out most of the spelling mistakes and making this readable.

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