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The Ripple Effects of Managers Who Can’t Manage Stress

The recession gave new meaning to the phrase, “do more with less.” As companies struggled to stay afloat, they shed staff and asked everyone to pitch in to keep things going. Now, years after the official end of that challenge, many organizations are switching to a new phrase: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

On the surface, having fewer employees doing the same level of work reduces headcounts and increases profits. Over time, this approach causes employee burnout, higher mental and physical healthcare costs, and turnover bleeding those profits back out of the business. And it does one more thing that's at the root of many of these systems: it produces stressed-out managers who can't manage their stress, creating ripple effects throughout their organizations.

The workplace is broken. And to fix it, employers' strategies need to emphasize manager stress.

Usually, stress and burnout are discussed as purely individual problems. Basically, if all employees are effectively equal, burnout in one will have the same effect as burnout in another.

In reality, stress among certain employee groups, like managers, can influence more than just the quality of their own work. Managers provide direction, assessment, and motivation for the teams they support. If managers don’t have the skills to handle stress, then everyone working for that manager has lost a critical resource for getting their jobs done.

An employee’s perspective on stress and leadership

The negative impact of leaders with poor stress management skills is clearly visible from the results Life Meets Work’s new study, “Leadership Matters: How Handling Stress Makes you a Better Leader.”

We asked 1,000 employees, who have or are currently seeking a college degree, about their immediate manager’s ability to handle stress, and contributions to the workplace. Among other leadership competencies, managers were rated on their ability to:

  • Manage stress,
  • Tolerate frustration and ambiguity,
  • Adapt to change, and
  • Present as confident, enthusiastic, and optimistic.

The top third of managers were considered “Resilient Leaders” for their ability to work effectively through the cognitive and emotional distractions of stress. Those in the bottom third were classified as “Stressed Leaders.” Stressed Leaders are distracted by their emotions and unable to maintain an inspiring presence for their teams.

Leaders who can't manage stress deplete the bottom line

Successful organizations have managers who can effectively lead teams, inspire employees to be brand ambassadors, and improve employee performance. Stressed Leaders are far less effective at all of these things than Resilient Leaders. For example:

  • Ineffective Teams:
    Only 7% of employees working for Stressed Leaders describe their teams as highly effective compared with 60% of people working under a Resilient Leader.
  • Employer of Choice Status:
    Less than 20% of employees working for Stressed Leaders would recommend their boss (17%) or their employer (19%) compared with more than 70% of people working under a Resilient Leader (79% and 72% respectively).
  • Harmful, Irrelevant Leadership:
    One-in-four people working for Stressed Leaders deem their managers to be harmful (27%) or irrelevant (28%) to their own job performance compared with less than 10% harmful and 3% irrelevant under Resilient Leaders. Results were similar for the leader’s impact on the organization’s performance.

Organizations harboring a large number of Stressed Leaders will likely find their performance impeded and reputations damaged by the effects these leaders have their employees.

Organizations can -- and must -- help stressed-out leaders to refocus.

As a result of our recent research study, Life Meets Work has identified a set of employer practices that can change how leaders manage their stress, and produce a new ripple effect through their organizations. These include:

1. Celebrate self-care and recovery.

Ask leaders about their vacations, children and hobbies. Use newsletters and other tools to feature leaders and teams who unplug on vacation, so everyone can see success and recovery are not mutually exclusive.

Create a safe space for them to define themselves as more than just employees. Encourage them to share those experiences with employees and each other. The more you normalize taking time for recovery, the more likely leaders are to invest in doing so.

2. End the culture of self sacrifice.

Don’t let employees brag about sacrificing their health or wellbeing to get work done.

If a leader says they are regularly up all night and working through vacations, thank them for their service and then ask how that can be avoided in the future. Be clear that if anyone, leaders included, is regularly working well beyond their expected hours, something is wrong.

If the organization stops praising leaders for their sacrifices, those leaders will engage with solving the inefficiencies that necessitate those sacrifices in the first place.

Empower managers to manage their stress with Refocus

Create a new ripple effect that inspires your people and improves your bottom line.