Stress in teams: What employees and bosses can do about it

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Team love in times of Corona is not that easy. People don’t see each other enough, the small gestures, the smile, the short laugh and the happy moments of collective irritation are missing. That can affect cohesion.

The psychologist Dr. Ulrike Bossmann has been advising teams and companies for more than ten years. Promoting resilience is one of the focal points of her work. Due to the corona pandemic and the new challenges facing teams, the work in your consulting firm “die potentialisten” has also changed. Teams are challenged differently, have to learn a lot from scratch – or create structures that they have never needed before. “A team needs guard rails that help with orientation,” she says. A team that manages to work out a common basis that everyone can trust can handle stressful phases well. Dr. Ulrike Bossmann, departments that have worked for years suddenly have to change: home office or compulsory attendance, child care, mask compulsory and locked kitchenettes. That creates stress, doesn’t it?

Ulrike Bossmann: The changed work brings uncertainties – and yes, that causes stress in many teams. Many people already have to completely reorient themselves at the individual level. Some may be happy that they don’t have to commute to work. But the majority need new structures, maybe have to manage homeschooling, have to contend with poor internet access, the printer doesn’t work and the software for work doesn’t always run smoothly. And because they are only allowed to do certain things in the office for data protection reasons, they are under stress on the days on site.

How does this affect the teams?

Boss man: New challenges arise in the team: Who is available when? Evenings are shifting, the day is even more fragmented than before. Many people work in shifts, sometimes in the office and sometimes at home. It also does something to teams when people are individually under great tension.

The spatial separation then probably causes further stress.

Boss man: Naturally. If there are minor problems, nobody can go down the hall and ask briefly. Nobody smiles at you. Nobody goes into the coffee kitchen with you to take a breath. And nobody says: good morning, great how your hairstyle looks today.

At the same time, I often experience that questions about justice arise: Is someone preferred? Concerns about injustice increase when many choices are made. Who can work from home, who how much? And who has what rights?

Are home office and asynchronous work not necessarily recommended from a psychological perspective?

I wouldn’t say that. The situation of the scientific studies does not say that either. But other agreements are needed, new rules. A team needs guard rails that help with orientation. This also gives you the security to assess yourself.

And if someone wants to get started tomorrow to create a new framework of agreements – how can he or she start?

Boss man: Many people may be afraid of even saying that they want new rules of the game. They worry about appearing weak when they say, for example, that emails after 7 p.m. create stress or that four parallel communication channels are a bit too much. But if one person brings it up, everyone else is probably happy! It was no different at school: You were also happy when someone else asked the question that bothered everyone.

In a meeting, you can also simply collect: Who needs what? Everyone takes some time and writes it down. There are also digital boards where you can’t even see the handwriting and all thoughts remain anonymous.

What do people need to reduce stress?

People need predictability. A very good concept is Leslie Perlow’s “Predictable Time Off”: We organize our time together – and are no longer available at certain times. Some people also want other predictability: Which communication channel do we use? When do we reply to messages? What is the best way to contact my manager if I have any questions? Some of them may want to work quietly from time to time – they are there, but do not respond to chat messages. Or someone has to call it a day on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. A good method for teams is to address and discuss these predictability needs.

Accessibility in the home office is also a recurring stress factor.

Naturally! When I sit at my desk in the office, everyone sees that I’m working. If, on the other hand, I sit at home and don’t answer a chat message, it may seem like I’m not working. That creates an insane individual pressure – on all sides: “Am I looking lazy” or: “Are the others doing anything at all?”

So members of a team suddenly become lone fighters again?

Boss man: This is why this question is so important for cooperation: What do we need in order not to lose ourselves as a team? Rules of the game can help. When do the meetings take place? And how? Is it a long one or are there several short ones? Do we meet in addition to a yoga session? Can we also go for a walk on the side? Togetherness is essential for a team and against stress.

What characterizes teams that get along well in challenging times?

Boss man: It helps the team if you get along well beforehand. It is a myth that there have to be deep friendships at work. But a good team has a foundation of trust that members can build on. They understand each other, they trust each other. They like each other. This makes it easier to find substitute arrangements or to coordinate quickly if necessary. You support each other and understand different life situations.

So communication is crucial here?

Boss man: At the moment, the teams are doing particularly well if they find a form with which they can stay in regular contact. This is how they maintain their connectedness. That also protects against stress.

What do these teams do differently?

Boss man: Maybe the members will spend a digital lunch break together. A customer told me that instead of a Christmas party, they did a quiz together – we laughed a lot. Another team had a moving break beforehand with a yoga session for those who wanted to do that. They keep doing it, but digitally. That helps. And humor helps! A team that can laugh together can get through some absurdity and stress better.

In every team there are people who find it harder to deal with stress. And these people are known – you already know in advance for whom a hard time will become a burden. How can a team deal with it?

Boss man: That can be frustrating. And it may feel unfair: I can do so much more than the other person – still we get the same money. But in every team there has to be a red flag. Not all are high performers. But those who are less resilient and reach their limits more quickly may bring more creativity to another area.

With this appreciation, other team members can learn not to be burdened by the fact that someone else is doing less. At the same time, it can be important to address and question this from time to time. Why is someone stressed more often? Perhaps it turns out that it is precisely this person who gets the most unpleasant tasks. If we ask the why question, then we can help. There is also the method of the five whys for this: one asks several times why something is the way it is. This is how you get to the real cause and in the best case can fix it.

Can colleagues, even without expert knowledge, determine early on that someone is getting into a phase of stress?

Boss man: Everyone can see if something has changed. Does a colleague suddenly get sick a lot? Or is someone irritable who is otherwise more balanced? Is someone quieter than before? Is the memory falling or the reliability?

But that is difficult when people are not spatially together.

Boss man: That’s true. It’s difficult, especially for new team members. What their normal behavior is is not even known. The body language is missing. That’s why more real communication is needed. We often need the question: “How are you actually?”

What can a manager do?

Boss man: It starts with how a manager starts the day. Does she create confidence with her appearance? Or is she outraged at first about the things that don’t work? Managers control a great deal via their behavior – sometimes without reflection. They have to be aware of their role model effect. Also in dealing with situations that did not go ideally.

For example?

Boss man: You should realize that everyone has the potential to prefer people who are similar to them. If I am an extrovert, I will prefer other extroverts. That’s because it makes it easier to deal with people who are similar. This may cause other people to be overlooked.

Since many people now work in the home office, work is to a certain extent unbounded.

Boss man: Here, too, managers have to be role models. Employees look at them and orientate themselves on them. If you write an email late in the evening, the team assumes that it is expected that way.

Should executives be rocks in the surf?

Boss man: There is no ideal way. I believe in authenticity. Of course, managers should provide security and orientation, and be resilient themselves. But it is important to recognize burdens as a manager as well, to just say that there is a lot of work to be done and that it doesn’t leave you without a trace. And then they can name possible solutions and say what they are planning to do so that the current peak of work does not become a permanent burden.

So managers have to create confidence.

Boss man: Confidence is an important feeling. Apart from the Tschakka motivation tirades of the 1990s, which actually only announced the next phase of stress. Executives create honest confidence when they say that they are safe and why they are sure that things will get better.


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