How better communication can reduce your team’s stress

It’s one thing when stress intrudes on your own working day. But when you’re responsible for a team, their stress is your stress too. If you’re overseeing a team where tensions are running high, you know you need to do something. Otherwise, both morale and productivity will soon nose-dive. 

So what can you do? Perhaps you’ve already tried limiting meetings, building a wellness plan or increasing time off. And that’s great. 

But there is one more key piece to the puzzle – something we do every hour of every day at work. Making changes here can help reduce your team’s stress levels and, at the same time, increase productivity and impact. 

I’m talking about improving your communications. 

Poor communication wastes time, money and energy. It leaves people feeling overwhelmed and frustrated and less able to get their job done efficiently. All of this increases stress levels and leads to higher levels of burnout and staff turnover.

Let’s take a closer look at the problem – and the solutions.


What is stress?

Stress is the body and brain’s normal and natural reaction to something that feels overwhelming or threatening. This traces back to our Stone Age ancestors, who had to be on high alert and ready to fight a tiger or run away and hide in a cave: the famous fight-or-flight response. And although we don’t have many tigers roaming around the workplace, our brains haven’t moved on as quickly as our environments. They are still wired to look for dangers and protect us.

This can have a huge effect on us, physically, emotionally and cognitively. We start breathing faster and our heart starts pumping more quickly to move blood and oxygen around our bodies. Our brains release adrenaline and cortisol so we have everything we need to attack or escape. We hyperfocus to deal with the threat, and it can be difficult to relax or deal with distractions without feeling highly emotional or irritable.

Stress is not all bad. It can be a helpful short-term response, and a small amount makes us more focused, productive and able to act quickly. However, once the emergency has passed, we need a chance to rest and reset and for the adrenaline and cortisol raging round our bodies to go back down to normal levels. If we don’t get this and the stress is prolonged, it can lead to burnout and physical and mental health conditions.


How stress affects communication in the workplace

When our brains are in continual fight-or-flight mode, it’s exhausting. All our energy is taken up scanning the horizon for dangers, making it very difficult to focus our attention or make decisions.

People can’t think clearly and definitely can’t be creative or innovative when they are busy trying to stay alive. It doesn’t matter that the workplace stress is not actually life threatening: this is still how the brain perceives it.

People who are stressed are also more likely to be irritable or emotional, putting a strain on communications with their colleagues. They’re more likely to be reactive and less likely to be able to take the time and effort they need to really think about their messaging and communicate in a clear or calm way. And this all makes for an unhappy and inefficient workplace.


… and how poor communication increases stress

How many emails do you receive each day? Every notification, and every time we open our inbox and see the never-ending stream of messages, activates the threat system. No, that email is not going to chase you into a cave like a tiger, but our basic brain doesn’t know that! 

The production of unneeded documents is also an unfortunate feature of many organisations. Unsurprisingly, this can also increase stress levels – not only for the people tasked with writing them, who probably already feel time poor and under pressure, but also for the people reading them.

The problem is not just the amount of messages and documents we have to deal with. It’s also the way they are written.

Long or poorly written communications raise people’s stress levels still further. Our brains thrive on certainty. They want to know the answers to stay safe. If a document is difficult to follow or leaves people unsure what is required of them, this will push them into fight-or-flight mode as they worry about not knowing how to resolve it.

Let’s face it, no one has ever thought, ‘I’m so glad they wrote more, made it more complicated and made me invest more of my time to understand it.’


How to reduce email stress

The way we communicate matters. One of the most common methods we use to communicate at work is email. That makes it, by extension, one of the biggest contributors to our work stress. The good news is, there are some simple, concrete steps we can take to combat the stress – and improve our emails in the process.

  1. The first step is to think about the person at the other end – what do they actually want or need from your email? The more you write with the reader in mind, the clearer and easier your emails will be for them. Plan what you are going to say, cut out anything they don’t need to know, and make sure you’re connecting the dots so they don’t have to search for the answers. 
  2. Think about who you are sending the email to. Do you really need to copy in another colleague? Remember how each email raises their alert levels. Timing matters here too: respect people’s schedules and avoid sending them new notifications outside office hours. 
  3. Pay attention to your written tone. With social cues like body language and tone of voice stripped away, it’s easy for a message to come across as curt, sarcastic or angry even if you don’t mean it to. This automatically puts people on high alert, distracts them from the content and breaks down the lines of communication.

Fighting tigers in the workplace: how managers and leaders can address stress in their teams, via @EmphasisWriting Click To Tweet

Five steps to better communication and a happier team

Improving communications and reducing stress in your team go hand in hand. Working on one will pay off in the other. These steps will lay the foundation for improving both:


1. Be honest and open

You need to lead by example to improve your team’s communication. Talk to them about what’s working and what’s not. Ask their opinions and really listen to what they are finding stressful or overwhelming about your communications processes. 

Be open and honest about your expectations as well as about the times when you don’t get it right and the steps you are taking to improve this.


2. Take a whole-person approach

We’d love to think that everyone reads everything we write. They don’t. We’d love to think everyone is hanging on our every word. They are not. We are all busy and have our own priorities, skills and stressors. 

Trying to take a blanket approach to communications just doesn’t work. So the more you can understand the external influences and the reality of how people interact, the easier it is to reach them in an effective and engaging way.


3. Choose the right channels

Is Slack the best place to share this message? Would email be better? Do you need yet another Zoom call? One of the best ways to reduce stress in workplace communications is to choose the right channel. 

It’s easy to get stuck in established habits or fall into the trap of defaulting to the channel you prefer. But you need to consider if any channel is the right one for a) this recipient and b) the particular message you need to convey.


4. Take your time and do your research

We’re all busy. We all want to tick a task off our to-do list and move on. However, it is worth taking the ‘extra’ time to plan your communications. This means really thinking about the reader and making sure your writing is clear and easy to follow.

Rushing or sending off a stream of consciousness is a false economy, as the likelihood is you will spend longer picking up the pieces at the other end.


5. Create the right culture

Significant changes to communication only come about alongside significant changes in culture. Nobody subscribes to ‘Do what I say, not what I do.’ So if team members see managers sending long emails at 8pm, adopting a curt tone or not setting clear expectations, it’s likely that they will mirror that behaviour. 

What do you want your culture to look like? Start with that question and then take a look at whether your communication is helping or hindering you.


An accessible answer to stress

We cannot avoid stress and nor should we want to. It is normal, natural and helpful in many circumstances. However, if stress levels rise too high or remain too constant, it is going to have a negative effect on you, your team and your business.

Better communication is an accessible and affordable way to address this, and some small changes can make a big difference to the wellbeing of your workplace.


Image credit: LightFieldStudios / iStock


If you’d like to train your team in any specific areas of business writing, take a look at our in-house training or get in touch to chat with one of the team about what you’d like to achieve.


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