Listening for the Signs of Stress

A 2015 working paper from Harvard and Stanford Business Schools took a look at 10 common job stressors: from lack of health insurance, to long working hours, to job insecurity. Researchers then considered how the mental and physical effects of these forms of stress related to mortality. The paper found that health problems stemming from job stress, like hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and decreased mental health, can lead to fatal conditions that wind up killing about 120,000 people each year-making work-related stressors and the maladies they cause, more deadly than diabetes, Alzheimer’s, or influenza. High levels of stress are costly in monetary terms, too. Researchers found that stress-related health problems could be responsible for between 5 to 8 percent of annual healthcare costs in the U.S. That amounts to about $180 billion each year in healthcare expenses.

Bottom line- stress is costing employers a lot of money and killing their people.

As leaders, what can we do about it? We typically think of how we can look for signs that others are under stress, but what about listening? How can being a leader who truly listens to others make a difference when it comes to stress?

How about listening for the signs of stress?

To listen for the signs of stress we have to listen to the whole message. Most people will say what they think you want to hear but that’s not necessarily what they mean. If you pay attention to the whole message- you hear a lot more.

Skill #1 Listen for what they are not saying as much as what they are saying

Pay attention to body language. Do their words match their body language? If they are saying they can meet the deadline but their face shows hesitation, then the real message might be that they are concerned about how to do what they say then can do.

Skill #2 Listen for the tone

Pay attention to the tone of their words. Do they indicate stress or concern? Do they indicate exhaustion? When we are stressed we tend to go to fight, flight or freeze. Fight tends to sound aggressive and frantic, flight sounds like avoiding questions or commitments and freeze sounds like not having answers or knowing how to find them.

Skill #3 Listen for what they need from you

As you’re listening, pay attention to what they say they need from you or others to manage their stress and workload. If they don’t tell you, ask.

Skill #4 Ask confirming and clarifying questions

Once you learn what your people need from you, find out specifics by asking confirming and clarifying questions.

“You said you need more support from me to pull off this deadline. Help me understand what that looks like. What specifically would you need me to do that I’m not doing or stop doing what I’m doing now?”

An interesting bi-product in the process of actually listening to the signs of stress is that

you actually reduce stress for others with the act of listening alone. When someone gives us the time to talk with them and  allow us to share our story of concern, fear or frustration the care and attention we receive in return is enough to lower our stress, even if it is temporarily.

As you enter this month, thing about what you can do to be a leader who truly listens to others.

By Angela Sebaly

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