When my coworkers started emailing this New York Times article, I checked in with myself and my team. We were burned out. I knew it before I asked them. I saw the dark circles under their eyes, and even through Zoom, I felt how strained we all were. While nobody’s performance waivered—in fact, they continue to exceed my expectations—I grew increasingly concerned about the immediate and long-term impacts of COVID on our stress levels and mental health. So, I started researching the ways in which I could help my team stay happy, healthy and productive under even the most stressful conditions.
I teach as an adjunct in the Fox Department of Human Resources Management, and I emailed Chair John McClendon to ask if any Fox faculty focused their research on stress. He introduced me to Assistant Professor Yifan Song, whose research includes work-related stress and shared stress in teams. I caught up with Professor Song over Zoom to ask her some questions that I hoped to utilize both as a manager and as an adjunct professor. Here’s what she had to say.
Q: Where does stress come from?
A: My research focuses on identifying how people react to stressors at work, as well as exploring ways to help them. I have conducted studies at both the individual level and team level because team members can share stress. My research shows that when people experience increased job demands or unpleasant social interactions at work, they often have negative reactions and emotions. They can also feel depleted and have low self-control because they cannot self-regulate. This makes it hard to focus on their work, and it could harm their performance as well as their personal relationships with family or friends.
Q. Is there anything in your research that we can apply to the pandemic?
A. Based on my past research and existing findings, people who have enough good quality sleep during the night will handle stress better. They are equipped with a higher level of self-regulatory resources that will make them more resilient to the impact of job demands. I know this seems to be common sense, but I wanted to highlight the scientific support for getting enough quality sleep.
Regarding teams, they often fight specific work stressors together. I recommend a regular team debrief to talk about what each team member did well and what they could improve in the future. Even meeting for five minutes as a team to talk about what’s going on helps reduce burnout because everyone will have the opportunity to know what’s going on in the team. This also presents the opportunity for positive reinforcement among team members.
Q. What other steps can people take to combat stress?
A. People can recover through detachment. For example, they can say, “I will not think about anything work-related for 30 minutes,” to help them disengage and come down from the stressful situation. When they go back to work, they will feel less stressed.
Another way to combat stress is to increase your self-control. If you are feeling overwhelmed by a specific task, start to do something similar or easier so that you feel better about yourself. Then, after reestablishing your self-control, return to the difficult task. The idea here is to learn from the new task and reestablish your mastery experience so you feel like you can master something. This is like the self-control process. You will be better at your work, because you feel more confident about yourself, and that also gives you a way to recover from the stressful event.
Q: If we can’t reduce external stress factors and exposure, what can we do?
A: When I look at the pandemic and burnout, some of the stress has to do with increased job demands and learning how to use Zoom. This intensifies when you add on managing interpersonal relationships online after we’ve all experienced more tension and many obstacles. Plus, many people have experienced mortality anxiety due to the number of deaths that have occurred during the pandemic. All of this, combined with the social justice issues, have made the normal stressors even more challenging. To combat this, we will need to put more resources and attention to those stressors that are unique to the pandemic.
Managers should be more careful about the language that they are using when they are communicating to employees. And they should show a commitment to employees’ safety and wellness. For example, anti-Asian language will harm not only Asian employees, but it will also trigger the sense of injustice in employees of other races and make them even more worried and make them feel more unsafe. Try to be open and explicit about your organization’s safety practices so that employees will feel a sense of relief. Managers should also be support systems, which is very important in protecting employees. If you recognize that one of your employees is having a bad day, show your support and be understanding.
Students also need resources to support them. Instructors should remind them of the resources the university offers to them in class to help increase awareness. Research shows that proactive people engage in proactive behaviors to resolve issues. Try to encourage students to be more proactive. This may make them less likely to suffer from stress or burnout, as it could help them engage in a more proactive recovery strategy.
Tiffany Sumner is the director of communications and an adjunct faculty member at Temple University’s Fox School of Business.