5 Ways You’re Stressing Out Your Employees (Unintentionally)

Mark ReaganLeadership, Stress Management1 Comment

Stressing Out Your Employees

I’m working in my section of the warehouse. It’s my part-time job while I’m in college, and the vice-president/warehouse manager of the small company walks up to me.

“I want to see you in my office.”

My heart starts pounding, and my hands get sweaty.

What did I do? Am I about to be fired?

Following him to his office, he closes the door behind me and sits at his desk.

“You’ve been doing an awesome job. We’re giving you a raise.”

Great news! It would’ve been even better if he didn’t stress me out before hand. He didn’t mean to. Most managers and bosses don’t mean to cause extra stress, but they often do.

There’s a use for stress in our lives, and it can even help us perform better. But what employees don’t need is unnecessary stress added on top of their already stressful job.

Whether you’re in management or any kind of leadership position, here are 5 ways you’re unintentionally stressing out your employees.

1. The Mysterious Meeting

This is a personal pet peeve of mine.

Any time you increase someone’s level of uncertainty, you’re going to increase their level of stress with it. Likewise, increasing someone’s certainty can help lower their stress levels.

Like my warehouse manager at my college job, “The Mysterious Meeting” is a great way to pointlessly stress out your employees.

Sometimes it’s in person, but it’s just as often through email. Take a moment and imagine getting an email from your boss and all it says is:

Meet me in my office.

I know we often want to be brief and to the point, but this is ridiculous, and in my last job I got far more of these emails than I would’ve liked.

Could it be good? Sure.

Could it be bad? Of course.

Our brains are made to focus on the bad. Even if it is bad, it’s often better to let the person know than keep them in the dark.

It takes a few more keystrokes, but saying, Meet me in me in my office. It’s about the project from the other day. Great job.


Let’s schedule a time to talk about the recent project. It didn’t go well, and we want to talk about what happened and what can be improved.

It only takes a little extra time, and can save your employees a lot of worry.

2. The Mysterious Policy Change

My last job enjoyed mysteries. I worked at a museum, so that’s only natural. I just wished they kept it to uncovering mysteries rather than creating them.

“Several policies are going to be changing, but we can’t tell you what yet.”


You’re not doing anyone a favor by being so vague they have no idea what’s going to happen.

Is it with our time off? Our benefits?

The policy in this case was our pricing for our guests, which was increasing. If the management didn’t know the specifics yet, they could’ve either:

  1. Not mentioned it until they had details they could actually tell us
  2. Let us know for internal use only that, “We’re looking at increasing our prices. We’re still finalizing the details and will let you know when we have it nailed down.”

Increase uncertainty = increase stress.

Increase certainty = decrease stress.

Work to minimize vagueness and any time you can fill in your employees in with concrete details, do so.

Not much is more stressful at work than not knowing where your company is going or what the next few months or year will look like if it’s in dire straits.

Sharing your vision for your team and having a plan can help instill a lot of confidence even if the future is uncertain.

3. You

A funny thing happens if you’re in a position above others: just your very presence causes stress.

Yep, you can do absolutely nothing besides be next to someone and cause their stress levels to rise.

It might not make any sense at first, but just by interacting with you an employee can put their job and status at risk.

Sure, you’re (hopefully) not going to fire someone if they accidentally say or do something you don’t agree with, but their brain doesn’t know that.

If you’re not around them often, it can make it worse. It’s easy for higher-ups and c-level execs to become out-of-touch with the employees working below them… and the employees know that.

If your staff rarely sees you and suddenly you show up one day, that’s going to cause a spike in their stress levels. If you then go in and start making decisions without knowing how it really affects their day-to-day job, you’re going to stress them even more.

Again, this goes back to increasing your employees’ level of certainty. If you’re showing up out of the blue, make sure they know why.

If you don’t want them to be stressed out by your very presence, Make sure they can get to know you, that way they can grow to like and trust you.

Sit down and talk to them now and then (no mysterious meetings, please!). Create a safe space for them to be able to come and talk to you when they feel the need.

And if you’re much higher up than they are, do yourself a favor and learn what they do.

At the museum, one of the executives decided to make some changes to some of the frontline staff’s equipment.

The change didn’t work, but he didn’t listen to the staff until they managed to convince him to actually use it. It changed back the next day.

Don’t let yourself have to be shamed into learning how your employees work. This puts you at odds with them. Instead, work with them to know their jobs so when you make wide-reaching decisions you can take a more holistic view.

4. Switching to an Open Office

This is actually one of the things my last job did right. They gave the people with open desks cubicles.

I know there’s a been a lot through the years saying cubicles are bad and everyone should switch to open office layouts… but they don’t work.

Sure, if it’s a small team of three or four people and they all want it, great.

But research shows the open office plan can make things much worse.

It becomes stressful because there’s always the possibility someone is looking over your shoulder… even if there’s no real danger, it places all of your employees in vulnerable, unsafe positions.

Creativity goes down because no one’s truly comfortable.

Productivity goes down since it’s easy to get distracted.

And it’s awful for your introverted employees (like me), who can’t disengage socially. They need a safe space to do their best work and recharge their batteries.

It’s good for people to engage with each other, so if that’s what you want, keep the cubicles and instead work to create “water cooler moments” where your employees can socialize throughout the day.

5. All You Have to Do Is…

It might seem like just a simple policy change.

Something like “We should start having meetings to make these decisions.”

Or: “Instead of two 15 minute breaks, you’re getting 10 minute breaks.”

Or: “If we tell you to do something, you can’t say no. We only want to hear, ‘Yes.’ ”

All three of these changes actually happened, and that last one’s quote from my girlfriend’s last company after a new CEO was brought in.

Satisfaction of anyone who wasn’t a C-level exec plummeted (and it’s still going down).

To the executives, all of these policies seemed like small things that no one should have a problem with, and instead caused everyone a tremendous amount of stress.

What was going on?

Each of these things by themselves might not be too stressful, but what each policy did was take away control from the employees.

Unless we voluntarily give control up, any loss of it will cause us stress. If you look back over it, everything on this list involves a loss of control.

My girlfriend’s company kept taking away small privileges. And then they took away the option of even voicing disagreement.

There’s a trend I’ve seen that disagreeing with a proposed policy or trying to change something that’s not working is labeled as “spreading negativity,” and that you need to “be more positive.”

There is nothing negative about disagreement

If you’re in the passenger seat of a car, and the person driving is speeding toward a cliff, it’s not “negative” to tell them they’re about to drive off a cliff.

In Susan Cain’s book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking,” she talks about the effects of shutting down everyone who disagrees with you (introverts are often good at spotting problems and their voices can get shut down easily).

She writes about the economic crises a few years back. There were people who saw it coming. The problem? They got shut down and ostracized for pointing out everything was about to plummet.

Taking away people’s power to disagree with you isn’t shutting down “negativity,” it’s ignoring the voices that could save your company thousands (if not millions, like in the economic crisis).

Of course, not every criticism can be implemented (or should be – and someone does have to make a decision or the company won’t go anywhere), but having a safe space to voice that criticism gives employees a solid feeling of autonomy and helps them feel heard.

It’s All About Control

If you continually take control away from your employees (probably as some kind of cost-cutting measure), you’re setting them up for a lot of stress and a lot less satisfaction.

You might think you’re helping your bottom line (like the supervisor who recently decided to cut his employee’s break time by a total of 10 minutes a day), but unhappy employees aren’t more productive. They’re less productive, and rarely care about doing a good job.

If you’re doing it to cut costs, it might be necessary, but if you don’t compensate with some other way you’re giving your employees control back, be prepared to have their job satisfaction drop.

The more control you can give your employees, the less stress they’re likely to have from work. One trend you can see with this is companies like Netflix and Virgin moving to give their employees unlimited vacation time.

Policies like that give employees a tremendous amount of freedom, and with it a large upward spike in morale. Of course, a policy like that requires that you trust your employees.

If you’re like my girlfriend’s last employer and decide the best way to treat your staff is like kindergartners, they’re going to be stressed out and won’t trust you.

“Trust is earned, not given.”

In some cases this is true, but there’s a problem with this.

If you mistrust others, they’re going to mistrust you.

If you want others to trust you, it’s best to trust them first.

If you’re in a leadership position, trust those you’re leading, and by doing so you create the space to help them rise to the occasion.

One Comment on “5 Ways You’re Stressing Out Your Employees (Unintentionally)”

  1. Great post Mark, all employers could do with reading this and looking at what their communication processes are ding – helping or hindering.
    Number 3 made me really think – in the times when I’ve been in a leadership position, I don’t believe I was aware that my presence could be stressful to some people. However, I always worked on ‘the shop floor’ too and made sure it was a part of my job description so I didn’t ‘lose touch’ with how it felt there too. It’s not always possible I guess, but it kept me grounded ;-)

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