Coach and Lead Anxious, Stressed Young Employees

  1. Coach and Lead Anxious Stressed Young Employees-Leadership Coaching by Doris Helge
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Coach and Lead Anxious, Stressed Young Employees

Employees are increasingly anxious or stressed at work, particularly younger workers (Millennials and Generation Zs). It’s critical that you understand what leadership styles increase employee anxiety and stress and which leadership strategies calm anxious employees and elevate their confidence and work performance. Otherwise, you’ll continue to experience negative effects on employee engagement, motivation and productivity, followed by turnover and burnout issues. Workplace worries and tensions travel from one worker to the next, across teams and divisions, impacting customers, clients and profits.

Who is Most Anxious and Stressed in Your Workplace?

My Business Leadership Coaching clients often notice, “Younger employees are more anxious than in the past. I need new skills so I can calm their fears and empower them to do their best work.” Please note the following data from a 2018 American Psychological Association “Stress in America Survey” regarding which generations reported being anxious or stressed during the month before the survey.

  • 54% of Generation Z, younger than 23 years old, born after 1996,
  • 40% of Millennials (Generation Y), ages 23-37, born 1981-1996
  • 35% of Generation X, ages 38-53, born 1965-1976
  • 27% of Baby Boomers, ages 55-73, born 1946-1964
  • 17% of Traditionalists, 73 and older, born before 1946

Since the average was 34%, clearly the youngest generations expressed the most anxiety and stress. Almost half (40%) of Millennials and over half (54%) of Generation Zs reported apprehension and nervous tension.

Why are Young Employees More Anxious or Stressed Than Older Workers?

There are many personal reasons younger employees become anxious and stressed. Examples include relationship problems, health issues, financial strain or death of a loved one. None of these factors explain why younger generations are more anxious and stressed at work than older team members or why my Women’s Leadership Coaching clients noticed the trend the above chart illustrates. What does explain the difference?

Young people and the world they live in have changed dramatically in recent decades. Below are just a few examples.

  • Social media and the preference of Millennials to work as teams have encouraged Millennials and younger workers to talk in new ways about troubling emotional issues. Even though they often don’t know where to turn for assistance, they are keenly aware of their anxiety and stress.
  • Social media nurtures social comparisons and competition that create unproductive stress, anxiety and feelings of insecurity.
  • Young people, especially Millennials, are motivated more by purposeful work than by the income possibilities that attracted previous generations. Today’s youth are aware of how valuable their keen technological skills are to the marketplace. Many are frustrated at work when they aren’t using their talents. They’re often not enthusiastic about beginning their careers by flipping burgers, bagging groceries, making deliveries or performing low-level office tasks.
  • It’s also why they’re unwilling to work for employers who manage by fear or intimidation, according to a survey of 1,000 18-23 year-olds by InsideOut Development. In other words, younger generations want to be treated well and move up as rapidly as possible (vs. the old-fashioned notion of paying their dues so they can qualify to eventually climb the corporate ladder). When their expectations and criteria aren’t met, young people often feel anxious and stressed.
  • Since they were quite young, Millennials and Generation Zs have been told the planet that supports their lives is in danger. The majority of Generations Y and Z are passionate about resolving income inequality and social injustice. Because they want to make a positive difference during the time they exist on Earth, many young people become stressed and anxious when they feel their way to do so is blocked by bureaucracies, hierarchical structures and outdated thinking patterns.
  • Perfectionistic thinking is prevalent among some Millennials. Because so many of today’s young people want to make a contribution and do a good job, many are impatient to make their mark as a professional. They are often anxious and nervous about their performance and how it impacts their team and the company.

My previous article discussed related challenges of working with Millennials and the Core Career Requirements of Millennials that we must meet in order to recruit and retain them.

Why is it So Important That Leaders Help Anxious and Stressed Young Employees?

Even though more Baby Boomers plan to work into their 70s than previous generations of older people, they are retiring at a staggering rate of 10,000 per day. Your organization’s future requires you to ensure a workplace that welcomes and nurtures younger workers.

Anxiety is not only unpleasant to experience, when anxious employees aren’t supported as they need to be, everyone involved suffers. None of us exists alone, on an isolated island. In fact, humans sense the emotions of other people located as far as 7 feet away. This means, even when workers struggle to conceal their anxious feelings, other workers and eventually the entire team will feel some of the anxiety, which can ripple through the workplace and effect customers and clients. Here are just a few examples.

  • Work performance can decline, including the quality, quantity and timeliness of work. Some of this is related to how anxiety decreases confusion, the ability to focus, employee engagement and motivation.
  • If relationships with work colleagues and supervisors deteriorate due to anxiety or stress, misunderstandings and problematic relationships can ripple from one work area to the next.
  • The employee’s health and personal relationships can also suffer, which will eventually result in problems like tardiness, absenteeism, burnout or job loss.
  • When prolonged anxiety and stress lead to depression, the effects can become even more serious. I mention this because suicide attempts are most prevalent among young people.

How Do Anxiety and Stress Show Up at Work?

Common physiological symptoms of work-related anxiety and stress can include chronic fatigue, muscular tension, headaches, heart palpitations, blood pressure irregularities, insomnia and gastrointestinal upsets. Behavioral symptoms of chronic anxiety fall on a continuum, ranging from withdrawal from social conversations to irritable outbursts. You can see how these symptoms can create low or impaired productivity that promotes a sense of low self-esteem and a loss in confidence on the job or defensiveness. Some people also become accident-prone.

Anxiety can cause us to operate in “survival mode” because we function from the reflexive part of our brain (the limbic system). This ancient emotional processing part of our brains was designed to protect us from serious dangers. During our early developmental stages as a species, our survival-oriented limbic system was highly functional. We were hypervigilant and self-protective when we sensed the possibility of encountering a saber-toothed tiger who might view us as the main course on their dinner buffet.

Even though we no longer live in caves and saber-toothed tigers are extinct, an automatic fight, flee or freeze defense system is still encoded in our brains. When we sense danger, our default, knee-jerk response is stimulated. This is why our emotions often highjack the thinking part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex.

Our emotional brain (the limbic system) doesn’t know how to tell the difference between real and imagined danger or between physical stress and emotional stress. Our fear-based alert system (fight, flee or freeze) triggers physical responses like shallow, rapid breathing, which further decrease our ability to think clearly.

Unless we have cultivated proven stress-reducing or calming habits like mindfulness before we are triggered, most of us fail to perceive situations accurately. We fail to respond by using emotional intelligence and empathy, which enable us to plan appropriate actions. This is why so many employees, including the young people we’re discussing, are nervous and lack confidence, even when they are competent.

A previous article discussed how our fight, flight or freeze response is triggered by certain personality types and during gender differences at work.

What Leadership Styles Usually Increase Young Employees’ Anxiety or Stress?

Although the answer varies somewhat from person to person, some leadership styles are most likely to exacerbate an apprehensive young person’s anxiety or stress.

Autocratic, Authoritarian and Rigid Hierarchical Leadership Styles

Autocratic leaders are highly directive. They tell employees what to do, when and often how to perform tasks. Sometimes this prevents common sources of anxiety at work, like unclear expectations and timelines. At the same time, because authoritarian leaders fail to invite questions and feedback that could significantly improve work flow and productivity, autocrats produce employee anxiety and significantly decrease job satisfaction.

This is especially true with younger generations who prefer making decisions as teams and resist rigid hierarchical structures. Most young people today also expect to give leaders feedback about their performance so they can improve. Many Baby Boomers and Generation Xers also don’t respect authority figures who fail to recognize that all of us have unique gifts to contribute. Since the majority of all generations today prefer a democratic, participatory leadership style, traditional my way or the highway managers often fail.

Most importantly, an authoritarian leadership strategy often stimulates a stress response in the brain of an anxious employee. Autocratic managers usually contribute to chronic stress, fatigue, mental confusion, health issues and absences from work. An authoritarian management style promotes the type of anxiety on the job that is clearly related to job dissatisfaction and turnover.  A previous article discussed why successful women business leaders ignore outdated management models and rules.

What Leadership Styles are More Effective with Young Anxious or Stressed Employees?

This is a complicated question because every employee is unique. Below are just a couple of examples of how a given leadership style can work exquisitely well for some employees, in some situations, but can also escalate anxiety or stress.

Democratic, Participatory Leadership Style

Normally, a democratic leadership style in which groups make decisions after hearing all points of view produces better results than an autocratic, authoritarian style, unless only one person has access to required knowledge, resources or the authority to act. Democracy is also abandoned when employees are not capable of independent thought or a work situation is based on an urgent emergency situation which demands quick life-saving action and the best procedure is already well-known.

Here’s an example: “Quickly line up and pile sandbags, one after another, right here. The dam’s about to break, so we have to hurry.” This group has a superordinate objective to achieve a goal that surpasses the needs of a single individual. Anxiety could actually decrease during this emergency because all participants know they are acting in a purposeful way to serve The Greater Good.

A participatory, democratic decision-making leadership style is preferred by many younger employees.  Millennials, for example, often prefer to work in teams and have leadership be fluid, based on the need of a specific project. A democratic, participatory style can also stimulate anxiety because it requires time, teamwork and patience to listen to various points of view. Some people find the process laborious, stressful and frustrating. They would prefer to dive into a work task without waiting for the group to progress, particularly if they usually prefer to work alone and they don’t perceive a relationship between their personal lives and task completion.

A Leadership Style of Delegating Tasks and Giving Employees Freedom to Make Decisions and Choices

Sometimes called laissez-faire management, a team leader who uses this leadership style delegates projects or assignments to employees and gives them free reign to work. Because this means they can make all choices and decisions about how and when they work, people who are highly skilled and knowledgeable in the areas they are responsible for are usually quite satisfied with this approach. They usually develop leadership skills during the process and pride concerning their achievements during this on-the-job training approach.

The opposite is often true for people who tend to be anxious about:

  • making independent decisions when clear guidelines don’t exist,
  • an unrealistic goal of reaching perfection or a need to be right because they feel insecure,
  • the possibility of making a mistake,
  • comparing their progress with the accomplishments of more experienced team members,
  • working without frequent check-ins or face time with an authority figure, or
  • discomfort asking for help, especially in an environment where other team members appear to be self-sufficient.

Even one of the above insecurities can stimulate anxiety and chronic stress and defeat the positive intentions of a leader who chooses to delegate authority so team members can empower themselves while enjoying minimal interference.

Proven Advantages of The Flexible, Mindful, Facilitative Leadership Style

Depending on the workplace environment and our leadership style, the workplace anxiety and stress experienced by young employees will either calm down or become more prominent and stressful. Our success will be related to:

  • being as flexible as possible because different employees respond best to diverse approaches and
  • discovering the joy of approaching situations with a beginner’s mind so we can identify which specific leadership style is most effective with individuals who are anxious or stressed.

The Flexible, Mindful Facilitative Leadership Style that I share with my Women’s Business Leadership Coaching clients is practiced by self-aware managers who believe their role is to empower self-directed teams composed of multiple generations with a variety of strengths and personal challenges. Leaders inspire team members by sincerely encouraging them to ask questions, express their opinions and freely share information. This rapidly accelerates all aspects of team success, from goal setting, decision-making and problem-solving to evaluating progress and making adjustments.

Mindful leaders are crystal clear that their leadership success depends on the quality of the work their employees complete. Savvy leaders know this is directly related to each employee’s sense of emotional wellbeing. Great leaders know they are excellent because of, not in spite of, employees who sometimes experience anxiety and stress. Another article in this series shares proven methods mindful leaders use to create a work environment and culture that empowers anxious and stressed employees to calm their anxiety and elevate their confidence so they can consistently improve their performance.

Discover How to Facilitate the Success of Anxious and Stressed Employees

During Women’s Business Leadership Coaching sessions, we identify your current strengths and challenges related to mindful leadership, including with employees who are stressed or anxious. We also explore your personal mindfulness goals because mindfulness is a proven way to reduce your own work stress, while elevating your health and happiness.

All of this empowers you to lead by example. Since you become calmer and more centered during your work day, you serve as a tuning fork. Your work is easier because your employees are delighted to follow your calm, focused example. This often occurs at an unconscious level, since we all respond to each other’s energy.

During your Leadership Coaching sessions, I share many proven employee coaching tools you’ll use every day with employees who are anxious or stressed. If you feel stressed or uncentered at some time, you’ll be able to immediately apply the tools I provide you to calm your own anxiety. Since the rewards of a calmer, more focused workforce accumulate over time, you’ll enjoy increased employee motivation and productivity, more harmonious work groups and reduced turnover as your serene, more confident employees continue to enjoy your leadership.

For over 20 years, I’ve worked with hundreds of smart, talented leaders and emerging leaders who were struggling with leadership challenges of all kinds. My Women’s Leadership Business Coaching clients are thriving in leadership careers they love. They have built successful teams and enjoy excellent support systems. Upper management sincerely appreciates and rewards their work. All of this is why the vast majority of thriving women leaders advise other female leaders and emerging leaders to “hire a coach.”

The average ROI (return on investment) of the type of Leadership Business Coaching I provide is over 500%. Click here to complete a short application so I can contact you for a complimentary, no obligation, 20-minute consultation. If we decide we’re a good fit as client and coach, we’ll discuss a coaching agreement. I’m looking forward to getting to know you and being of assistance.

© 2019 Doris Helge, Ph.D. as interviewed on “The Today Show,” CNN and NPR. Certified Master Leadership and Executive Coach Doris Helge is author of bestselling books, including “Joy on the Job” and “Transforming Pain Into Power.” Doris has already helped hundreds of leaders like you meet every challenge you’re facing. To make sure you receive each weekly tip, click here to join our mailing list.

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About the Author

Doris Helge

© 2019 Doris Helge, Ph.D. at Doris Helge, Ph.D., MCC is a Certified Master Executive Leadership Coach and author of bestselling books, including “Joy on the Job.” Click here now to sign up for your complimentary Leadership Coaching Consultation.

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