A tornado in the distance sweeping across a dry landscape. The darkening clouds brought on by the storm are mingling with an orange sunset on the horizon.
Image: © James Thew/Stock.adobe.com

We need to talk about stress transference

6 Apr 2020

At a time of increased anxiety, team leads in particular need to be aware of how their stress can impact their colleagues, writes Elaine Burke.

I roused from my bed today with heartburn that I’m pretty sure I gave myself while lying there overthinking what’s to be done in the day ahead. Stress can manifest in physical symptoms, that is fairly well known. But there seems to be less awareness of how stress can spread from one person to another. And if the vectors are blind to this phenomenon, we can run into serious problems.

There’s plenty of advice out there for personal stress management, but we have little power over how others manage their own stressors and, subsequently, how their mismanagement can affect those around them.

Stress begets stress and, like most things, this transference is heightened during our present situation, in which team leaders’ usual practices have been thrown into flux. This can cause a sense of panic and loss of control which, whether it is acknowledged or not, will impact how that person interacts with those they are responsible for.

Managers without their daily management rituals, left with too much time to dwell on things and not enough on-site oversight to show them that work is ongoing, can whip themselves up into a frenzy. And it doesn’t take long for these tornadoes of stress to take off, bringing their team members, Dorothy, Toto and all of Kansas with them.

How does the stress tornado spread? Through the constant streams of communication that have enabled us all to work remotely. Whether it comes as a barrage of emails, direct messages or phone calls, the effect is the same: employees getting on with work are subject to constant interruptions by anxious managers wanting to know exactly what they’re getting on with and how on a minute-to-minute basis.

‘Once a crisis hits, just when judgement matters most, we revert to the belief that feverish activity is a virtue’

Gianpiero Petriglieri, a trained psychiatrist and associate professor of organisational behaviour at Insead business school, put it perfectly in a recent piece for Bloomberg. Focusing on work during the Covid-19 crisis, Petriglieri explained how many will opt to throw themselves into work as a defence mechanism. But, like all defence mechanisms, the comfort it lends comes with a cost.

“In regular circumstances, we condemn managers and workers who push forward with blinders on. We warn them that if they do not free up time for strategic thinking, contemplation, exercise or sleep, their judgement will suffer and they will hurt others. But once a crisis hits, just when judgement matters most, we revert to the belief that feverish activity is a virtue,” Petriglieri wrote.

His advice to counteract the frenzy? “Stop pretending that if you work harder it will be business as usual. Accept disorientation and distress. They are normal. Reach out to friends and colleagues. Focus on work that helps. It won’t only reassure others. It will make you more useful, focused and compassionate.”

For managers, it must be called to their attention that creating a stress tornado helps nothing and no one. If anything, these practices will be demotivational and unproductive. And, if that’s the outcome, it’s not the employees’ fault but the bad management.

Recognise when the tornado hits

It must never be forgotten that bad management is continuously cited as one of the top reasons an employee leaves a job. Right now, retention is key to minimising business disruption and so companies must ensure managers are well managed during this crisis.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of managers passing their frenetic reactions to the enforced work-from-home situation onto their teams. It’s very easy to become a vector of stress and I can’t say I’ve mastered the art of constant cool when it comes to workplace management myself. But I have had teammates advise me on their stress triggers and how my behaviours as a manager might set them off, and I do try to take these things into account.

For employees, I hope if this has befallen you that you have a relationship where you can frankly tell your manager to cool off, or tell another colleague who can help effect change in this issue.

For your own sake, try to recognise a stress tornado when it hits you and remember that it’s an external force attempting to whip you up, and you have some power to resist. Find something solid to hold onto by checking in on yourself. If you feel you’re working well and things are being done as they should, then the stress-inducing calls and messages are unwarranted. Take a moment to remove yourself from the pull of the tornado so that you can keep doing your work.

Teammates may also need to find compromises to get along in these strange and stressful times. Some people prefer to communicate over text while others are better with calls. If you can meet in the middle, it can dampen tensions. Be prepared to reach across the divide, in ways you can manage and feel comfortable with, in order to continue with a healthy collaboration.

Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.

Elaine Burke
By Elaine Burke

Elaine Burke was editor of Silicon Republic until 2023, and is now the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. Elaine joined Silicon Republic in 2011 as a journalist covering gadgets, new media and tech jobs. She later served as managing editor before stepping up as editor in 2019. She comes from a background in publishing and is known for being particularly pernickety when it comes to spelling and grammar – earning her the nickname, Critical Red Pen.

Loading now, one moment please! Loading