Stop telling stressed employees ‘to relax’, say experts

Stressed out employees are commonly told to just take it easy, but experts say doing so is actually counterintuitive

Stop telling stressed employees ‘to relax’, say experts
What do you do when you see a colleague or subordinate stressed out at work? Whatever your intentions are, psychologists say to avoid telling them to relax because doing so actually causes more stress.

In her article in The Wall Street Journal, Sue Shellenberger wrote that, “People who instruct a colleague, subordinate or loved one to relax may have good intentions. But it is usually better to resist ordering people to change their emotional state and try a different strategy.”

Wendy Mendes, a researcher on stress from the University of California, San Francisco, added that asking someone to suppress or clamp down on their emotion is also not advisable because feelings leak out more.

“Such misfires can open a divide between an employee and boss,” commented Shellenberger, because the underlying message in a boss telling an employee to relax is that they’re the ones who are uncomfortable.

“It masks a variety of motives,” added clinical psychologist Joseph Burgo.

Instead of ordering someone to relax, career coach Nancy Ancowitz said to start off by showing empathy and acknowledging the employee’s stress. 

Something as simple a phrase as, ‘looks like you’re having a bad day’, to get started would already help calm the other person, she said, then follow it up by asking them open-ended questions that would give them a chance to talk about the problem.

She also said that constant communication is key to give employees honest feedback about their performance but it is equally important to “hold up a mirror and take a look at whether your style of working might be stressful to others”.

“If so, try reducing stress through exercise, more frequent breaks, deep breathing or other techniques,” she added.

Related stories:

How to reduce the risk of ‘psychological injury’

Employee burnout: What is the primary factor?

Should managers push employees to do more?

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