How to deal with frustrated employees

HRD reveals signs your people are burned out

How to deal with frustrated employees

2020 was a ticking time bomb for some professionals, and the New Year may just trigger employees to explode at work. Can you spot the signs and defuse the situation before it’s too late?

Maria Micha, a clinical mental health counsellor, psychiatrist and corporate trainer based in Singapore told HRD that leaders should first note that when employees ‘act out’ at work, the anger is likely rooted in deeper issues like overwhelming fear or pain from life in general and is not a personal attack against their co-workers.

Micha has over 20 years of experience working with individuals and corporations and handles cases like anger management and mental health disorders at her private practice. She believes the most effective treatment involves identifying the symptoms and root causes of mental disorders, then using techniques that can help individuals ‘master change’ at an unconscious level.

“When we try to deal directly with the anger, we will not have the best possible results,” she told HRD. And the high levels of uncertainty and fear about the current state of the world, economy, future of corporations as well as our own personal paths can result in anger and frustration, which we may bring to work.

Read more: How to deal with anxiety and depression at work

A spike in anxiety and stress

And studies throughout the year have been showing just how much the pandemic has affected employees. An alarming 92% of workers across Asia reported feeling some level of anxiety due to the ongoing pandemic, with at least half experiencing ‘moderate’ or ‘high’ degrees of stress.

What’s worse, Willis Tower Watson found that seven in 10 employees reported feeling distracted at work due to COVID-19 concerns. Another two-thirds said they’re facing difficulties balancing working from home and other responsibilities. Meanwhile, three in five employees feel bogged down by financial concerns, with more than half (54%) claiming their employer have not made it easier to access or use their benefits.

Another report by Jobstreet found that Singaporeans were almost five times unhappier than they were pre-COVID-19. This could be because of layoff anxiety or some form of job instability. If they managed to survive personnel cuts last year, they were stressed out by pay cuts and other cost-cutting measures.

Read more: Burnout: Employees say HR ‘not doing enough’ to help

Nothing to look forward to

“The main problem is that we are out of control,” she said. “No one’s feeling that there is any control in the situation, which of course will create fear that can lead to anger. Now the pain in the current situation comes from the fact that every day seems to be rolling into the next one, and we don’t have something to look forward to.”

Besides all the effort put into managing their daily lives, which have blurred lines between work and home, as well as any anxieties or depression, she said that leaders should acknowledge the collective disappointment felt around shelving plans for holiday trips or festive seasons. Yes, everyone’s experiencing the same scenario worldwide, but it doesn’t make it any less of a letdown.

“In the absence of all those events that would give them the energy, courage and tenacity to go through the everyday challenges of their personal and professional lives, people seem to be more angry, depressed, and anxious,” she said. “I would say that there is a general feeling of disappointment and lacking of purpose.”

Read more: Holiday blues: How to support staff separated from family overseas

The feeling of being lost and aimless can also translate to their work lives. Maybe they were looking forward to milestones like a promotion at work, but with cost-cutting being the norm, things may feel a little out of reach. “A lot of people are feeling like they don’t know how to define their next goal,” she said.

While we would like to believe that people come to work and “they’re just professionals” who leave their lives behind, this is hardly the case.

“Usually, people will bring along whatever they have in their personal lives,” she said. “As a result, during the pandemic a lot of individuals or families have been facing more anger or more serious issues, because again, they don’t have those happy events to look forward to. And there’s more tension [at work].”

Read more: How can HR help employees facing family violence?

Signs of unhappy employees

Micha makes clear that everything can add up and overwhelm individuals – but it might get a little tricky spotting staffers in need of help in a remote setting. If you’re in an office environment, you can read someone’s body language or their facial cues and pull them aside for a private chat.

Virtual work environments have meant that you’re only going to see your employees if they switch on their cameras during a video meeting. But there are some signs that can hint at an employees’ level of stress – the use of video cameras is one of them.

Some signs you can look out for:

  • An employee who switches off their camera mid-conversation can be a sign of passive or active disengagement.
  • If they don’t make eye contact during a video call.
  • If they start procrastinating or miss deadlines when they used to be diligent.
  • When they refuse to collaborate or are difficult to work with.

“Does the person looking at you seem like there’s fire coming out of their eyes?” she said. “Do they avoid smiling? Do they laugh at a joke? Humour is also very important to disarm difficult situations.”

Read more: How to lead when your team is tired and jaded

How can leaders defuse a situation?

So what can leaders do to manage these angry employees? If a blow out happens during a meeting, Micha suggested that leaders give some extra attention to the worker and say, “hey, I would like to know more about the root cause of your emotions. I’m happy to hear you out”. This personal conversation can be held after the team meeting and you can still retain a professional tone during the chat.

Like many other psychiatrists, she warned leaders against saying this: never ask them to ‘calm down’ or ‘collect yourself’. She calls such reactions an instinctive ‘red flag’ for individuals and it can only make things worse. Your role as a leader is to make the employee feel seen and heard, so saying things like, “tell me how can I help?” or “tell me what is happening in your life?”, can do much more than asking them to get their act together.

“What we all want is to be seen and recognised,” she said. “A lot of people get angry because they’re afraid that they’re not being seen. As a preventive method, it would be important for leaders to try and have one-on-one non-transactional sessions, where it’s not about work. It’s about asking ‘how are you doing?’

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be able to address all their issues but say that ‘I want to hear you out’ and possibly put a process in place that will be carried out in the next few months. At least there is a plan and people can feel good as hope comes back.”

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