A stressed-looking young woman sits at a desk in front of a laptop and massages her temples.
Common work stressors range from certain language and actions to intrusive round-the-clock communication. — Getty Images/Delmaine Donson

Business owners often don't realize the considerable stress they inadvertently cause employees through a slew of common actions and inactions. Workers will ruminate over the stress, become defensive and disengage from work, said Jia (Jasmine) Hu, Ph.D., an associate professor of management and human resources in the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State University. And it can get worse.

“Research has also shown that increased stress leads to more incivility and counterproductive behaviors at work,” Hu told CO—.

“Managers and leaders have a direct effect on their employees’ stress and anxiety levels,” Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, chief talent scientist at ManpowerGroup and a professor of business psychology at Columbia University, wrote earlier this year in the Harvard Business Review. “What they say, feel and do hugely influences their team’s physical and emotional well-being. And the more senior leaders are, the more people they are likely to influence—positively and negatively.”

Common stressors

Among the common ways Chamorro-Premuzic says leaders cause stress for employees:

Negative language: Words like “horrific” or “shocking” and even euphemisms like “challenging” or “problematic” can trigger anxiety.

Pessimism: Optimism may be hard to muster in these, um, “challenging” times, but slipping into pessimism just further stresses everyone.

Erratic actions: Leaders who keeps workers guessing are more stressful than those who are reliable, predictable and even boring.

Emotional volatility: Business owners who let their stress show just add to any chaos that might be going on.

And above all else: “Perhaps the biggest mistake you can make during stressful times is ignoring your team’s emotions,” Chamorro-Premuzic wrote.

While fine-tuning your language and emotions may be a challenge, it’s relatively easy to remedy another huge stressor bosses put on employees: 24/7 emails, texts and other electronic communication. Russell Johnson, Ph.D., an associate professor of management in the Eli Broad College of Business at Michigan State University, said that too many messages, especially outside business hours, create stress in three ways:

1. “Receiving and responding to email is a cognitive disruption,” Johnson told CO—. “It takes mental effort to shift attention away from current tasks and behaviors to focus on incoming messages and process the information.” Additional time is then spent shifting back to the previous task.

2. “Increased use of electronic communication is also mentally demanding because it requires employees to spend more time and effort processing the messages they receive,” he said. Electronic messages lack the tone of voice, facial expressions and other nonverbal cues that can be critical to meaning. This creates a paradox in which more time and effort is required to, say, explain an email than to just talk to someone.

3. “The increased use of electronic communication also creates a sense that one is unfailingly tethered to the workplace,” Johnson said. “Emails and texts can be sent at any time, and although senders may not intend it, receipt of an email or text message typically carries an implicit norm that the message demands the immediate attention and response from the recipient.” Especially when the sender is the boss.

"Perhaps the biggest mistake you can make during stressful times is ignoring your team’s emotions."

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, chief talent scientist at ManpowerGroup and Columbia University professor of business psychology

How to reduce the stress

Johnson, whose research on the topic is published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, suggests thinking very carefully before sending any electronic communication. Is it really necessary? Do others really need to be CC’d? Also, try to send communications on the same days each week or at similar times, so they become routine rather than disruptive.

Finally, Johnson advises: Be thorough enough with your electronic missives to avoid confusion and frustration, and avoid communicating outside normal work hours.

Meanwhile, Hu’s latest research, detailed in the Journal of Applied Psychology in October, points to one way to address many of the broad, common stressors cited above. Hu and her colleagues found that employees are less stressed when their bosses practice “servant leadership,” a style that prioritizes empowering employees, fulfilling employee needs and paying attention to their emotional suffering—especially in uncertain times like these.

That kind of insight and understanding, Hu said, starts with taking an honest look at your own concerns.

“Instead of ignoring employees’ anxiety and stress, managers can acknowledge their own uncertainties and worries, empathize with employees’ anxiety and provide affirmation of their confidence in their employees,” Hu said. “When leaders care about employee well-being, anxious employees may feel that they are valuable contributors at work and are more willing to invest adequately in their work roles.”

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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