Navigating Employee Stress About Change


With the new presidential administration now a reality, change will definitely follow. Change brings uncertainty, and some people are more affected than others. As the People Specialist in the room, your company will be looking to you to help manage these complex situations. In deciding to partner with, you already have a valuable resource. But what else can you do to effectively manage stress and anxiety in the workplace?

Identify The Cause

How can you differentiate between a run of the mill performance issue and an event-induced condition, such as post-inauguration stress? An unexpected behavior or attitude change is a strong sign that an external event is causing the employee stress. Be alert to the following:

  • Aggression
  • Irritability
  • Moodiness
  • Problems with interpersonal relationships
  • Pessimism
  • Easily frustrated
  • Disinterest, reduced initiative
  • Isolation
  • Drop in performance or productivity
  • Increased absenteeism

Be Proactive

In the best case scenario, the employee approaches you or their manager, says they’re overly anxious and it’s affecting their work, and tells you what they need. Of course that’s rarely how it happens. More often, a manager comes to you for advice because “Joe’s been defensive and irritable, people are avoiding working with him”. You know there’s probably more to it than an attitude problem. But how do you talk to an employee about anxiety or depression, and how do you convince them that they need help?

1. Open the door for the employee to talk. Ensure confidentiality. Then listen.

Timing is key, so choose a time when the person will be most receptive. Right after an outburst when emotions are high is probably *not* the best time. Also consider the place. Taking the employee for a walk outside the office can be more relaxing and make it easier for them to speak openly. When you do have the conversation, try one of these openers:

“Your manager told me that she’s seen a drop in your productivity lately. You’re normally highly productive, so we’re concerned. Is there something going on that you want to talk about? And just so you don’t worry, I’ll keep everything you tell me confidential unless there’s a legal or other reason for me to have to tell somebody else. In that case, I’d let you know before I talked to another person.”

“We’ve noticed you’ve been taking more time off than usual. We get worried when we see that kind of thing happening, so we’re worried about you. Is there something the company or I can help you with? (add confidentiality statement)”

Statements that are supportive like “I’m concerned” or “We’re worried” tend to elicit a better reaction than “You need help” or “You have a problem”. The employee may not be aware that their anxiety is showing or that it has affected others. Just talking about their feelings with you may be enough to alleviate their stress and get them back to normal.

It could be that the employee is not ready to talk with you right then. That’s ok, just be sure to let them know your door is open, and that they’re also free to talk to another appropriate person (their manager, your boss, etc). Check in with the employee the next day - when they see you really care, they’ll be more open to talking.

One note of caution: you may have your own feelings of anxiety, particularly around the impacts of the new federal administration. Don’t let this conversation turn into a pity party. Your job here is to listen and let the employee air their feelings, with the goal of alleviating their stress so they can return to productivity.

2. Ask what you can do to help, and offer resources.

As the People Specialist, it’s your job to provide resources. But first, ask the employee how you can help. They may already have a request in mind. Be familiar with the resources your company offers. is a great resource because it provides coaching and mental health counseling that is confidential, on-demand and accessible through their smartphone - no need to leave the office! Other resources may include mental health benefits through your medical insurance, onsite counselors, leave policies, etc.

In some cases, the employee won’t immediately accept help. If the performance issues persist, you may have to take a stronger stand. You could suggest the employee just tries a resource one time, as an experiment. Be sure you’ve made it as easy as possible - send them the link, show them how to request time off, etc. You can also ask a mental health professional, such as a coach or therapist, for suggestions. Ultimately, though, it is important for the employee to know that their performance and behavior must improve. Check with your legal counsel about doing a mandatory referral to a mental health provider, and about starting the formal performance management process (verbal counseling, written warning, PIP, etc). Be aware of any possible ADA issues.

Helping your company manage through stressful times isn’t easy. But with some forethought and preparation on your part, you can feel more confident, and armed with that confidence, you will be effective.