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March 29, 2023

Stress and ineffective communications: breaking the cycle

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Employees who experience stress can suffer a wide range of problems. Stress is rarely a positive factor and can ultimately dilute performance, lessen engagement, cause employees to leave or lose their job, and eventually permeate an organization’s culture. 

The 2022 Marsh McLennan Agency Executive Stress Survey found that employees and managers are feeling the effects of stress. In fact, nearly 75% of managers reported that the demands of their job have increased significantly in the past year. Most also feel they will continue to see the demands of their job grow. Beyond that, nearly 70% of managers and employees feel their work-life balance is poor. 

According to a study by Axios, there is a significant breakdown in how leaders engage teams and how those teams view the information they receive. The study revealed that 74% of communicators think their updates are concise and effective—while only 40% of employees agree. 

In other words, there’s a substantial gap between leaders’ perception and reality. As a result, this combination of ineffective communication and stress isn’t going away any time soon.  

Talking about the causes—and listening to what employees and managers say—is critical to overcoming the effects of stress and hopefully eliminating the problems. 

Communication problems that can cause stress 

Communication problems can be caused by a lack of communications as well as an inability to properly communicate. 

Inattentive/poor communications 

This can occur when management or employees aren’t carefully choosing words to express themselves. Emails can often appear harsh or even cruel if the writer doesn’t focus on how what they say “sounds” to the reader. 

Passive-aggressive communication 

This can include saying what you think people want to hear but never intending to act on it, forgetting to follow through, or—worse yet—denying what was said or saying the opposite. Passive-aggressiveness can also show up as constant disagreements with someone over trivial issues, either in private or in front of other managers and employees. This creates stress because it’s hard to address. Confronting someone who is now denying what was said before can be a lost cause. Even if the person honestly doesn’t recall the original conversation, the resulting frustration is often stressful. 

Overly aggressive communication 

Criticism. Name-calling. Clearly devaluing an employee or colleague. This kind of openly hostile “communication” leaves the recipient feeling defenseless, defensive, or simply shell-shocked. This overly aggressive approach tends to focus on power and winning, not communicating. It ignores mutual understanding and positive action, creating conflict and bad feelings. All of that is a likely recipe for stress. 

Poor listening (or not listening at all) 

If an employee or colleague is trying to make a point and the “listener” isn’t really paying attention, that can result in frustration, possibly anger, and can certainly lead to stress. It’s often easy to tell when someone is hardly paying attention. Often enough, they aren’t making eye contact, they’re looking at their phone or computer, or they’re simply responding with a series of “Uh-huh’s” and Mmm-hmms.” 

Worse yet is when the intended listener refuses to participate in the conversation (“ghosting” emails or walking away from the discussion) or they seem to not even attempt to understand what the communicator is trying to say. This not only can create stress for the person actively trying to communicate, but it can also ultimately damage relationships, make people feel underappreciated, waste valuable time, and delay resolutions of potentially important topics. 

Not really understanding your audience 

You more than likely have multiple generations of workers in your organization, and each communicates—and receives information—in different ways. For example, baby boomers generally prefer in-person communications, while Gen Z/millennials are more comfortable with texts. That doesn’t mean those are the only ways you’d communicate with the respective generations, but it helps to understand who’s receiving the message and how best to deliver it. 

You may also be talking with or writing to someone who is confident and not easily offended, so you can communicate with them more directly. However, you may be communicating with a a more introverted employee—possibly someone who assumes they’re being slighted or lacks confidence in their ability to express ideas. That may require a far more nuanced approach. Understanding the varying dynamics of your audience is one key to good communication. 

Making remote communications feel less remote 

The same problems apply when communicating with an employee or manager working remotely. The most significant difference is that it’s mostly done electronically rather than in-person. Personal connection is often lost, even when the participants can see each other. 

Nuance gains heightened importance in remote communication. The tone of voice, eye contact, and attention to detail in choosing words are more critical to effective communication than ever. The frequency of communication is also important. With remote workers, more is better. 

Managing better communications 

While entire fields of study are dedicated to this complex topic, following a few suggestions can help you improve communication and reduce stress in short order. 

  • Set specific culture and behavior expectations. 
  • Use different types of communication, tailored to your audiences. 
  • Personalize the communications approach to the individual/audience. 
  • Understand what your audience values and what motivates them. 
  • Ask, don’t assume, to avoid miscommunications. 
  • Remove barriers to communication, including workplace design. 
  • Be willing to teach and be taught.
  • Acknowledge everyone’s differences. 

Marsh McLennan Agency (MMA) can help you build a better communication approach. To learn more, get in touch with an MMA representative