An Early Warning System for Your Team’s Stress Level (2017)

Thomas Hellwig, Caroline Rook, Elizabeth Florent-Treacy, Manfred Kets de Vries

"An Early Warning System for Team’s Stress Level"

As the CEO of a global oil company who had risen through the ranks, Michel had faced many stressful events on off-shore rigs early in his career, and considered himself to be a tough guy with no tolerance for wimps. But with intense media and regulatory focus on oil prices adding complexity to a current restructuring in the organization, Michel was now facing an internal crisis that he had not foreseen.


In the past year, two members of his team had disappeared into a “black hole” of long-term sick leave (as he thought of it). On Monday, a third person — a colleague who often picked up slack for others as well as being a source of great ideas — advised him that she had been put on leave due to stress-related burnout. Michel was annoyed with her, but also with himself. Now his team was seriously compromised. Why hadn’t he seen this coming? What was going on?


The tipping point of distress 

A recent study suggested that work-related stress in the UK in 2015-2016 accounted for 37% of all ill-health cases and 45% of all working days lost due to ill health across all industries and professions. This study identified workload pressure (including tight deadlines and too much responsibility) and lack of managerial support as the main work factors mentioned by employees causing work-related stress. This raises a long-recognized conundrum: pressure to perform is only effective to a certain, unpredictable degree. 


Evaluating signs of stress


Inspired by aviation and medical best practices for handling crises, we developed a simple yet robust protocol that helps managers and HR professionals to identify cases of potential high stress. Rather than being a test, survey, or assessment tool, the Stress-APGAR provides a set of guidelines that help HR professionals and managers to think about and articulate factors that may lead to burnout or other stress-related mental health issues of their staff.


The Stress-APGAR protocol looks at the following dimensions:


  • Appearance (e.g. sleep patterns, eating habits, exercise, energy levels)
  • Performance (e.g. ability to take decisions, concentration and memory, generating new ideas)
  • Growth & self-development (e.g. satisfaction with opportunities for personal growth and learning)
  • Affect management (e.g. ability to feel, understand and show emotions appropriately)
  • Relationships (e.g. perceived quality of relationships with life partner, family, friends and with professional peers and superior)


By looking out for subtle signs and symptoms of stress, the Stress-APGAR dimensions, when taken together, can be used as a barometer that indicates changes in an individuals’ internal pressure system. The tool can be especially effective amongst employees who are often reluctant to talk about their problems. The approach of paying attention to signs, and empathetically asking open questions can have a positive effect, reducing social isolation and eventually helping the individual to open-up. Once trust is established in this way, it is often easier for the person at risk to make the causes of their stress a discussable subject, as well as create a springboard for what can be done to help them.

HBR, 2017

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