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Is Your Team Seeing Red?

How to recognize when your team is operating in the “Red Zone” and how to get them to “Go Green.”

We’ve all been there. You have a mile-long “to-do” list with everything feeling urgent and challenging to prioritize. Your calendar is stacked with back-to-back meetings. You are panicking about the updates you are expected to give because you’ve hardly had enough time to focus, let alone eat or go to the bathroom. And let’s not even think about your personal life.

Sound familiar? 

Welcome to the “Red Zone,” the uncomfortable and overwhelming feeling where you have too much to do and no clue how to begin. You may not want to admit you’re in the weeds, for fear of looking undependable or incapable. You might feel like you don’t want to delegate tasks because you fear that someone will either do it better or not as well as you. You long to be in control but end up holding on so tightly that you don’t notice that you’re slowly losing it (both literally and figuratively).

Luckily, there are ways to prevent you or a team member from seeing Red. It starts by prioritizing mental health in the workplace and recognizing the symptoms of elevated stress levels so that you can help redirect, reframe, and go Green.

Symptom 1: Snarky comments about a heavy workload

When important deadlines loom or a project is particularly tricky, it’s natural to hear gripes and moans. However, when one voice tends to rise louder and more frequently than others, it could be a sign that these complaints are not universal or unanimous. The truth lies somewhere in between, and it is up to you to dig deeper before a valued team member burns out.

  • Looks like: Putting in long hours or an overly dramatic show of effort, comparing or one-upping tasks to be completed.

  • Sounds like: Joking about feeling overwhelmed or stressed.

  • Feels like: Fight (although it might appear more passive-aggressively). Not everyone feels comfortable standing up for themselves, asking for help, or saying “This is too much,” so they make off-hand comments in the hopes that someone will take notice.

Symptom abatement: Actively listen. Help your team members express their stress by asking how they are feeling with their current workload and reflecting their answers back to them for clarification. Diffuse their frustration by offering to delegate or share the load.

Symptom 2: Withdrawing from professional relationships

Pre-meeting banter, Slack messages, and coffee breaks aren’t just a way to engage with your team; they also provide a much-needed release of the pressure valve, allowing everyone to vent, joke around, and take a mental breather. When you or your staff starts to pull away from these gatherings, it could be a sign of bigger issues at play.

  • Looks like: Headphones are on, notifications are turned off. There are no morning hellos and no time for chit-chat.

  • Sounds like: The silent treatment. 

  • Feels like: Flight. Having one’s head down in work mode may be an attempt to show you they mean business, but all too often it is actually a form of avoidance.

Symptom abatement: Regular check-ins. If casual conversation is falling flat, try scheduling a quick, legitimate check-in. Ask open-ended questions about what’s going on in their personal and professional life. Be flexible and accommodating with your deadlines. Communicate expectations while emphasizing your understanding of the unexpected and how to adjust as necessary.

Symptom 3: Uncharacteristic lack of attention to detail

Procrastination often gets a bad rap as a character flaw when it is actually a common sign of overwhelm. It’s human to overlook something or make a mistake, but when a pattern emerges, especially when that team member is usually on top of things, it might be time to offer an organizational hand.

  • Looks like: Missing deadlines, arriving late to meetings, and forgetting about tasks.

  • Sounds like: Apologies and excuses.

  • Feels like: Freeze. When things get too heavy to handle, the easiest and often most overlooked option is to simply shut down. It may feel like an escape or a break, but it can create more of a backlog of work.

Symptom abatement: Reprioritize. Go over the essential assignments as you see them and work with your team to create a realistic timeline, delegating or holding some tasks if necessary. Be honest with yourself (and your team) if you have set unrealistic goals. Admitting your mistakes will make everyone feel more comfortable about opening up to you about their own.

A special note for executives to consider:

A recent poll conducted by The National Alliance on Mental Illness found that “74% of full-time employees in the U.S. say it is appropriate to discuss mental health concerns at work, but only 58% say they feel comfortable sharing about their mental health at work.”

The study goes on to say that  “More than three-quarters of employees say supervisors, HR, and senior leadership should be responsible for helping employees feel comfortable discussing mental health at work (86%, 85%, and 78%, respectively).”

So, as a leader, where do you begin? Try using Red Zone language to talk about mental health in a way that feels comfortable to you. Preface big projects or initiatives with the understanding that it will be stressful at times and that you are there to help them navigate tough situations. Encourage employees to come to you with questions and concerns. While you are not a mind reader, you can clue into your team. Look for signs and help your team identify and articulate where they are on the scale when things start to get dicey.

My challenge to you: How can you improve your workplace atmosphere to create a culture of clarity, safety, and space that will help make addressing challenging moments easier?

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