What is the ‘stress cliff’ and how can you avoid it?

employee matters


With small businesses working overtime to make it out the other side of the pandemic, many SME owners haven’t had a chance to think about the long-term effects of this lifestyle. 

Some call it ‘pandemic panic’ while others refer to it as the ‘stress cliff’ — the inevitable burnout that accompanies long hours, pervasive uncertainty, dwindling cash flow and huge disruptions to daily life. 

But the stress cliff doesn’t just affect you as a small business owner. It affects everyone around you, from your staff and customers to the long-lasting culture of your business.  

According to Natasha Hawker, founder and managing director of Employee Matters, not investing in your employees during this difficult time could do permanent damage to your culture and employer brand. 

“Your employees are your greatest asset and also potentially your greatest liability,” Hawker says.  

“Having a great team helping you survive and then thrive in this crisis is fundamental to your success.” 

So how can SME owners avoid the stress cliff, keep employees engaged, and show leadership to maintain their hard-won company culture? Hawker has some top tips to share. 

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It’s impossible to over-communicate

Hawker says leaders “cannot over-communicate” during this time, and should be giving daily updates if possible. 

“Communicate, communicate and then communicate again because you can’t overdo it,” says Hawker. 

Even if you have nothing new to say, acknowledge this and provide employees with a timeframe for your next update. 

Importantly, don’t leave the bad stuff out. People will notice, and it will only make it worse when you have to deliver the inevitable bad news. 

“You have to be transparent and authentic as a leader — people can tell when you’re trying to fudge a message, and they would rather have bad news that’s real, rather than uncertainty.” 

Strong company culture is “the secret sauce”  

Hawker says that a strong company culture is “the secret sauce” to successfully navigating the challenges of COVID-19. 

A strong company culture is the key to keeping employees engaged in difficult times: it connects your staff to the mission and values of the company and keeps them engaged with your wins and struggles. 

“Engagement is the measure of discretionary effort, which means your team will go above and beyond the requirements. And that’s what’s key to success,” Hawker says.  

Statistics show where you’ve got a highly engaged team, if [engagement levels] are 75% and above you get 21% more productivity and 20% more profitability.” 

Upholding culture in a crisis

When your team is under intense pressure, upholding culture can feel like an afterthought.

Eric Stephens has made it a priority. As chief executive and creative director of True Sydney, Stephens took a leaf out of Hawker’s playbook and over-communicated with his team. 

“True [Sydney] over communicated our intention to the team — to keep them healthy, happy and making a living,” Stephens says. 

But transparent communication doesn’t change the fact we’re in a pandemic that affects our lives both at work and at home — a distinction that now ceases to exist. 

“While our people stepped up, they were also filled with anxiety for themselves, their family and the world,” Stephens says. 

To support its people, True Sydney implemented the following initiatives: 

Created a continuous feedback loop

“During lockdown we asked for continuous feedback on how our people were feeling. We received over 700 comments around what we needed to provide our people,” Stephens says.  

Wellbeing focused initiatives

To keep the team healthy, connected and away from the precipice of the stress cliff, True Sydney developed multiple initiatives including: weekly meditation, dealing with anxiety workshops, life coaching sessions, weekly team building sessions including live webinars with content like cocktail making, trivia and virtual bingo. 

DIY video documentaries 

“One method of coping with change and anxiety is to document the journey. We asked our people to document their time in lockdown in :02 videos per day. The final individual pieces were put into mini-documentaries.”

Stephens says taking the time to take care of his teams meant they had more to give back to the business.   

“The initiatives above ensured our culture not only stayed intact, but is actually evolving into something even stronger,” he says.

NOW READ: JobKeeper 2.0: “The good, the bad and the ugly”

employee matters
Employee Matters

Employee Matters provides employee support to SMEs who want to maximise profitability through their employees, but struggle with hiring the best, understanding the legislation and firing non-performers.

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