Stress – Tips for the Servant Leader Part 3: 7 Signs That Your Organization is Highly Stressed

Organisational stress - the elephant in the roomThere is a phrase that always amuses me. It’s “the elephant in the room”.  We all know that it means that there is some big issue that is not being addressed.

Well, organisational stress is most times a silent elephant in the corner of the room. It needs to be dealt with but no one will, and people who are suffering from occupational stress are often the last people to speak up about it.


Simply put – Fear.

They perceive it to mean that they are not up to the job and that if they speak up then they put their job at risk, because their manager will think that too. This may be entirely wrong but experience shows that often they can be forgiven for believing that staff members may be disposable commodities. It’s not unheard of for organizations to wring their staff dry and then replace them for a new model with more juice. And so the cycle goes on. This approach to leadership is destructive but that is another set of articles sometime……

The Christian Servant Leader and Stress

The Christian leader who is living out the principles of servant leadership should be different, showing  compassion for his people who are under stress. The servant leader needs to relieve the causes because they are reducing the effectiveness of his team. Under such circumstances they cannot achieve their full potential and, therefore, neither can the organisation. More than that, he is modelling Jesus’ style of leadership and that model requires a compassionate response that is sympathetic to an individual’s situation.

It’s worth remembering that these organisational issues are as relevant to churches with team ministry as they are to non-church organisations.

Identifying Organisational Stress

In the first article we mentioned that levels of sickness and absenteeism go up and time keeping, quality and productivity decline. In addition to those symptoms I asked Colin Buckland what organisational factors can indicate that stress may be at work in your team, especially when it’s a silent elephant in the corner of the room……….. eating all the donuts.

Increased Levels of Change

Change is typically very stressful for a workforce. Part of the way of managing change- and this is not often written up by the way- part of the art of managing change is to recognize the stress factors of change that affect an average member of the population.

Change is usually very stressful for people. Some people thrive on it, but by no means everybody. So ask yourself about any change that is taking place, and how far that might be stressing people?

Careless Communication

Ask yourself: “Am I giving out information that is stressful?” Let’s say, for example, your organisation is struggling financially.

What are you doing with that?

Am I saying to the staff, “We’re under threat, we’re under threat”, and then am I hoping that by saying that somehow they’ll work harder?

Typically, what happens is they work less hard without even recognizing it, because their stress levels are climbing. They’ve got their mortgages to pay, their children to care for, they’ve got the car to upkeep; all the expenses of the modern world and the western society. And what you are saying to them is, “It is under threat, it’s under threat.”

Living with that day by day, powerless to do anything about it, that’s extremely stressful.

Not Engaging the Wisdom Pool to Solve Problems

What you need to do in circumstances of the kind mentioned above is to allow the staff in to try to solve the problem. Then they will own the problem along side you and work as a team, they will feel empowered and they’re doing their best to try and save the situation.

It is enormously important to feel like you can at least weigh in to solve the problem.

So, trying to solve that problem for them, without engaging their wisdom, and then telling them how it’s going will only result in increased stress.

I think that we need to use what we’ve been calling the “wisdom pool” a whole lot more. Getting the thinking of the people engaged in solving the problem and not just the thinking of the leader. Do you do that when there are problems to solve?

People Watching – Body Language

One of the things we can do is develop the ability to understand body language.

If, for instance, somebody is wringing their hands and you say to them, “How are you?” and they reply “I’m fine.” Because they are wringing their hands, if you think they’re fine, you’re actually blind. They are showing you in their being that they are not fine.

You can see in people that they’re undergoing heightened levels of stress and tension. When you see people rubbing their necks and rubbing their muscles, what you are seeing is wear and tear, especially if they’re not physical labourers but, they’re working at the computer, or whatever it is, and they’re in pain. It’s not just about the seating that you’ve provided; it’s probably about the stress levels that they are under. So, body language is very important.

Increasing level of “water-cooler conversations”

If you walk the halls of your organization to get amongst the people (I want to encourage all leaders to do that frequently) and you find people meeting around the water cooler or the coffee station more often, in small groups, and seemingly going very quiet when you come along, don’t get paranoid that they’re gossiping about you. It’s usually a sign of being disgruntled about something. And, that’s often about some form of stress within the organization that you’re not noticing and you’re not handling.

As leaders, we need to be vigilant to what we are seeing. Then we need to look for the cause of it, and it’s often work related stress.

Increasing Background Irritability and Emotion

If you or your managers find yourselves hearing more complaints from people over things that actually seem quite small, what you are looking at is organizational stress.

One of the outflows of stress is that people become irritable and are more easily irritated, and so they will complain a whole lot more about things. In fact, you may see the people showing heightened emotions in general; some people may weep, some people may get more angry, and then they storm out. They may answer back very quickly and very brashly. These are all emotional signs that show us that something is not right.

It’s not the people, or that suddenly the people caught some kind of disease. It’s that they’re suffering under weight, and it’s stress that’s doing it.


Stop for 10 or 15 minutes and ponder your organisation, department or team. Seriously consider if you recognize any of these things that Colin identified?

If you do, what then?

Take time out to walk around the place and talk with your people to see how they are getting on, what their issues might be. Then read the next article in the ” 5 Ways That Will Help You Reduce Organisational Stress

Image: David Blackwell