Your employees are freaking out over performance reviews. Here’s how to make them less stressful

May 07, 2024

Your employees are freaking out over performance reviews. Here’s how to make them less stressful

Stress hormones spike in the weeks before a performance evaluation. This chief people officer says this doesn’t have to be the case.

BY Livia Martini

These days, performance reviews are getting a bad rap. They’re described as “awful,” “harmful,” and getting “more stressful.” This is understandable. No one wants to feel that their entire body of achievement at work across a year can be summarized in a few paragraphs, or with a handful of adjectives that might not do justice to all the effort they put in.

But these reviews can also deliver big benefits. They can help managers discover employees’ strengths and areas for improvement, and recommend development opportunities. Research also indicates that employees who receive these appraisals are more satisfied, positive about their jobs, and even more competent.

I’m in an unusual position. As chief people officer at Gympass (which we are renaming Wellhub), I’m responsible for making sure that my company’s entire workforce receives the fairest evaluations and most helpful feedback possible. And because the company is all about helping HR leaders improve employee wellness, I’m especially devoted to prioritizing the well-being of our employees, and to making the entire process as stress-free as possible.

Through years of experience, trial and error, and lots of helpful feedback from team members at all levels, I’ve found that there are keys to doing it right without giving up on performance evaluations altogether.

Are more frequent performance reviews the answer?

Some businesses say they are replacing evaluations with “continuous feedback.” I see these as two very different things that complement each other. There should be all sorts of conversations between managers and team members throughout the year. That’s a given.

But making time to take a more focused look at an employee’s achievements and development is also important. And a study found something that may seem counterintuitive: This should happen more often in order to reduce stress. 

Researchers looked at the stress hormone levels of participants across a year. They found that “the prolonged anticipatory threat of being held accountable adds to stress buildup over time.” When the block of time between evaluations was reduced, the levels of those hormones decreased. Interestingly, the study found that people might not realize this is happening. The researchers say their analysis “endorses the importance of attention to nonconscious buildup of stress.”

So in addition to ongoing feedback, I encourage managers and team members to take time to evaluate their work upon the completion of any given project or initiative—or, at the most, each quarter—and discuss those evaluations. Then, for the annual review, people can bring with them everything they’ve compiled and discussed during the year.

Analyze competencies

These evaluations should also take a much more holistic look than traditional performance reviews call for. Simply asking for a list of “results” or “accomplishments” leaves out crucial context. 

An employee may have done excellent work for a project but then higher-ups pulled or delayed the project itself, leaving the employee with no concrete metrics to show for the work. Or an employee may have developed a solution that seems relatively small on paper but in fact involved overcoming enormous barriers and is very impactful for the organization.

Your employees are freaking out over performance reviews. Here’s how to make them less stressful

So it’s crucial to look at each employee’s competencies. These include building trust, creativity, transparent communication, innovation, attention to details that matter, problem-solving, reliability, accountability, and more. As part of this, I’m a big fan of leading with the positive by telling the employees about the competencies in which they’re shining and growing. (We don’t need research to understand why this lessens stress, but here’s some from Harvard Business Review anyway, pointing out that it makes employees “more receptive to the recommendations for improvement that follow.”)

Define “high performers” for your organization

For any evaluation system to work, the entire team needs to know what success looks like in terms of these competencies. So it’s important for the organization to establish its own take on what makes people “high performers.”

At our company, being a high performer means inspiring colleagues, fostering a positive work environment, showing eagerness to learn, flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances, and more. Our leadership strives to ensure that everyone knows what we look for.

Of course, no system is perfect. The organization must always be working to improve the performance evaluation system and be on the lookout for all sorts of problems or unfairness that can come to light. For example, a manager might be tougher on their employees than average. Or the levels of expectation for similarly situated roles in different parts of the company can vary widely if not calibrated carefully in advance. 

It’s up to leaders like me to take feedback from people across the company who have ideas and important points about how we can improve our evaluations. In fact, taking those critiques is an opportunity. By considering them, making changes, and working to do better, we’re able to model what we’re looking for.



Livia Martini is chief people officer at Gympass, which is being rebranded as Wellhub. 

Fast Company