Managing stress in the workplace

BY THE OFFICE COACH - OCTOBER 21, 2016

Coming to the end of the year I am under a lot of pressure in my job. I have read a lot of advice on how to combat stress, but what can I do in the moment?

Stress is widely talked about but poorly defined, probably because it is experienced and manifested so differently in individuals. Negative stress, or distress, can be defined as “a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilise”. Turn that around and one can experience good stress, or eustress, where one feels empowered by the resources available and can operate outside of one’s comfort zone to achieve great results.

The differentiator is not necessarily what is going on around us but rather how we perceive it that leads to a negative stress reaction. Before you try to fix your perceived problem, you need to define it clearly. You need to pay attention to the following:

Identify your stress signals

Stress affects us psychosomatically and cognitively. For example, our pulses race, our hearts beat faster and the hormones cortisol and adrenaline are released. All of these reduce our ability to relax, which is why you might find that your neck stiffens, your stomach clenches and your palms become sweaty. Cognitively, we may be easily distracted, we may have difficulties in dealing with large amounts of information. Irrational anxieties and negative thinking crowd our minds. We literally cannot think straight! By understanding how you react to stress, and identifying these early warning signals, you can begin to look for the underlying causes of the stress.

There are three major approaches to manage stress:

  1. Action-oriented: we confront the problem causing the stress, often changing the environment
  2. Emotionally-oriented: we cannot change a situation but we can change how we feel about it
  3. Acceptance-oriented: we have no power and no emotional control, so we focus on surviving the stress

I’d like to apply the first two approaches; action- and emotionally-oriented. Choosing to “survive” the stress is only viable in the short-term.

Don’t think of it as stress

If have been asked to do something important by your boss or colleague, recognise that what you have been asked to do matters. Stress symptoms tell you this and you naturally want to succeed and do a good job. So don’t see yourself as being placed under pressure, but rather that you have been given an opportunity to progress, to develop yourself. By framing the situation in a positive way, you can focus your nervous energy and heighten your attention to detail and apply yourself fully in an action-oriented way.

Talk to yourself

Keep any negative voices at bay and talk to yourself in a logical, calm way and be positive, for example:  “I have successfully completed a project like this before.” Or, if you are faced with an unrealistic request, say: “Once I have calmed down, I will tell my manager that this project cannot be completed in the time given.” Stress reactions are often emotionally charged; switch to right-brain thinking by looking at your situation objectively and logically. List what is worrying you, list the resources that you have at your disposal, list the possible actions you can take to better manage the situation. List…don’t just think!

Breathe deeply

When we feel anxious, our breathing starts to get shorter, shallower, and irregular. By taking big breaths and being conscious of your chest rising and falling, it awakens the parasympathetic nervous system, which induces relaxation. Lower your shoulders, rotate your neck and gently roll your shoulders. Try to draw your breath sideways, expanding through your ribcage rather than up and down. You may need to do this a number of times a day and it can be beneficial beyond stressful situations.

Apply the 80/20 Rule

Pareto’s Principle, or the 80/20 rule, argues that 80% of our success comes from 20% of what we do. 80% of your stress comes from 20% of your clients/ staff/ colleagues. Identify what activities and which people allow you to be most effective and focus your energies there.

Leverage your support network

You shouldn’t have to face nerve-wracking moments alone, whether it’s at work or in your private life. Find someone who you have a mutual connection with and who, when you share your vulnerabilities, will respond in a thoughtful way. By venting frustrations aloud, you can regroup your thoughts, or even benefit from hearing a different perspective. This type of relationship takes time to build and requires nurturing, and when you are asked to return the favour, you will find it incredibly gratifying to be on the other end helping a friend.

Be clear about what is important

Know your “business”; ask yourself “Why does my business exist?” and “What is it trying to achieve?” Refer back to your company’s visions and mission statements, to your goals as a business or team. Know your “master”; ask yourself “Who is my client?”, “What does my client want from me?” and “What is really important to him/her?” This will help you know your priorities; refer to client agreements, consult with your manager and peers and refer to your key performance indicators.

By creating a to-do list that prioritises tasks, you can prevent feeling overwhelmed. Write down everything you need to do and give yourself a deadline – this focuses your mind. Then identify which are important and urgent and do these first. Once they’re done, move down the list. If you spend all your time on time-consuming mundane things, you may never get to the important things, the important things that progress you.

Project an air of calm

Ever notice how when you’re speaking to someone who’s agitated, you start to feel agitated too? We all react to another’s body language and tone, making stress contagious. Face this try and keep in check your own emotions. If you are in a tense conversation keep your voice soft and controlled. If you are calm others are likely to be too.

That’s the WHAT and WHY. For the HOW TO, contact [email protected].