Stress is an inevitable and permanent fixture on any job. Even if you absolutely love what you are doing and are fortunate to work in a profession that ignites your passion and energizes your soul, you still will be faced with stress.
The American Institute of Stress defines stress as the brain’s response to any demand—specifically any demand for change. In small doses, stress has many advantages. Daniela Kaufer is an associate professor at UC Berkeley and studies the biology of stress and how the brain responds to anxiety and traumatic events. Her research has found that there are definitive benefits to stress. It shows that under the proper circumstances the right amounts of stress can:
Unfortunately for most of us, the workplace carries more than just a little stress. Stress that is chronic and experienced in copious amounts for long periods of time can be detrimental to our health. At work, we experience pressure. Pressure to perform and produce from our boss, pressure to “get along” and be a team player from our colleagues and the pressure we place on ourselves to achieve and excel at what we do.
Even though stress is the ever present companion of employment, it doesn’t have to be overwhelming and debilitating. As with any other health condition, prevention is always the first line of defense.
The battle begins in the mind. Understanding and accepting that you will experience stress is the first order of business. It’s easier to brace for impact when you expect a punch versus trying to recover from a sucker punch that came out of nowhere.
Once you learn to expect stress then it’s time to take it one step further and anticipate the stressful event. This can help you minimize and in some cases avoid the stressor altogether. It’s all in the preparation. Once you know what the stressor is and expect it, you can devise a plan to cope or avoid it.
The 2006 film, The Devil Wears Prada starring Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep is the perfect portrayal of this sequence. In the movie, Anne Hathaway’s character—Andrea Sachs– is a recent college grad looking to break into the fashion magazine industry. She lands a job as the assistant to the great and iconic Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep’s character—AKA the Devil in Prada). Ms. Priestly is the boss from Hell and a constant source of anxiety for Andrea. However, Andrea learns to not only expect (and dread) workplace stress but she quickly learns how to anticipate and adapt to the environment. In a matter of weeks, she becomes effective at nimbly sidestepping the annoyances and also becomes empowered by the experience.
Stress and its triggers are different for everyone. Certain people, places or situations might produce high levels of stress for you. Think about what causes you stress, and brainstorm solutions. The American Psychological Association suggests that a great method of identifying triggers is by tracking your feelings by keeping a journal for a few weeks. They suggest you journal how you felt just before, during and after a stressful event and also track your response to the situation.
How you cope with stress can determine your rate of recovery and also predict future stressful events. For example, if you cope with a stressful workplace situation by screaming at a co-worker and storming out of a meeting—chances are you are going to face some sort of disciplinary action or negative consequence, which is going to produce another round of stressful events. If you can at least identify your triggers you can mentally begin preparing to deal with the situation positively.
For some of us, this is very hard to do because of the way our brains are wired. Some personality types and temperaments are just predisposed to negative thinking. It’s not a defect it’s a fact. According to some experts, a healthy dose of cynicism is a necessary trait every good leader should have. The ability to be able to see and anticipate a disaster and discern flaws in logic is essential to the success of any lofty endeavor. The problem arises when pessimismbecomes excessive and supersedes all positive thoughts. In other words, when doom and gloom become your permanent state of mind.
While some of us are predisposed to negative thinking, this in no way implies that we are entirely at the mercy of our thoughts. For those of us with a more pessimistic worldview, we must work to be intentional in our thought life. Being able to deliberately see the silver lining through the clouds is a lifesaving gift. That doesn’t mean we ignore the clouds. Instead, we seethe clouds but focus on the ray of sunshine peeking through. Or, to put it another way, we learn to focus on the benefits and by-products of the rain and not the inconvenience and hassle it produces.
This ability is extremely important when it comes to avoiding workplace stress. Learning to cultivate positive relationships with coworkers and seeking ways to enjoy the environment, tasks and interactions with others is essential. You must learn to harness and capitalize on the power of our thoughts.
Poor time management is a precursor to stress.
Time management in the workplace is especially challenging. Distractions, disruptions, emails, meetings, deadlines, demands, requests, priorities… the list of things you have to manage can easily become overwhelming. Believe it or not, everyone around you is paddling furiously, desperately trying to keep their heads above the productivity waterline. Stress, pressure and a sense of overwhelm is the all too familiar outcome for those who fail to successfully wrangle their time.
There are hundreds of articles discussing time management with thousands of models demonstrating proper time management. The truth is to effectively develop a systematic approach to properly handling time and tasks depends largely on your personality, temperament and learning modality. However, when approaching this daunting task there are three overarching elements you should keep in mind:
Proper prioritization is a part of and necessary for good time management. A good rule of thumb to follow is the Pareto Principle a.k.a. the rule of 80/20. This basically states that 20 percent of your effort produces 80 percent of the results. Some experts believe that in a workplace scenario, 80 percent of the results of a project or task come from the first 20 percent of expended effort. Knowing this, the question becomes which tasks are the most important and therefore should get the top 20 percent of your attention? How can you shorten tasks, activities and meetings?
Learning to recognize and eliminate activities that yield very little or no outcome is vitally important. Should the first hour of your morning be spent going through emails or could you devote that time to something else and answer emails a bit later? When it comes to meetings, consider how much time is spent gathering at the meeting place and getting settled. Is there a more productive way to disseminate the information and gathering feedback? The key here is the age old philosophy many of us learned in grade school—“Work smarter not harder.”
When most people think of management, the first thing that comes to mind is supervising and managing those that report directly to them. However, an equally important relationship that requires the devotion of time and energy is managing the relationships with your boss or managing up. This is so important in reducing and mitigating workplace stress.
The concept of managing up does not involve showering supervisors with flattery; rather, understanding that the supervisor—subordinate relationship is one of mutual dependence. Bosses need cooperation, reliability, and honesty from their direct reports. Subordinates rely on bosses for setting priorities, obtaining critical resources and ensuring that success is possible. It only makes sense to work at making the relationship operate as smoothly.
Successfully managing up requires that you have a good understanding of your supervisor and of yourself– particularly strengths, weaknesses, work styles, and needs. Once you are aware of what impedes or facilitates communication with your boss, you can take actions to improve your relationship. Try establishing a method of working together that suits you both. Make sure it is characterized by clear and mutual expectations and enhances the productivity and effectiveness of both of you.
The concept is simple but the execution is difficult. When done right delegation balances a little trust with a lot of insight. You must trust those with whom you are assigning the task that they will do it well. You must also have the insight to know which tasks you should delegate and to whom.
A quick rule of thumb is to do the things only you can do, and delegate everything else whenever possible. Also bear in mind, when you do delegate, you delegate tasks and activities, not responsibility. You are still ultimately responsible for the final outcome.
Copious amounts of sustained stress have negative effects on both your physical and mental health. If you are prone to anxiety or work in a stressful environment it is imperative that you maintain a healthy diet and a moderate amount of physical activity.
A healthy diet can help counter the impact of stress by shoring up the immune system and lowering blood pressure. Foods that help with minimizing the effects on the body are:
Foods you want to avoid are the ones we see listed on every unhealthy list: simple carbohydrates; foods high in sugar, caffeine, calories and “bad” fats and processed foods.
Physical activity and exercise are one of the best ways to relieve stress. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), exercise is considered vital for maintaining mental fitness and reducing stress. Studies show that it reduces fatigue, improves alertness and concentration, and at enhances overall cognitive function. This is especially helpful when stress has depleted your energy and/or ability to concentrate.
Scientists have found that regular participation in aerobic exercise decreases overall levels of tension, elevates and stabilizes mood, improves sleep, and bolsters self-esteem. Five minutes of aerobic exercise can stimulate anti-anxiety effects. Taking a walk during the day could be just what is needed.
Sounds like a no brainer right? However, for many people, daily relaxation is easier said than done. It can be hard to find the time and many find it difficult to mentally disconnect. Like most things, relaxation takes practice. Huffington Post lists 10 benefits of relaxation and stress relief is at the top of the list, but it’s about more than just stress relief. A relaxed body, mind and peaceful soul enable you to avoid stressors by making good decisions because relaxation facilitates clarity of thought. The failure to take time off, vacation and relax—in the truest sense of the word –actually produces stress. Learning to take a break and “unplug” is one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself.
Sometimes the easiest way to eliminate stress in the workplace is to simply ask for help. If work is piling up and it stresses you out just thinking about it—it’s time to ask for help. If you are a giver by nature this behavior most likely will extend to the workplace. Giving and receiving are interdependent on each other. You might love giving, but if you don’t work the receiving side, you’re not better. You’re imbalanced.
Asking for help doesn’t make you weak or incompetent. It shows your wisdom and humility. Asking may be simply requesting a favor, time with a friend to talk over a problem or even delegating some of your duties. Occasionally, it’s ok to let a project or task go, and let someone else handle it. The relief it produces will be worth it.
Preventing or eliminating workplace stress entirely is a fantasy. But with a few simple tweaks to your mode of operation and a slight change in your perspective, you can reduce the stress in your environment and the toll it takes on your overall health.