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Learning to Love Stress

Stress is an often overused and misapplied word. Its associations are negative and its presence is often flagged as an indicator of poor workplaces or bad bosses. But stress or perhaps more accurately pressure can be a force for good. As the saying goes “The key to winning is poise under stress. – Paul Brown” […]

May 01, 2024

Stress is an often overused and misapplied word. Its associations are negative and its presence is often flagged as an indicator of poor workplaces or bad bosses. But stress or perhaps more accurately pressure can be a force for good. As the saying goes “The key to winning is poise under stress. – Paul Brown” Many see the measure of a good employee or manager is their ability they cope under pressure or respond to a pressurised situation. For example when an aggressive customer is bellowing down the phone whether your team member keeps their cool or loses it will be key to whether you think you have a ‘keeper’.

The issue of stress is further complicated because an individual’s response or reaction to stress is shaped by their personality. Some individuals do not respond well to being put under pressure and others seem to thrive, appearing to enjoy the kudos that goes with saving the day. To add further complexity to this, individual’s own responses to stressful situations change over time. Any manner of influences and events can conspire against individuals to create “just one of those days” and calamity strike.

So, should employers seek to insulate their business against stress? A really important point to make is that, as in life, in business we cannot stop the events that causes stress from happening. Stress is as much a by-product of work, as is profit. Stress may not be as desirable as profit, but you can’t organise work, plan schedules and sell your product without creating opportunities for conflict, disagreement or even disappointment.

This means the real issue for any business is to consider what can be done to mitigate the negative effects of pressure, to build in systems into your business that maintain a positive outlook for your employees and what changes you can make when events do not go according to plan. Listed below are some suggestions on what you can do to change your business for the better.

In work

1. Tackle & Solve Problems
Good problem solving is fundamental to any business. The absence of good problem solving is also a major source of frustration and unhappiness for many employees. So, invest time and effort in understanding those structural and repeat problems and tackle at source. Have a plan, share that plan and work the plan.

2. Time Management
Being effective at work is rarely about the number of hours worked, but more about good time management. Know what you have to do, knowing what is priority and working through the list gives you a daily lift in your mood. If a problem is really big then break it down to smaller tasks. As David Allen says (Getting things Done) “what task would move this problem closer to being done?” so break the problem down to obtain a sense of progress, a view of what needs doing and when it needs to be done by, is both empowering and stress reducing.

3. Work in blocks
To follow on from the time management point it’s important to break up the day in to sections of sustainable work. Individuals are most effective in shorter sustained periods so set aside blocks of time to focus on key activities. Such as email review, phone calls, team meetings, project work, call backs. I’m not suggesting scheduling all available time. Instead schedule blocks of time to capture those tasks that happen daily, weekly or monthly. Such an approach will help keep you on top of multiple streams of work. Also don’t forget to block out time for those non work activities that help your perform; eating, exercise or just unplug from the virtual world.

4. Dealing with “time thieves”
A common cause of stress is having too much to do and too little time in which to do it. And yet in this situation, many people will still agree to take on additional responsibility. Learning to say “No” to additional or unimportant requests will help to reduce your level of stress, and may also help you develop more self-confidence.

To learn to say “No”, you need to understand why you find it difficult. Many people find it hard to say “No” because they want to help and are trying to be nice and to be liked. For others, it is a fear of conflict, rejection or missed opportunities. Remember that these barriers to saying “No” are all self-created.

You might feel reluctant to respond to a request with a straight “No”, at least at first. Instead think of some pre-prepared phrases to let other people down more gently.

5. Leave your desk for lunch
Another way our sedentary office existence can become pressurised is by the lack of breaks. If you don’t make a conscious decision to step away from the computer before you know it you are having two meals a day at your desk. It’s important to change the scenery and step away from the desk. Even if just for a brief walk outside, have a break and then come back to the work environment.

6. Share the problem
Talking through problems or challenges offers significant advantages for both professional and personal development. When I am coaching people I find it is very useful to talk though issues in a reflective manner and explore the causes of stress that followed from an event. Not only will this offer new support and insight into problems, but it can also reveal new perspective on long standing issues and their potential solutions.

Outside Work

7. Get More Sleep
Quality sleep in good amounts is fundamental to a calm and rested mind. We have all stared at the ceiling working though a problem that just won’t let us settle. To improve the quality of your sleep have a consistent routine that relaxes you before you go to sleep.

There is lots you can do, plan your following day a couple of hours before you go to bed so that is set aside in your mind, have a consistent time that your body gets ready for going to bed, put the electronic devices away, remove the TV from the bedroom, have a bath and perhaps find something to relax you and help forget the things that are stopping you rest. You may insert your own suggestion here…

8. Get a sweat on!
Physical activity is important to being effective and also is a good way to offloading stress. Those hormones that were so fundamental to survival of our animal forefathers are the same chemicals that are now a cause of tension and stress in our modern lifestyles. A physical workout will help reduce their presence which will have a positive effect on stress and also improve sleep.
Remember to drink lots of water; being fully hydrated is good for your health and improves your ability to concentrate.

9. Remember to get on the fun bus
Ensure that you get enough fun out of life: Plan time in the day to do something that gives you pleasure. Looking forward to such times helps when you have to cope with less pleasant aspects of life.

10. Clock out and log off
I’ve spoken about this one in other context as the advent of smartphones and tablets have extended the working day. The temptation can be always to respond to emails outside the working day. But by doing so we are locking ourselves into a cycle of never really being off the clock, constantly working or at the very least guilty about not working.

Maybe going cold turkey is not for you or maybe the job is just too big! But at the very least have a regularly break from the email and when you are out of work, stop working. Instead focus on the non-work stuff: This might be people that are important to you, a creative passion, a sport, a new hobby.

I believe that stress is a force for good. An absence of action and progression does not lead to contentment or a sense of fulfilment. Completing tasks, moving forward and progress will give a sense of achievement. Achievement is a major source of job satisfaction and even drives our sense of self-worth. But at the same time we must guard against the negative effects and downsides of working hard. It might not be possible to implement all of the above but by looking to address these issues you will avoid some of the negative impacts of stress and make your workplace more productive.

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