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How to Deal With Workplace Stress

Are you feeling overwhelmed by stress at work?

Though stress is a normal part of any job, it can quickly derail your productivity and focus.

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. For this reason, it’s important to consider both the helpful aspects of stress and how to avoid the negative aspects of stress in the workplace.

Let’s start by taking a look at the benefits of stress.


Benefits of stress

The American Institute of Stress, defines stress as the brains response to any demand—specifically any demand for change.

In small doses, stress has many advantages. Daniela Kaufer,  an associate professor at UC Berkeley whostudies the biology of stress and how the brain responds to anxiety and traumatic events, has found that there are definitive benefits to stress. Her research shows that under the proper circumstances the right amounts of stress can:

  • Improve memory
  • Improve mental alertness
  • Improve overall cognitive performance
  • Increase mental awareness
  • Heighten all of the senses

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 l employment, it doesn’t have to be overwhelming and debilitating. As with any other health condition, stress prevention is always the first line of defense.

With that said, let’s take a closer look at how to deal with workplace stress.

1. Accept, anticipate, and prepare for workplace stress

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 verses 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 source of stress 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 staring 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 when 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 extreme 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.

2. Know your triggers

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.

3. Develop a positive perspective

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 traitevery 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 pessimism becomes excessive and supersedes all positive thoughts. In other words, when doom and gloom becomes 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 world view, 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 see the clouds but focus on the ray of sunshine peeking through. Or, to put it another way, we learn to focus on the benefits and bi-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.

4. Manage your time well

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:

Understand your role: Work to ensure you are crystal clear about what is expected of you. This is crucial because it determines what you should spend time on and what you can delegate.

Understand your goal: Do you know what you’re aiming for, individually and as a team? How will you know when you’ve accomplished your mission? When you make a list of your major work goals, that list prioritizes where your time should be spent. Everything else is a waste of your time.

Start well and end well: Organization does not begin when you get to work and end when you leave. Your day actually starts from the moment you wake up and ends when you go to bed at night. Plan a realistic ‘pre-work routine’ that ensures you get to work earlier than your actual start time so when you arrive you are not a frazzled mess. It is also important to have a daily wrap up routine where you conduct a self-assessment. What did you accomplish? What was left undone? How did you manage your time? Where did you waste time? What steps can you take to be more successful tomorrow?

This take practice, so be sure to give yourself time to improve and pay attention to things that may be causing poor time management.

5. How to deal with workplace stress through prioritization

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.”

6. Learn to manage up as well as down

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.

You can usually establish a way of working together that fits both of you, that is characterized by clear and mutual expectations and makes both of you more productive and effective.

7. Learn to delegate

This is such a simple concept but an excruciatingly difficult practice.

When done right delegation involves a little trust and a lot of insight on the part of the person delegating. You must trust those to whom you are assigning the task that they will do it well and you must 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.

8. Take care of your physical and mental health

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 (at the very least) 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 minimize the effects on the body include the following:

  • Complex carbohydrates
  • Fruits and vegetables rich in vitamin C.
  • Spinach and leafy greens
  • Fish rich in Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Nuts and seeds rich in healthy fats
  • Raw Veggies

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 is 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 is very effective at reducing fatigue, improving alertness and concentration, and at enhancing overall cognitive function. This can be especially helpful when stress has depleted your energy and/or ability to concentrate.

Scientists have found that regular participation in aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and improve self-esteem. Even five minutes of aerobic exercise can stimulate anti-anxiety effects.  Simply taking a walk during the day could be just what is needed.

9. Relax

Sounds like a no-brainer right?

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. In Sarah Klein article about the 10 benefits of relaxation, stress relief is featured as one of the first benefits. A relaxed body, mind and peaceful soul will enable you to avoid sources of stress by making good decisions, as 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 “un-plug” is one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself.

10. Ask for Help

Sometimes the easiest way to eliminate stress in the work place 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 work place. 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 okay to let a project or task go, and let someone else handle it.

The relief it produces will be worth it.

11. Tell Your Boss About Your Mental Illness

Recently, author and comedian Ruby Wax stated that it is critical to keep your mental illness a secret from your boss and your workplace — that it would only hurt your career for them to know and that you must lie to save your job. While Wax is a mental health advocate, her words have reversed the progress that many have within the realm of mental health. Research from Mind has found that openness about mental illness in the workplace will ultimately benefit both the employer and the employee. The Equality Act also states that it is illegal to be let go due to a mental health problem.

Making adjustments in the workplace to adapt to your personal mental health should not be considered a bad thing. You should not be afraid to talk to your boss if you are struggling. Ultimately the decision should be made based on how you feel – whether you feel comfortable speaking about it as well as whether you feel that it is a need-to-know fact.

How do you deal with workplace stress?

Preventing or eliminating workplace stress entirely isn’t a realistic goal, as stress is a natural part of what it means to be human.

With a few simple shifts in mindset and approach to stress, you can prepare yourself to handle workplace stress as well as the toll it takes on your overall health. It takes time and requires you to practice, but you will feel the difference the more energy you apply.

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Please share your own tips or experience with workplace stress in the comments below!

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