Stress doesn’t feel good to have, nor does it feel good to be around. Eighty percent of Americans say they feel stress during their day. In many organizations, stress feels baked into the work culture, even as everyone wonders what to do about it.
Like a contagion, stress spreads. We literally catch the stress of others. Simply watching someone else tense up can trigger the release of the stress hormone cortisol in our own bodies. When I conduct interviews as part of my coaching work, I hear stressed-out colleagues described this way:
- When he gets stressed, I try to avoid him.
- Everyone knows when she’s having a bad day. It’s all over her face.
- When he gets spun up, he gets everyone else spun up. It’s exhausting.
- I’m seriously worried about her health.
Most of us think about the damage that stress causes us. Yet, few consider the negative impact of their stress on others. And it’s most certainly negatively affecting others, especially if you’re a manager. In fact, a leader’s stress is felt acutely as it impacts the emotion of an entire group.
People avoid stressed-out colleagues for their own psychic protection. If people don’t want to be around you, if they don’t find you energizing or rewarding to work with, you will be far less effective. After all, who wouldn’tprefer to collaborate with people who seem sturdy and resilient?
To stop your stress from impacting others (and wearing you down), consider these steps to better manage it.
Pinpoint your true stressors
When people talk about what stresses them, they tend to describe generalities like “my job” or “unrealistic deadlines” or “the new boss.” We don’t typically dive deeply into the triggers, because we’d rather not wallow there. However, we can’t solve what we don’t truly understand.
Try this: keep a stress journal for one month. At the end of each day, jot down when you felt stressed, including details about the specific situation and what was happening at the time. Reflect on these questions: What conditions caused me to feel stressed today? What about the situation felt important at the time? How was the situation meaningful to me?
One consulting client who tried this strategy learned that her hands-off management approach — which was meant to reduce her workload — was actually worsening her stress because she lost visibility into how projects were progressing. Worried that she’d end up in a fire drill at the last minute if the work wasn’t correct, she spent lots of time running through possible scenarios. She was still feeling the stress even if she wasn’t doing the work.
By uncovering what’s causing you stress, you can develop workable solutions to address the sources and not just the symptoms.
Change your reaction first and the workload second
Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson describe in their book It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work how excessive workloads are touted as badges of honor in many organizations, even as employees complain about how overwork is detrimental to their well-being.
In fact, the top goal of many of my stressed clients is to get a handle on their workload by finding strategies that reduce the amount of work, such as better delegation or expectation setting. It’s not that this isn’t helpful, it’s just rarely enough. You can make adjustments, but there will always be more work.Instead, start by examining how you feel about the workload. Do you feel compelled to be perfect? Are you prone to second-guessing yourself? Is there a pattern in your career of not saying no to requests?
You’ve probably seen how the very same job, with the very same workload, will stress one person while not bothering another. A salesperson I worked with marveled at how her colleague, Raj, never took rejection from clients personally. Rather, he’d say it was “part of the game.” She ended up adopting Raj’s mantra when she found herself agonizing over what more she could have done. Her work didn’t change, but her attitude toward it did.
Create pockets of sanity
Every job has busy periods when the best strategy is to hunker down and look for the light at the end of the tunnel. But this becomes soul-crushing when your work never lets up.
If your job doesn’t have natural breaks, create recovery periods for yourself. These can be organized around common stressors like business travel or key meetings, or spaced at regular intervals. Be as vigilant (and guilt-free) at scheduling activities that relax you as those that are work-related.
One client who felt drained from excessive business travel restructured his time to build in rewards. He selected hotels with spa services and booked massages during his stay — something he never found time to do at home. When possible, he extended his trip an extra evening to visit friends in the area and committed to not working during the flight home. He also made sure to keep the first day back relatively free from meetings so he could catch up.
You don’t have to make big moves to create space for yourself. Setting aside one half-day a month for reflection time can help to redefine priorities and reduce stress. Even micro-moments of sanity, like taking a walk to lunch, can offer a needed break.
Don’t just say you’re stressed; share how you’re working to manage it
Because stress is so prevalent at work, we talk about it — a lot. While sharing our stress can make us feel better momentarily, we’re actually contributing to a stressful culture because emotion spreads. In short, saying “I’m so stressed” increases stress for other people. Plus, what we focus on gets stronger, so we can even increase our own stress by talking about it.
This doesn’t mean that you should be inauthentic. A more helpful approach is to share that, while work is stressful, you’re trying to manage yourself so it has less of an impact. By sharing strategies you’re employing, you model for others that it’s acceptable to push back against stress instead of accepting it. As a bonus, if you state what you’re doing out loud, you’re more likely to follow through on your commitments.
When Daphne, a leader of a lobbying group in a tumultuous industry, announced to her team that she was trying to stay off email over the weekend to get a break, she found that others were relieved of the pressure to respond. Her entire team exercised more caution about sending emails on the weekend, clearly marking what was truly urgent, and people started showing up to work more refreshed on Monday.
Plan for stress by planning around it
While most of us have accepted the idea of stress at work, we still feel surprisingly besieged by it. We can even have meta-stress — where we stress about having stress. Perhaps a better solution is to consider it the norm and plan for it. Jobs are stressful, industries are turbulent, and there are rarely enough resources or time. If that’s the case, how can you keep from adding to the churn and swirl? What are ways you can sustain your own energy and that of others?
We’re not as helpless as we might think. By exercising your own sense of agency, you can reduce your own stress and show others how to do the same. You might just shift the culture. Because while stress may be contagious, so is calm.
Harvard Business Review
While stress cannot be completely absent from a business workforce, resilience can help channel stress into creating a better work environment and fostering a sustainable high-performance business, writes Stuart Taylor
It’s a scenario we’re all too familiar with – you’re feeling really good about your work day, until a colleague comes into the office in a huff, worrying about a client issue, or stressing about their ever-growing list of responsibilities. And suddenly you find yourself agitated, anxious and stressed out too.
While we’re all aware of the effect that stress can have on our mind, body and performance, what you might be surprised to learn is that stress is much like the common cold – it’s highly contagious and easy to ‘catch’ from other people.
And while healthy levels of stress can be beneficial – helping you to stay on your toes, alert and agile in the face of pressure – there are times when it can trigger negative distress responses and impact on mental and physical wellbeing.
As it stands, negative stress in the workplace is said to cost the Australian economy $14.1 billion per year. Our Global Resilience Report of over 26,000 professionals found that 55 per cent of us worry excessively, 50 per cent are hyper-vigilant, 45 per cent experience distress symptoms, and 35 per cent are unable to relax. A separate workplace study found that employee stress levels have risen nearly 20 per cent in three decades.
And the dynamic nature of the modern workforce indicates that there’s no sign of this slowing down –– employees, and the organisations they work for, are more vulnerable than ever to the challenges of workplace stress.
The good news is that while everyone mimics the emotions of others to some extent, how intensely you pick up on some else’s stress depends on a lot of factors, and you can actually strengthen your emotional immune system to master negative stress, by building your resilience.
“Learn your personal emotional cues to identify negative behaviours and shift your energy into something more constructive”
To build your personal resilience at work, and mitigate against the negative effects of second-hand stress, try practicing the following:
- Funnel negative stress into something productive. Too often, we let stress overwhelm us and prohibit us from doing our best work. Learn your personal emotional cues to identify negative behaviours and shift your energy into something more constructive.
- Tackle the cause of stress. Many people think that stress is caused by the level of pressure we are facing, when it’s actually caused by how we view that pressure. As a result, we are quick to make a forecast in our mind of how we will handle this pressure, however it is simply a forecast, not a reality. To reframe our thinking; catch, check, then change (reframe) negative thoughts. One of the most effective things we can learn is how to reframe our thinking to avoid falling into thinking traps that lead to unhelpful responses to stress.
- Protect yourself. Before going into work, try calming your mind and body. Make sure you’re getting a good night’s sleep, aim to do 30 mins of exercise per day and get some fresh air during your break. Aim to stand up from your desk at least every 30 minutes, even if it’s just for 10 seconds.
- Redirect the other person’s stress. If a colleague is exuding stress, rather than engaging in the negativity, listen with empathy and then direct the conversation away from the emotional high stress into something practical. For example, if someone is complaining about a long list of responsibilities, perhaps offer some practical ways in which they can prioritise their day or delegate their tasks accordingly to take the pressure off.
- Take time at the end of each day to celebrate the positive things that happened in the day. This will allow you to leave negative work stress at the door and focus on nurturing personal wellbeingand relationships. This kind of self-care is important for coming into work relaxed and ready to take on the day.
Looking beyond the individual, organisations also have a duty of care to create work environments that foster resilience, trust, productivity, and positive mental wellbeing for employees. And it all starts from the top, at executive level.
“Excessive stress is prolific in CEOs who feel that they carry the successes and failures of the business on their shoulders”
When the executive team aren’t modelling resilience, that’s when employees are most likely to catch second-hand negative stress symptoms.
1. The executive team should lead by example
Unsurprisingly, excessive stress is prolific in CEOs who feel that they carry the successes and failures of the business on their shoulders. But one of the real problems with management stress is that it’s often transferred, meaning that managers who feel stress tend to pass it on to their employees by their own high-tension behaviour. To prevent this, executives need to dispel this toxic workplace culture and invest in building personal resilience and wellbeing to reduce their own levels of stress in the workplace.
2. Model and encourage wellbeing practices
While stress can be contagious, the converse is also true – when one member of the team experiences the positive effects of well-being, the effect can spread across the entire team. It’s for this reason that organisations should encourage staff to take time for exercise and other renewal activities like mindfulness activities and healthy eating. Such initiatives that promote overall health and wellness, act as a preventative measure against stress in the workplace, are cost-effective for businesses and can even be tax efficient.
3. Build a culture of trust
If you’ve been following the gist of recent news stories, you’ll have noticed that the theme across Australia’s business landscape is trust, and for good reason. When it comes to minimising stress in the workplace, leaders should aim to build a trust-based culture rather than a fear-based culture through steadiness, integrity, compassion, connection and engagement. In trust-based organisations, employees are less stressed, happier, and more productive therefore translating into better business outcomes.
4. Foster the contagion of positive stress
To encourage positive stress, leaders need to focus on skills and training in the workplace that not only enhance the social climate (creating a calm, supportive work environment), but also develops our response to stress, for example resilience building activities. The most obvious way to train our responses to stress in the workplace is to address the main drivers and gradually train employees to master these points of contention through one-on-one coaching and empathetic leadership.
While stress cannot be completely absent from a business workforce, resilience in business provides an essential framework for people and at an organisational level to protect against negative stress in the workplace, and channel it to create a better work environment that fosters sustainable high performance at all levels of the business.
In May 2019, the World Health Organisation (WHO) included “Burn-out” as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress.
They call it an occupational phenomenon – not a diagnosis. That is a small mercy.
In the ICD-11, “burn-out” it is characterised by:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and
- Reduced professional efficacy
In our view, this is a step backwards. The workplace is confronting the complexity of mental illness at work. It incurs a trillion-dollar penalty. Introducing sloppy and confusing language can make the situation worse. Let’s consider this:
- Stress is mostly positive and stimulating. We thrive on it.
- When pressure is negative, is that the workplace or the person’s fault?
- While the pressure of work is a factor, in our experience poor self-management is source of suffering – poor sleep discipline, substance abuse, sloth, anxiety, anger and worry.
- There are times when managers abuse and bully staff.
- The symptoms listed are so vague and subjective as to be useless.
- Engines and electrical circuits may burn out. Human’s don’t do this.
- Burn-out is open for business now. Watch the numbers grow.
- Blame will land on employers, managers and the economy.
No one will win. Even on a good day, we can convince ourselves on all three WHO symptoms. What happens when we chose to drink too much, worried about our marriage, slept in over the weekend, or fume over a neighbour’s behaviour? And how do we distinguish burn-out from endogenous depression or PTSD?
Yes, we want workplaces to serve our society, compensate fairly, provide stimulation and meaning and even a community. For this to be sustainable, we need people to be physically, emotionally and mentally fit. At the end of the day, this is an individual responsibility. Workplaces can help significantly.
Here is a quick reminder of what we have found to be a far more constructive solution:
Help staff and managers understand how resilience fails
Train staff and managers to bounce with precision and skill
This week, I take every day the time to anchor myself, keeping calm and feeling grounded.
Hustle bustle of life may easily leave us anchorless, “floating” with no strong connection with self and the here and now. Grounding ourselves, pressing our feet on the ground while standing tall and breathing, deeply enables to quickly tune back. Re-aligned, we can move forward with serenity.
When will you anchor yourself today?
Let us kick off Stress Awareness Month by looking at the opposite of stress. Certainly, there are times when stress is telling us that something in our lives is straining our capacity—a stressor we need to identify and deal with. However, often times, stress can be a sign that something is missing.
As an Executive Wellness Coach, companies and individual executives hire me to help them manage stress for well-being and success. Stress is an enormous drag on our physical and mental health and our productivity. It is imperative to manage stress and replacing it with a positive is even better. Stress drains our energy. Let us also look at what creates energy.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to one-third of U.S. workers report high levels of stress at work. Two-fifths (40%) say their jobs are very stressful, and more than one-fourth (26%) report being “often burned out or stressed” by their work.
It is no accident that high levels of workplace stress are accompanied by high levels of employee disengagement. Business leaders need to understand what factors are crushing employees’ spirit, and on the other hand, how to spark motivation.
Meaning and motivation
A recent report by the Korn Ferry Institute explicitly links the problem of a stressed-out workforce with the challenge of fostering motivation. The key to sustained innovation is motivation—specifically intrinsic motivation, the drive that comes from within. By contrast, stress is “a well-known creativity killer.”
Reset, Renew, And Recharge: How Building Resilience Is The Best Antidote To Today’s Stress Epidemic
When stress inevitably hits us, there are ways to manage it and mitigate its effects. But why wait? Why not be proactive and build up the stress-busting quality of resilience so that, when stress arrives, we are ready for it?
Building resilience is like making regular deposits into a rainy day fund.The bigger our reserves, the better we will be able to withstand future adversity.
Keep in mind that resilience is not just the ability to bounce back from difficulties or setbacks—it is also the ability to thrive amid tough challenges. Those very challenges can increase our resilience if we meet them head on and with a positive mindset.
The power of healthy habits
Physical and psychological wellbeing are the foundation of resilience. Our other efforts to cope productively with stress will be undermined if we do not incorporate healthy habits into our daily routine.
The Harvard Medical School emphasizes the importance of diet, exercise, and regular sleep in combatting stress and building resilience. While it can be tempting to stray from healthy eating during a long day, unhealthy choices will drain our energy and contribute to mood swings.
Forbes – Naz Beheshti