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
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
The first step to take care of yourself: Eat nutritious food, exercise, get plenty of sleep, and find a friend to vent to when you need it.
These things aren’t luxuries — a healthy mind and body will help you lead well.
When you turn your attention to your team, think about how you can be compassionate, be a source of optimism, and set a good example.
Show your employees that, whatever the stressful situation, you’re all in it together.
Talk about how you cope with stress, and encourage people to take breaks, improve their work-life balance, and maintain a healthy attitude toward daily work and deadlines.
It can also be useful to remind people why their work is important to the company and to customers. Renewing your sense of purpose is a good way to fight the drain of burnout.
Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) is how strategists describe the modern workplace. Everything is also moving faster. Many work processes that used to take weeks – letters, reporting, travel – are now instantaneous. Humans are not equipped for this turbulent assault of information, opinion, news, competition and distraction.
Many feel overloaded, busy and stressed. A quick look at the rise of anxiety, depression, attention disorders, sleep problems, relationship conflict and stress-related health conditions, will leave you in no doubt that the workplace has a big problem. Here are our top thirty recommendations. We will work through language, leadership, rhythm, culture and personal responsibility.
1. Stop using the word “stress” as fast as you possibly can. It is sloppy language that will confuse everyone. The language in your workplace is subtle but powerful. Get it right.
2. Define external pressure as challenge (never as “stress”). When things are VUCA, let people know that it is intense “out there” and you have challenges to address.
3. When you feel challenged but still motivated and energised let people know that you are fully engaged (never “stressed”). If you are on top of your game, say “relaxed and in flow”.
4. When you feel overwhelmed, uncomfortable and fragile, you are “distressed”. Distress is suffering and counter-productive. Distress is the body’s alarm system. You need to hear it and take action to bounce.
5. Define the difference between acute and chronic distress. Occasional, short bursts of distress are normal and adaptive. This is the acute stress that happens with a fire alarm. Persistent and relentless distress is abnormal and dangerous. This chronic distress is perhaps the greatest risk to your people and your business. It is the mental health disorder of our time.
6. Be clear that the opposite of distress is not disengaged. The solution is relaxed effectiveness. The question to ask is “how do we get back to relaxed effectiveness quickly.
7. The solution starts at the top with simplification. The fastest way to solve the problem is for leaders to enforce clarity. Define the objective and the key results needed to secure them. Remove distraction and goal conflict from the top down.
8. Leaders and teams must clarify each day’s key actions that will support desired results. Rather get one thing done well each day than make a little progress on ten things.
9. Leaders and managers must learn how to model calm, respectful and focused behaviour. When leaders show anger, disappointment and fear, distress rages through the organisation.
10. Be strictly focused in all meetings and teamwork. Remove devices and clutter. Multitasking is massively ineffective. We waste massive amounts of mental energy by switching attention. The average i-gen switches attention every 19 seconds. Overload, withdrawal and distress follow.
11. Help your people design and follow daily rhythms. Work is effective in bursts of high intensity on a single focus. Each person must learn when they need to take a quick and effective rest. For example, focus for 40 minutes followed by a 3 minute walk and stretch.
12. Make sure people get up and about for tea and lunch breaks. If possible get outside for some natural light and a brief walk over lunch.
13. Negotiate times or signals to reduce unwanted interruptions. Be firm with those who do not respect focused bursts.
14. Encourage daily stand-up meetings for each workgroup. These should be at the same time and ideally at the start of the day. Connect as human beings and then share your key goal for the day.
15. Keep meetings short
16. Consider having meeting-free hours during the day so that they can plan to get things done.
17. Answer e-mails and messages in short bursts no more than four times per day.
18. Work on one document or platform at a time. Use airplane mode when you can.
19. A key role for the board and leadership team is to model behaviours that set the culture of your organisation. Truth and respect are the foundations of culture. Demand honesty and expect everyone to be treated with respect.
20. Set high standards for impulse control. Outbursts of anger (shouting), sadness (tears) and fear (avoidance or panic) create waves of distress that echo for decades. Make sure everyone knows how to restrain outbursts, calm down and have a constructive candid conversation.
21. Be proactive and generous with apologies. We are human and we make mistakes. Be courageous and humble. Immediately step forward when you behave without honesty or respect.
22. Train your people in empathy. Empathy is at the core of communication, collaboration, innovation and high performing teams. Empathy requires that you be physically present, emotionally attuned and can take the perspective of others. If people feel listened to and understood, distress is massively reduced.
23. Train people in influence and communication styles. Diversity at work demands that we learn how to understand and connect with different perspectives and styles. These are not rigid diagnoses. We can learn to recognise different styles and how to adjust and be more flexible with our own.
24. Train your people in conflict resolution. Human interactions are messy and conflict will occur. Conflict is a primary cause of distress and mental illness. It can be managed. Show people how to respectfully disagree, debate and resolve differences without compromising truth, respect and compassion.
25. Be clear in your expectation that you expect people to know how to bounce, recover, relax and rejuvenate. While work is a significant source of distress, family, health and finances play a role. A significant solution to the problem of distress is personal responsibility for making the time and practicing the solutions.
26. Ensure that your organisation makes the necessary resources to support effective bounce and recovery available. Including assessments, workshops, digital training, practice tips and coaching (or EAP).
27. Ensure that your people understand the importance of sleep. After excessive device time, sleep disturbance is a key cause of anxiety and depression (distress). A good night’s sleep at the right time is a primary solution.
28. Train your people in the evidence-based skills of relaxation, breath control, emotion regulation and attention training. We recommend avoiding confusing words that might cause religious or philosophical friction. Give people every possible support to build the right practices into their lives. Encourage practice at work.
29. Socialise the concept of smart switching. Many of us remain in the work grid through the evening and the weekend. As people learn to switch from work to home and family, resilience will build.
30. Encourage laughter. Don’t be too serious. Perhaps every workplace needs a joker.