It’s perfectly normal to be affected by stress, both in your personal life but also at work. Perhaps you are not getting on with someone at work and it’s affecting your confidence and relationship? Maybe you are just getting started at work and the expectations placed on you feel overwhelming? Perhaps you are struggling to find a job and have bills and a mortgage to pay? Whatever the reasons, managing stress effectively, especially if you haven’t taken time to understand what it is and what can trigger it, requires focus and skilful intervention!
There were 602,000 workers suffering work-related stress, depression, and anxiety in the UK in 2018-19, with 12.8 million working days lost. Stress issues at work are by no means uncommon, but how can we deal with and manage this?
What is stress?
The first step in identifying and dealing with stress is to understand something about its nature. Stress is a feeling of being under abnormal pressure. At work, you may feel this way when you have an increased workload in your job. In life, you might feel stressed if you’re undergoing a transitional period such as moving to a new house, or if you are dealing with a financial or family issue.
Your body feels stress when it reacts to harmful situations – whether those are real or perceived. When you feel threatened, a chemical reaction occurs in your body known as ‘fight-or-flight’, or the stress response. During the stress response, your heart rate typically increases, your breathing quickens, your muscles tighten and your blood pressure rises. This is a normal and necessary reaction, but sometimes it can get out of control and get in the way of everyday life.
The stress bucket analogy
As an individual, you will likely handle stress differently to how others you know might handle the same situation. Imagine you have a stress bucket. Your stress bucket might differ in size to someone else’s. Someone more vulnerable to stress is likely to have a smaller stress bucket. This means that they handle less stress before they reach the point of overflow or their ‘breaking point’. On the other hand, someone less vulnerable to stress will have more space in their stress bucket and can handle higher levels before they spill over and become distressed.
[Credit – https://foryoubyyou.org.uk/stress-bucket]
Everyone’s stress bucket has a tap and it’s important to open the tap as the tank becomes full. This way you can let some of this stress out by adopting healthy coping mechanisms. We’ll talk about these coping mechanisms in a moment, however, it’s worth mentioning that adopting unhelpful coping mechanisms such as self-medicating or not getting enough sleep adds more stress to further fill our buckets and block the tap!
How can I identify the signs of stress?
Stress is a normal part of life, but when it gets too much it can affect our thoughts, feelings, emotions, health, and wellbeing. Here are a few common signs and symptoms to look out for when stress gets too much:
- Feelings of being overwhelmed
- Constant worry or anxiety
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty relaxing
- Irritability and a short temper
- Mood swings
- Eating more or less than usual
- Muscle tension and aches and pains
- Not sleeping enough, or sleeping too much
Dealing with stress in the workplace
Let’s be clear – stress is absolutely a necessary part of working life. It should not necessarily and automatically be considered as negative.
The right amount of pressure or stress can help you perform to your optimum. Stress can have a very positive impact on your performance energy (your ‘get up and go’ if you like), provided you are able to maintain it at a level that is motivating rather than de-motivating. Here are just some scenarios where a little bit of motivating stress can be energising and helpful:
- Meeting an important deadline
- Delivering a piece of work you are solely accountable for
- Supporting your team to fix a critical problem quickly
- Coming up with new ideas or innovative solutions when a change is required
- Personally developing out of your comfort zone
While some people will react more sensitively to these types of stressors, they are often what’s needed to help with focus, and feelings of responsibility.
Workplace stress might feel more negative and demotivating when:
- You feel you have no control over what is happening
- Your feel personally criticised or unfairly judged
- Strong emotions are involved (for example anger, resentment, regret, frustration)
- You feel alone without the opportunity to share your burden
- What you are being tasked with feels impossible to achieve or hasn’t been done before
- You don’t know why what you are doing matters
- You feel unappreciated for your efforts or worse, disagree with how others perceive your contribution
In these situations, stress can erode your performance energy, even to the point of a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, someone tells you, you are not performing or behaving correctly. In doing so you stress about it so much that it causes you to perform or behave badly as cited.
When dealing with negatively loaded stress in the workplace it’s important to take positive steps to try and bring things back to equilibrium. If the stressors are related to people and relationship issues, consider doing the following…
Get things in perspective
Often when you feel stressed, the first antennae that slips out of its correct orbit is your ‘perspective’. For example, you think your manager has unduly criticised you for something that wasn’t your doing. The next time you and your manager sit down to discuss progress on a related project, you automatically assume your manager is going to criticise you. You go on the defensive and from the offset a combative conversation ensues.
TIP: When you feel negative emotions or stress levels rise, if you can, take a few moments to step away from your source of stress. Look at the situation objectively. How would you interpret the situation and what’s been said as an independent third-party person looking in?
Put yourself in the other person’s shoes
It’s human nature to think that your thoughts and feelings are correct, and other people are somehow wrong or misguided. This is partly down to the idea of ‘unconscious bias’ – your naturally learned ways of thinking and perceiving the world.
TIP: Be thoughtful about how others might perceive the world and how this might be different from your own perceptions. Try putting yourself in their shoes by asking yourself how they might be right, and you might be wrong. It’s a tough but sobering exercise and should help to bring your stress levels down.
Look externally and holistically
It’s often the case that stress that is going on in one part of your life can easily affect another part of your life. For example, you have recently been through a difficult relationship break-up. You are feeling just a little bit bruised by the whole affair. This is making you particularly sensitive to perceived criticism. All of a sudden you have words with a colleague at work about something seemingly insignificant – all the feelings and emotions that you are feeling about your relationship break-up, simply spill over into the workplace. Perfectly understandable, although perhaps confusing for your colleague.
TIP: When you are feeling stressed take a holistic look at what is happening in your life. Is your feeling of stress at work really about work, or is something going on more broadly? If you are unable to compartmentalise your stress, why not let your manager or colleagues know that you have some ‘personal stuff’ going on and it’s just making you a little more sensitive than normal. That way your colleagues will know to be that extra bit more patient and supportive.
Sometimes when you get stressed, you create more stress for yourself by worrying about the fact that you are stressed! When this happens it is helpful to consider exactly what is within your control and what is not. For example, you cannot control what someone else thinks, feels, or does. You can certainly try and influence them, but this is different from them behaving how you want them to behave and you getting exactly the outcome you want. Stress often comes from wishing that someone else would act differently. You can’t make this happen but can spend an inordinate amount of personal energy trying to!
TIP: Take responsibility for what you can control. You will waste valuable energy if you try and control others. You may not be able to calm the storm – but you can calm yourself! If your stress is related to a breakdown in a work relationship, aside from working through Notebook Mentor ‘Not getting on with someone at work’ you might like to read our resource file on bullying and harassment at work. If your situation is an example of bullying and harassment it should not to be tolerated. While obviously highly stressful, it needs to be dealt with quickly.
Reframe your language
In stressful situations, there is a tendency to over-rely on negatively loaded language. For example, “I can’t do that because” / “It won’t work” / “It’s no good, I’ve tried that before…”
TIP: Instead of slipping into using negatively loaded language, try and switch to the opposite. Look for reasons why you ‘can do’ something. Talk to yourself about the positive things you have achieved. This ‘reframing’ of your language has been shown to change the chemicals and hormones released in your body and this can greatly alter your mood to something more positive.
When stress at work is less about people and relationships and is more related to work and tasks, consider ways in which you can regain a sense of control, doing the following:
Focus on the big priorities
Having a ‘to do’ list that feels overwhelming is a key trigger for stress. Aside from prioritising what’s most important, think about talking to your manager about sharing aspects of what needs to get done with other team members. This might seem a daunting thing to do (and one where you worry you will be judged), however, you will be better served by achieving success on the big priorities that matter than by diluting your efforts across too many deliverables.
TIP: Ask your manager if you can deprioritize less important work or perhaps delegate it to someone looking to develop in this area.
Learn to project manage
There’s a reason a professional career path exists in project and programme management. Project and programme managers learn how to handle multiple tasks, ensuring interdependent activity gets implemented to time, cost, and quality! You don’t have to be a trained project manager to use some of the tools and techniques of the profession to help manage the stress of your workload.
TIP: When you are feeling stressed about your workload or what you have to achieve, think like a project manager. Set goals, break those goals down into tasks, and milestones. Think about the resources required to meet your deadlines. Most importantly, understand your stakeholders (those with a vested interest in what you are doing) and keep them engaged and informed. Most managers like to be in the know and simply don’t like surprises!
Manage your time
Managing your time effectively in our opinion, does not equal you trying to squeeze activity into twenty hours of your day, leaving you with four hours of exhausted sleep! Productivity does not equal effort or energy. It means working smartly and making the most of how you like to operate (be that in the morning, afternoon, or evening). It requires you to be managed for your outcomes, not your presenteeism. It means finding ways to avoid interruptions when you are at your most productive (turning your smartphone off, or to silent, turning off message alerts, or getting involved in meetings you aren’t going to contribute to). Time management is an art and a science and it takes thought and practice!
TIP: Talk to your manager about how you can optimise your working day – whether that is through working flexibly or allowing ‘headspace’ time for you to decompress. If you work a shift pattern or are in a role where you can’t ‘step away’ independently, focus on some of the strategies coming up, particularly how you breathe. All these things will help you manage stress.
In life, there are many other strategies that can really help with stress management and have a positive knock-on impact on your mental health and wellbeing at work. Here are just a few:
It may seem strange to connect your mental wellbeing to your diet, however, foods can have both a negative and positive impact on stress. There’s a reason why ‘comfort food’ exists – think eggs, cheese, pasta, a bowl of warm porridge. These foods along with many others can actually boost levels of serotonin which is a calming brain chemical. Sugary treats can also boost serotonin, but this is usually a short-lived spike, giving you a quick ‘high’ before bringing you back down. They may help for a brief moment but you will better serve stress management by staying away from them!
If you find that you are getting stressed at work or that you are generally more vulnerable to stress at work, plan your weekday lunches and snacks carefully to ensure you’re fuelling your mind and keeping those cortisol and adrenaline levels at bay. Stick to foods with plenty of nutrients and vitamins to keep your energy levels up too.
Exercise also releases chemicals in your body known as endorphins that make you feel good. These chemicals can help you stay clear and focused, increase self-confidence, and can help you to sleep well after a long day. Prioritising time out of a potentially stressful day to focus on yourself and your body can be enough to distract you from your stressors. Interestingly, exercise also imitates the effects of stress, such as the fight-or-flight response, but helps your body and its systems to practice working through these effects in a healthy way.
Not everybody likes exercise, but exercise doesn’t have to equal running for miles or lifting weights for an hour in the gym. Find something that works for you, such as a brisk walk on your lunch break, swimming, or a pre-work yoga session can be just as effective. Use it as a way to relax your mind at the start of your day, or shed your daily tensions at the end of it.
Over the years, mindfulness has been increasingly recognised as a way to reduce stress and even improve your work performance. Practicing mindfulness improves and builds your inner strength, which can only be a good thing when dealing with stress. It switches on your ‘being’ mode of mind which is associated with relaxation, as opposed to your ‘doing’ mode of mind which is associated with action and the stress response.
Mindfulness improves your ability to focus, which can be super beneficial in the workplace when you may be spinning many plates at once. Instead of reacting to stress, a mindful approach allows you to act with a calm rationale and focus on the task at hand. It can also help you be more aware of your body, and recognise when you start to feel those physical stress symptoms; tight muscles, raised heart rate. That’s when you can take a moment to relax, breathe, and counteract those feelings.
Practicing mindfulness can be anything from reading a book and blocking out the world around you, to meditating, drawing, creating something, or exercise. It can also be doing nothing! Whatever it is you enjoy doing that involves focusing your mind on one thing by being in the moment, be sure to take time out to do it whenever possible.
You may be surprised at just how much the simple act of breathing can change the way you are feeling. There’s a reason why it is such a crucial part of yoga and meditation. When you are relaxed, you breathe deeply and slowly. This sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax. When you feel stressed and anxious, you tend to take shallow, fast breaths. This sends a message to your brain that you don’t feel okay.
It’s something you do 24/7 without thinking, but the way you breathe affects your whole body. This is great news as it’s something that you can control. By focusing on breathing deeply and slowly, you can relax, reduce tension, and relieve stress. There are plenty of easy breathing exercises you can try to see which one works best for you.
Get enough sleep
It’s no secret that when you haven’t had enough sleep, you don’t feel your best. Sleep is important when resetting and refreshing your brain ready for a new day. When you’re stressed, you can find yourself in a vicious cycle, not getting the sleep you need. Sleep deprivation can lead to a negative mood, low energy, difficulty concentrating, and a general inability to function as usual.
You might find that in order to get enough sleep, you may need to start with a few of the other tips suggested for dealing with stress, such as exercise, a healthy diet, and mindfulness. Set yourself up for the best chance of a good night’s sleep by fatiguing your muscles and relaxing your mind as much as you can before your head hits the pillow.
When dealing with stress at work, making a few of these relatively simple lifestyle changes, in and out of the workplace, can make all the difference. Remember, a little bit of stress is natural and healthy. But when it gets in the way of your everyday wellbeing, it’s time to recognise the signs and combat it the best you can.
Sofie Tooke is a content writer and PR professional working for Auburn. Elisa Nardi is Founder and CEO of Notebook Mentor, journaling workbooks to help ordinary people manage, develop, and be happier at work.