Take a Deep Breath… Hold it … Breathe out…
How we deal with stress is a continuing concern to businesses in the pandemic. But stress has been impacting our working lives since long before COVID. Stress costs billions of pounds in lost productivity every year. And the strain of staff absences affects smaller businesses and SMEs disproportionately.
In this article, we explore what stress is, the signs to watch for, and ask you how do you deal with stress? We consider the causes of stress at work and how it impacts businesses. There are many stress-busting solutions for individuals and teams, including excellent apps from the NHS. But dealing with our individual stress comes down to self-awareness. And for managers, tackling team stress is a key part of your role. Managing stress is a soft skill everyone needs.
IMPORTANT: This article is about workplace stress. If you’re experiencing anxiety or other wellbeing problems due to personal issues, you should seek expert advice.
Dealing With Stress is Proactivity Under Pressure
Habit #1 of management expert Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is, be proactive. Control what you can control. We can’t prevent things from happening outside our sphere of influence. But we can learn to manage our reactions to them. And that’s important because our reactions are where our feelings of stress originate.
What is Stress?
As evolved mammals, we respond physically to hardship, strain and physical, emotional or mental pressure. When we’re threatened, our nervous system releases a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. These rouse our bodies for action. The heart beats faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises and our breath quickens. Our senses become noticeably sharper.
Stress is fine for short periods. It can be motivating and drive us to meet challenges. Stress leads us to achieve things in our daily activities. And it helps us meet the demands of home, work and family life. But if stress is prolonged, the body’s response becomes more severe. Continued stress has a lasting impact on blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar levels. Stress can also lead to some serious illnesses.
Let’s Get a Handle on This
What Can Cause Stress at Work?
Here are some common causes:
- Excessive workload.
- Conflicting demands or unclear expectations.
- Difficult bosses, unhelpful colleagues, bullying.
- Lack of social support.
- Low salaries: gig economy pay rates: lack of security.
- Few opportunities for growth or advancement.
- Work isn’t engaging or challenging.
- Not enough control over job-related decisions.
So what’s stressing you at work? And what are you going to do about it?
6 Tips to Manage Stress at Work
- Take a few minutes out to calm down.
- Track your stressors. Keep a journal of situations that stress you and what you do about them. Look for consistency in the things that help.
- Establish boundaries between work and personal life. Don’t take work home. If you’re working from home, don’t check work emails in the evening. Take longer breaks from scrolling social media.
- Give yourself time to recharge. Relax with non-work related activities.
- Get support. Talk to friends, family and others who know you. It’s important not to feel alone.
- Develop healthier ways to respond, such as exercise
How Can Exercise Help Stress?
Exercise is seriously good for stress. Being physically active boosts your endorphins and distracts you from daily worries. Exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression and negative mood. It’s also been found to alleviate symptoms such as low self-esteem and social withdrawal and help our brains work better.
Learn to Recognise When You’re Stressed
What are the Emotional Signs of Stress?
Psychological and emotional signs that we’re stressed include:
- Depression or anxiety.
- Anger, irritability or restlessness.
- Feeling overwhelmed, unmotivated or unfocused.
- Racing thoughts or constant worry.
- Problems with memory or concentration.
- Making bad decisions.
What are the Physical Signs?
Physical symptoms include:
- Aches and pains.
- Chest pain, or heart racing.
- Exhaustion or trouble sleeping.
- Headaches, dizziness or shaking.
- High blood pressure.
- Muscle tension or jaw clenching.
- Stomach or digestive problems.
- Trouble having sex.
- Weak immune system.
What are the Danger Signs?
- Heaviness in your chest, increased heart rate or chest pain.
- Shoulder, neck or back pain: general body aches and pains.
- Grinding your teeth or clenching your jaw.
- Shortness of breath.
Vulnerability is the New Six-Pack
Prolonged stress is bad for your health. If these tips don’t help, or you feel overwhelmed, call your doctor. Your GP may refer you to the NHS mental health website. It’s full of helpful ideas, as well as downloadable material and apps.
10 Stress Busters from the NHS
Professor Cary Cooper, occupational health expert at Leicester University, offers some standout advice on the NHS website. First, men mustn’t think they’re weak for wanting help! As the Prof points out, men are more likely than women to rely on alcohol, smoking and caffeine. This is called avoidance behaviour. Women are (generally…) better at seeking support from their social circle. But men can do this effectively too.
Professor Cooper offers these 10 stress-busters:
- Be active. Taking exercise reduces the emotional intensity.
- Take control. Don’t be passive. Look for solutions.
- Connect with people. Build your support network.
- Make some ‘Me Time.’ Spend at least two evenings a week not working.
- Challenge yourself. Get involved with new things.
- Avoid unhealthy habits.
- Help other people. Empathy releases endorphins.
- Work smarter, not harder.
- Rephrase negative comments in a positive way.
- Accept the things you can’t change.
8 Practical Tips to Reduce Stress and Anxiety
- Don’t miss meals. Keep healthy, energy-boosting snacks to hand.
- Limit caffeine. Large amounts can cause anxiety and panic attacks.
- Count to 10 slowly. Repeat and count to 20.
- Do your best. Instead of aiming for perfection, be proud of however close you get.
- Put your stress in perspective. Is it really as bad as you think?
- Welcome humour. A good laugh goes a long way.
- Capture negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones, before you voice them.
- Get involved in things outside yourself.
Feeling Anxious? Do This Now!
Follow the 3-3-3 Rule
If you find you’re getting anxious, the 3-3-3 rule helps you regain control. Take a pause from work and look around. Focus on the nearby objects. Say out loud, or whisper, three things you see. Then listen to the sounds around you and name three sounds you hear. Again, say their names aloud. Finally, move three parts of your body. This could be your lower leg, head, arm or whatever. Repeat this whenever you need.
10 (Healthy) Ways to Cope With Stress
Feeling emotional and nervous, or having trouble sleeping and eating, can all be normal reactions to stress. Remind yourself about these healthy ways to help get through:
- Take a break from watching, reading or listening to the news. Disconnect from your TV and computer screen.
- Have phone breaks. Stay off as long as possible.
- Eat healthily. Take exercise, get plenty of sleep, and give yourself a rest.
- Take deep breaths, stretch, meditate or practise mindfulness. Learn about soothing and grounding techniques.
- Dedicate time to unwinding: do some activities you enjoy but haven’t done for a while.
- Talk to others about all this: share your problems and how you are feeling and coping with a friend, relative, counsellor, doctor or whoever you feel comfortable with.
- Connect with others: talk with people you trust about your concerns.
- Access support groups, community or faith group.
- Avoid alcohol, tobacco and drugs.
- Recognise when you need more help.
8 Common But Unhealthy Reactions to Stressful Events
This article is about workplace stress. Life events like family members falling ill, bereavement and relationship problems also make us feel stressed at work. Yet they’re one more part of the ups and downs of being human. Generally, we get over them in time, and often with positive learnings. Being self-aware and in touch with our feelings can make a big difference to how we manage.
When something upsetting happens, it’s easy to slip into a negative cycle. Watch out for these reactions:
- Negativity and social withdrawal.
- Feelings of fear, shock, anger, sadness, worry, numbness or frustration.
- Changes in appetite, energy, desires and interests.
- Difficulty sleeping or nightmares, trouble concentrating and making decisions.
- Physical reactions such as headaches, body pains, stomach problems and skin rashes.
- Deterioration of health problems.
- Worsening of mental health conditions.
- Increased use of tobacco, alcohol and other substances.
Again, get specialist help if you need it.
How Do You Deal With Stress? We’re All in This Together!
Helping Others Cope
Learning to take care of yourself in these situations can also equip you to help others manage their stress. As the pandemic has shown, when we’re isolated it’s important to stay connected with friends family and colleagues. Helping others also helps us feel less cut off.
How to Support Stressed-Out Colleagues
There are various ways to help co-workers who are stressed:
- Reduce their isolation by listening and being empathetic. Show them some old fashioned kindness.
- Find the root cause of the problem.
- Suggest tactics for minimising the cause of the stress.
- If they’ve too much to do and it’s stressing them, help them think it through.
- Or if they’re uncertain about how to succeed, again, talk it through.
- Help them resolve interpersonal conflict.
If you’re a manager, you could be contributing to a team member’s stress without realising.
5 Accidental Ways to Stress Your Team
- Negative language.
- Unusual or erratic actions.
- Emotional volatility.
- Excessive pessimism.
- Ignoring people’s emotions.
Again, it’s important for managers to be self-aware.
Stress Impacts the Bottom Line Too
What are the Effects of Stress on a Business?
Prolonged extreme stress in the workplace can lead to serious problems. Issues resulting from long-term coping with stress include:
- Health damage.
- Reduced creativity in problem-solving.
- Less collaboration.
- Reduced team cohesion.
- Lost productivity.
- Severe impacts to quality.
- High absenteeism.
- Increased staff turnover.
- Worsening work relationships.
- Damaged relationships with stakeholders.
- Harm to brand reputation.
- Impacts to family and other relationships.
10 Ways Managers and Leaders Handle Stress Successfully
- Become familiar with your body’s stress responses.
- Learn to say ‘no’.
- Take plenty of exercise.
- Rethink your work processes.
- Confront stressors head-on – don’t procrastinate.
- Know when to walk away.
- Reduce your work load by delegating.
- Find a confidant to trust in.
- Learn from the top athletes – make time to relax.
- Bring your dog to work!
How Can Leaders and Managers Reduce Their Team’s stress?
You can coach your team in managing their individual stress:
- Train them in prioritising, delegating and time management
- Provide training on personal and workplace stress management.
- Reach them to assess and address their personal stress levels.
- Provide resources for managing personal stress and treating it.
12 Ways to De-Stress Your Business
- Be transparent: share information.
- Be respectful and friendly: listen to employee feedback.
- Encourage people to get enough sleep.
- Support employee development.
- Have realistic expectations: encourage two-way communication.
- Create a comfortable workplace.
- Don’t make people afraid to fail.
- Encourage people to take time off.
- Allow flexible working hours and working from home.
- Promote a healthy lifestyle.
- Encourage social activities.
- Model good stress management.
Handling Stress Effectively Adds to Your Managerial Expertise
As a manager or leader, your own experience of handling stress will make you more effective at helping your team with all this. It’s an important part of our business culture. The pandemic has spawned a new interest in mindfulness, meditation and relaxation. Many companies now offer their staff wellbeing support. Familiarise yourself with the resources available online. And if you’re in the food business or a related sector, check out Grocery Aid’s website and its wonderful wellbeing tools.
Remember, while you’re helping your people manage their stress, you also need to stay self-aware. Think about your personal wellbeing. The team still need you to be there for them.
Handling Interview Questions About How You Handle Stress
Having successfully come through a stressful time, you might decide you want some new challenges. One stressor we all face at work is handling interview questions about stress. “Describe a stressful situation and how you handled it.” Interviewers just love asking this kind of thing! But they’re not just doing it to be difficult. Employers want experienced candidates who can handle a range of stresses in their own lives, but also help others manage theirs.
The interviewer is curious how you think stresses in work and outside are likely to impact your performance. Before the interview, list the soft skills you use. Have instances of times when you used them ready on the tip of your tongue.
AND FINALLY – Top Leaders’ Tips on Taking Time Out
Hopefully reading this article has helped you with managing stress. As you’ve been thinking about all this, have you realised you’ve got some quirky ways of unwinding? If so, you’re in good company. Meg Whitman of Hewlett-Packard goes fly-fishing with her son. Mega investor Warren Buffet plays the ukelele. More predictably, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg turns her phone off. Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey goes for six mile runs. Jeff Bezos likes to laugh.
And last of all, Bill Gates reads before bed for at least an hour, no matter how late it is. He’s probably also a ‘fan’ (geddit?) of getting better sleep by keeping cool. Experts say lowering the temperature sets you up for a peaceful night. Stay chilled!