“Sometimes when people are under stress, they hate to think; and it’s the time they most need to think.”
William J. Clinton, U.S. President
If you’re more like granite and are hit by a hammer, you’d probably shatter. Even though you’re hard and rigid, you’d also be brittle and weak. But if you’re more like leather, the hammer would barely make a mark. The toughness and flexibility of your leather are the same qualities you need in today’s world of work … which is demanding and stressful.
Indeed, stress is a given at work. You won’t avoid it or get rid of it until you quit, retire, or die … and even then you may face another set of stressors. So you had better learn how to deal with work stress now. I suggest several short-term as well as long-term strategies.
(If you want more depth, more detail, and more help, check out my program “Take This Job and Love It: Managing Stress and Balancing Life.”)
Let’s start with…
1. Short-term stress strategies.
These are things you can do right now … in the moment … to manage, reduce, or eliminate your stress. You might call them first-aid measures. And it helps a great deal if you keep one or two of them in your mental back pocket, ready to use when your workplace stress is getting the better of you. You may not be able to implement all these strategies but you can certainly adopt some of them.
You’ve heard the long-quoted advice that you should count to ten before you react to something. Put a pause between your stress and your reaction. And it’s not bad advice, just incomplete. I’ve found that most people need more than a mere count to ten to get a grip on their stress. But “breathe ten” is different and better. Take ten long, slow, deep breaths before you react to stress. It puts more oxygen in your bloodstream which carries away the toxins associated with your stress. It works.
Take a walk.
Get away from the situation or the person that is driving up your blood pressure. Take a two-minute or a five-minute walk, if possible. And as you do, tell yourself a positive affirmation … that “I am choosing a positive response to my stress. I am in control.” That works so much better than telling yourself “I can’t take any more of this … I can’t hack it … or … There’s nothing I can do.” The positive affirmation will reinforce your self-confidence while the latter comment will give you more stress.
Communicate with grace.
You may be working with a difficult person and your relationship may be so sour that you deliberately avoid each other. That only allows the stress to linger on. Go up to that difficult person and say something like, “Peter, I don’t know how this tension between us got started, but I don’t want this tension to continue. I want you to know I’m here to help you in any way I can. I want to be friends.” And extend your hand. You’ve given the other person a choice. He may respect you for your courage and non-blaming approach, accept your comment, and shake your hand. You’ve begun the process of turning an enemy into any ally. Or the other person may get red faced and walk away. If so, just tell yourself you’re able to deal with life’s problems and he isn’t. Whatever the other person does, you’ve just reduced your stress load.
Put it into perspective.
At the moment you’re getting all hot and bothered, ask yourself if this situation will make any difference in five years. If a customer is being rude, will that make any difference five years from now? Probably not. You may not even remember the situation five years from now.
Spend an appropriate amount of energy.
Don’t spend $5.00 worth of energy on a 5-cent problem. If a colleague doesn’t greet you in the morning after you’ve said “good morning,” it may not be worth $5.00 of your energy getting all upset and staying upset for the next several years as you continue to work together. And don’t spend 5-cents of energy on a $5.00 problem. If your marriage partner says she wants a divorce and you do nothing to change or improve the situation … thinking she’ll get over it … you’re headed towards some major wake-up calls.
All of those are so-called quick fixes or stress coping mechanisms. They may not solve the problem that caused the stress in the first place, but they will help you get through the tough times.
If you want to prevent stress from starting in the first place or building up over time, I suggest…
2. Long-term stress strategies
Comfort the work place.
The research is clear on this point. By changing the physical environment at work … in the appropriate way … employees have lower amounts of lost time and lower rates of occupational illnesses. So pay attention to what you can do to make your work setting more comfortable. A comfortable chair and temperature. A lack of clutter . Clutter is always a major stressor at home and at work. When managers insist the workplace be kept tidy, employee satisfaction always goes up, even though the employees may initially resist such an order.
Naturalize the work place.
The more you make the internal workplace look and feel like the external world of nature, the less stress you’ll see in the workplace. For example, employees do better when they work in natural light versus incandescent or fluorescent lighting. Where there are courtyards with windows and plants instead of solid concrete walls. Where there is some fresh air instead of all filtered air. Employees are less stressed when the work spaces are colored in browns and greens (like nature) rather than black and chrome wallpaper. Studies have even shown that when other life forms … like plants, animals, or fish tanks … are in the workplace … employees have higher productivity and lower lost time. Indeed, hospital patients who have a goldfish tank in their rooms heal more quickly and go home more rapidly.
As I said earlier, stress is a given, but suffering is not. You CAN do some things to prevent stress, minimize stress, or manage your stress.