How to Control Stress – 30 Stress Busters for Managers and Employees
Work-related stress is a serious health hazard that costs businesses millions of dollars each year. How can you avoid becoming one of its victims? Janet Sandford takes a deep breath to learn how to stay calm.
Under the Surface, We are Still Cavemen
Many of us might say we’re stressed every day – frustrations such as traffic jams, supermarket queues, delays, equipment out of order, rude shop assistants, grumpy customers and uncooperative colleagues can give us the impression that there’s a global conspiracy to ruin our day. These are, however, just minor irritants. Stress is a very primitive and physical response to danger, and has helped to ensure our survival as a race. Going back to the caveman, when threatened by a dangerous animal, we sensed danger and responded by standing and fighting, or running away (fight or flight). During this phase hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine are released, giving us a rush of energy and heightened awareness, at the same time increasing aggressiveness and channelling blood away from the brain and to the muscles, reducing our logical cognitive thinking skills. That’s great if you are up against a mammoth, but may be a disadvantage in a difficult negotiation. The problem with work-realted stress is we may feel as treatened as a caveman, but it is no longer appropriate to hit someone or run away. The result may be bottling up tension, accumulating it or taking it out on loved ones, with whom it is safer to let off steam. Other side effects of stress can be tension and persistent headaches, backache, extreme fatigue, social withdrawal and sleeping difficulties, none of which are helpful in coping with work pressure.
So just how big a problem is stress? The UK government’s Health and Safety Executive reported that for the year 2016/2017, 526,000 workers suffered from work related stress, depression or anxiety, resulting in the loss of 12,5 mln days’ work. They found health, social services, public administration and education to be the areas with the greatest incidence of stress. As for the causes, the UK experience is mirrored by the EU Agency – European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions’ report, in which they identify the main causes as excessive workload and tight deadlines, high qualitative demands combined with the need to suppress emotions (such as in the medical profession), organisational change and a lack of control, job insecurity, workplace bullying and poor realtions with managers and colleagues. That little lot is before we’ve even mentioned work-life balance, demands of children and traumatic events in personal life – it’s a wonder we’re not all on the brink of a nervous breakdown. So what can be done to mitigate the impact of stress?
Fortunately, there is a whole host of things that can be done to combat stress. These fall broadly into the three following groups:
Action – oriented
1. Removal – the first, perhaps most drastic step you could take is to remove yourself from the stressor – that could be a toxic relationship that’s never going to work, or a job you dread going to every day. Many people stick with a job they can’t stand because of the ”sunk costs” they have invested in it, but sometimes it’s better just to cut your losses and move on.
2. Stress tracking – the first step towards managing stress is keeping a stress log. This will help you in identifying which stimuli stress you and why, as well as recording your reactions and their effect. It can help you to take a more reflective approach and teach you to learn to respond in a planned way, rather than react without thinking. It may also help you to evaluate if the stressor was really worth getting so worked up about.
3. Job analysis – assess the things you do and ask if they are all necessary. Are you making a rod for your own back? Are the deadlines that you or others have set realistic? How are you at prioritising and time management – do you work on the most important tasks first, or leave them to the last minute, putting extra pressure on yourself?
4. Personal organisation – do you get stressed out spending ages trying to find an electronic file? Does the physical chaos on your desk match the disorder of your computer filing system? If so, you are making your life unnecessarily stressful and need to take time out to get on top of things.
5. Ring-fencing – technology is a great boon to our work, but it’s also become a yoke around our necks. In a 24/7 environment, every email or ping on our mobile phones adds another ounce of stress. Switch off the sound, don’t be on call every minute of the day or check your emails every couple of minutes and respond immediately – if you do, you’ll find yourself working to other people’s priorities, not your own.
6.Saying no – you may need to develop greater assertiveness if you default to saying yes to every request. Remember: when somebody casually asks, ”have you got a minute?” they have an invisible monkey on their back that wants to unload. If you are not careful, by the end of the day, everyone except you will have gone home and you’ll be left with a room full of monkeys all wanting to be fed. Be prepared to negotiate your working boundaries with colleagues.
It’s all well and good taking practical steps, but often the problem is the emotion that comes with stressful events. These may lead people to cry, shout or become defensive. There are techniques used by psychotherapists that can be adopted by individuals independently.
7. Cognitive restructuring – our thoughts in conflict situations are often knee-jerk reactions and repetitive behaviours and beliefs that keep us stuck in faulty reasoning and ineffective stress management. We cannot change what has happened, but we may be able to change how we interpret it. The technique, which is sometimes described as Mind over Mood, (Greenberger and Padesky) requires us to calm down, identify the stressful event, consider our mood, become aware of our automatic thoughts and then to seek evidence, challenge them and explore more rational interpretations.
8. As Easy as ABC – a variation on this idea is the approach created by the psychologists Dr. Albert Ellis and Dr. Martin Seligman in 1996. It works like this – getting stressed involves these three events:
Adversity – the activating event,
Belief – what we think about ourselves, usually negative,
Consequences – the result, usually poor performance based on low self-esteem.
Beyond this, there are three Ps that lock us into a negative and pessimistic mindset.
Permanence – we assume that negative events are a permanent state of affairs – something didn’t work today, it will never work.
Pervasiveness – our minds are filled with negative thoughts invading our consciousness.
Personalisation – self-blame and attribution, not ”the report was poor” but ”I am useless, I write bad reports”.
This is a powerful cocktail of negative thoughts which can only be overcome by consciously resetting our internall dialogue. This could be aided by tracking and reviewing our self-talk.
9. Talk to Others – as they say, a problem shared is a problem halved, but sometimes people don’t expect a magic solution, they just want to get it off their chest. Some progressive managers or understanding friends and colleagues might provide a shoulder to cry on and a sounding board. If you rhink that’s a bit touchy-feely and wouldn’t cut any ice in a macho environment such as a building site, then think again. Andy Dean and Dave Lee are two former construction workers well aware of the aggressive and often bullying behaviour found in the building trade. After 27 years of graft, Lee hit the booze and was given an ultimatum by his wife to shape up or ship out. He cleaned up his act, during which time he wrote The Hairy Arsed Builder’s Guide to Stress Management. Now with Dave Lee, who had a midlife career switch from building to therapy, the pair run well-being workshops for people in construction. One thing the ex-builders swear by is the importance of managers listening to workers to give them the opportunity to discuss their concerns.
Seeking advice on how best to handle stress – how about this? Work through lunch breaks and stay late at work every evening to keep on top of your workload. Drink as much coffee as you can to keep awake – order takeaways to save time away from your desk and give you a carb and sugar boost, caffeine-high energy drinks are also a good idea. Forget exercise, you’re too tired but still hyped up from all that coffee, chain-smoking could help you to relax. Finally, it’s time to wind down with a well-deserved glass, or a bottle of wine. Drink as much alcohol as possible to help you sleep. Even if you do wake next morning feeling like death warmed up, the first cigarette and super strength coffee will get you rebooted. A doctor or stress counsellor would probably be struck off for giving such advice, but that is typical of the regime that stressed people adopt. Of course, there is a better way.
10. Drink plenty of water, as dehydration affects energy and concentration. Stress raises, cortisol levels, which increases dehydration. The European Food Safety Authority recommends two – two and a half litres per person as a daily acceptable water intake (AI) from all sources, of which food constitutes around 25 percent, while the American Heart Association recommends water in preference to sugar-rich or caffeinated drinks. You may see other benefits in skin tone, digestion, organ function and general health.
11. Drop the junk food and replace it with healthy snacks such as fruit, nuts and vegetables. Avoid big heavy meals in the evening – better to eat a little and often. Bananas are rich in potassium and can help calm your nerves naturally.
12. Take regular exercise, even if it’s only walking. Download a step counter and try to work towards 10,000 steps a day. Look for opportunities to build walking into your daily routine, leaving the car at home on pleasant day. Find an activity that you naturally enjoy, maybe swimming or cycling – something you can do without having to force yourself too hard.
13. Engage in peaceful activities such as reading or listening to music, and, as crazy as it might seem, there are now colouring books for adults that will be absorbing enough to take your mind off your troubles.
14. Practise relaxing – you could join a yoga class, but you can also just practise deep beathing and relaxation techniques. You can find many free tutorials online.
15. If you are attached to your evening bevvies, reduce them gradually by starting later and finishing earlier. Swap an alcoholic drink for a herbal tea, such as camomile.
16. Get plenty of sleep – this might be easier said than done, but get into the habit of going to bed earlier. If your racing thoughts prevent you from dropping off, use the breathing and relaxation techniques that you’ve learnt. Visualise a calm, beautiful scene.
The trick is to build healthy, stress-busting activities into the daily fabric of your life. Once you do that, you’ll be well on the way to keeping stress under control.
In Search of Serenity
Perhaps we have unreasonable expectations of life and work running in an orderly fashion, and feel frustrated, aggrieved and helpless when things go wrong, or people put us out. The author is disputed, but around the turn of the 20th century, the quotation ”life’s just one darn thing after another” came to the public consciousness. It’s as true today as it was then. It’s impossible to design stress out of our lives completely, so we need to understand how best to accommodate this unwelcome guest. Also still relevant, and perhaps a blueprint for stress management, is the Serenity Prayer attributed to American theologist, Reinhold Niebuhr – practise it and you’ll stand a good chance of mastering the demon of stress.
”God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
How Can Managers Minimise Worker Stress?
17. We tend to think of ourselves as victims of stress, but have you ever considered the possibility that you might be someone else’s stressor? That could particularly be the case if you are a manager, so here are some things you can do to prevent yourself from inadvertently becoming a toxic boss.
18. Don’t promote a long-hours culture – you might work all hours and have the same expectation of your employees but, in the long run, it is counterproductive and will lead to mistakes, burnout and absence. In some companies, it’s a competition to get into work before the boss and leave later. Don’t ancourage that, instead, ask employees – ”why are you still here?”
19. Motivate through encouragement – some managers use management by exception, in other words, you only hear from them when something goes wrong. This can be very disheartening and lead the employee to see you as the bogeyman who only turns up to kick them.
20. Set realistic deadlines and don’t keep switching priorities – it is very disturbing for employees when they are working on one time-sensitive project only to be given another that is ”equally urgent”. Often, a manager’s own bad planning and time management is the cause of stress of employees. That can also include the manager making commitments to other departments before checking with their team how realistic they are, or what the impact will be on current priorities and workload.
21. Keep people informed – update staff through short but regular briefings about any organisational changes or initiatives that may affect your team. A feeling of impotence in the face of uncertainty is a major cause of work-related stress. If there are rumours about redundancies or takeovers flying around, be straight with people – some managers prefer not to give employees bad news because ”they don’t want to worry them”. They are adults and have a right to know and would prefer not to be kept in the dark.
22. Listen – keep an open door and create an atmosphere in which people can come to you with their frustrations and worries. Coaching, counselling and mentoring are as much a part of manager’s job as goal setting and achievement. Don’t adopt the macho, dismissive and unhelpful response of ”bring me solutions, not problems.”
23. Be human, stay in control – yes, we have targets to reach and there will be challenging days, but stay in touch with your humanity, humility, sense of humour and proportion – the last thing employees need is a stressed out drama queen for a boss.
Guidance from the Gurus
Thankfully, there is no shortage of books and advice about stress. Here’s a selection of suggestions and observations from some of the best-selling authors on stress management.
24. Mathew McKay, Martha Davis, ”The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook”, advice :
Make an agreement with yourself to set aside a time each day dedicated to relaxation.
25. Diane McIntosh, Jonathan Horowitz, ”Stress – The Psychology of Managing Pressure”, advice :
We shouldn’t fear, as it can be a good motivator to make positive changes.
26. Ruth C. White, ”The Stress Management Workbook”, advice :
You need to learn how to discern the patterns related to the stress in your life, so you can change them.
27. Gina Lake, ”From Stress to Stillness – Tools for Inner Peace”, advice :
Eliminating stress is mostly a matter of tuning out of the negative (that which causes us to contract) and tuning into the positive (that which causes us to expand and be at peace).
28. W. Timothy Gallwey, Edd Hanzelik, ”The Inner Game of Stress – How to Outsmart Life’s Challenges, advice :
It can be said that everyone is playing an inner game, whether they recognise it or not. That means that while we are involved in outer games (overcoming obstacles in the outside world to achieve goals), we are at the same time faced with inner obstacles such as fear and self-doubt which prevent us from expressing our full capabilities.
29. Harvard Business Review, ”HBR Guide to Managing Stress at Work”, advice :
The best way to cope with stress is to maintain your forward momentum.
30. Derek Roger, Nick Petrie, „Work Without Stress – How to Build a Resilient Mindset for Lasting Success”, advice :
Stress is response to an event, not the event itself.
Janet Sandford, ”How to Control Stress”, Business English Magazine, accom 67/2018, Wrzesień/ Październik 2018.