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The Pressure Cooker: Decoding Workplace Stress and Finding Balance

Published on May 30, 2023
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Midway into 2023, having survived all the personal and professional challenges thrust upon us by a multiyear pandemic, increasingly toxic politics, doom scrolling, ubiquitous social media, stubbornly high inflation and just navigating the uncertainties of relationships and everyday life, it’s no wonder that many of us report living and working in a constant state of stress!

But what exactly is stress?

According to the World Health Organization, stress can be defined as a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation. It’s a normal reaction to various pressures. While everyone experiences stress to some degree, it manifests differently in different people, both emotionally and physically. Keep in mind, that means in ways both seen and unseen. Sometimes we don’t even recognize when it’s influencing our behavior.

While we all feel stressed now and then, there’s a distinction between healthy stress – that which is natural and can even assist with our personal and professional growth, and unhealthy stress, which over time, has been proven to contribute to life-threatening illnesses and conditions.

When unmanaged, chronic emotional stress is linked to six leading causes of death including heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide, according to the American Psychological Association. Less severe, but very common manifestations include elevated blood pressure, loss of sleep, a weakened immune system, mood swings, and upper gastrointestinal symptoms.

Have you ever experienced physical symptoms brought on by emotional stress? Did you recognize the cause at the time? Because everyone experiences stress differently, it’s worth taking some time to think about and identify your own personal stress triggers and how you react or respond.

Common stressors in the workplace

How we deal with stress at work is integral to our mental health and physical well-being. The first step is to identify and define exactly what causes you stress at work. Don’t think too broadly here: Be specific! The more clearly you define it, the more likely you are to apply the appropriate coping mechanism or solution. Some common examples of workplace stressors are:

  • Unclear performance expectations
  • Lack of personal and/or professional support
  • An unmanageable workload
  • Pay that is disproportionate to the work being performed
  • Lacking opportunities for advancement or development
  • Conflicts with co-workers or supervisors

Stress can manifest itself in a variety of ways. Some ways may seem more obvious than others. It’s important, as we work on optimizing our well-being, that we learn the various ways in which stress may make itself known to us. Here are some examples of ways stress can manifest itself:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Losing confidence
  • Not feeling motivated or committed to your job
  • Finding it hard to make decisions
  • Feeling depressed
  • Feeling anxious
  • Feeling more emotional – more tearful or sensitive
  • Feeling irritable or having a short temper

How we can manage stress ourselves

A wise man once told me that when we say, “we don’t have time” for something, what we really mean is, “it’s not a priority.” Let that sink in. We all have the same number of hours in a day. The key is how we use them. Keep that in mind as you read the tips below. Prioritizing these practices is an investment in the health of your most valuable resource…YOU!

  • Create a new plan to arrive at work early. Eliminate self-imposed beat-the-time-clock stress. When you begin the day early and calm, you set the tone for the rest of the day. Set your alarm 30 minutes earlier, allowing time for extra traffic and coffee at the drive-thru in the morning commute. This will allow you to start off each day more calm and balanced.
  • Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including those on social media. Let’s face it, politics and news these days can be overwhelming and downright depressing. If you constantly immerse yourself in outside turmoil, then your inner peace will consistently be disrupted. Avoid total immersion. Limit your intake and listen to your favorite music instead.
  • Practice setting boundaries. This can be particularly difficult in a demanding work environment. When workplace obligations become unreasonable, and you feel unable to meet a deadline or accomplish a project within a certain time frame, it’s best to communicate that up front, offering an alternative, rather than to stay silent and then miss the deadline. Your manager may not fully appreciate the time commitment required of this particular “ask.” When you propose an alternative, you might be surprised at how flexible they can be!
  • Carve out some quiet time every day. My best ideas materialize when I’m in the shower or outdoors taking a walk. Even with an open-door policy at work, we all need some time to think and regroup. Make time for a little peace and quiet. Go for a walk. Do a quick yoga routine. These breaks provide a mental re-set and may even spark creativity!
  • Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. This aphorism commonly attributed to Voltaire, simply means that when the goal is perfection we can often overlook opportunities to initiate improvements that, while not perfect, are still solid and beneficial. The takeaway? Perfection is impossible so don’t waste time and effort striving for it when “good” can be great. It’s useful to remember this if you find yourself struggling with analysis paralysis. Also important is the Pareto Principle, commonly known as the 80-20 rule which states that 80% of results come from 20% of efforts. This concept is helpful in identifying which actions to prioritize to maximize the impact.
  • Talk to others. It does no good to withdraw. That just internalizes and empowers stress. Confide in a friend or loved one about how you’re feeling. Talk openly and honestly about what you’re going through. Remember: stress impacts all of us. If an employee assistance program is available at work, take advantage of this resource.
  • Practice deep breathing techniques. It feels good, and it really does help. In moments of overwhelm, try pausing, and doing a one-minute box breathing practice. Breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of four, breathe out for a count of four, hold for a count of four, and then start it all over again. Those 60 seconds you spend focusing exclusively on your breath will pay off dividends in your ability to calm the chaos, navigate the upheaval, and conquer stress. It puts you back in control. Meditation? Even better!
  • Eat well and drink lots of water. Did you know that feeling anxious is often a sign of dehydration? This is especially true if you drink a lot of caffeinated drinks. Swap out that second coffee for some H20 instead. Feeling like the brain fog is rolling in? Snack on some fresh vegetables, fruits, or nuts instead of reaching for sugary, highly processed foods. Brain foods like this improve mental clarity!

What employers can do to support employees and reduce stress in the workplace

As firm leaders, it’s important to acknowledge your role in your team members’ overall well-being.

Firms that intentionally implement supportive strategies to reduce workplace stress such as these enjoy the following advantages:

  • Reduced turnover resulting in higher productivity and momentum
  • Improved workplace morale
  • Reduced absenteeism
  • Improved employee engagement and loyalty
  • Healthier team members

You can be a vital resource to help your team members better manage workplace stress and navigate it in a healthier, more optimal manner. Here are some tips to help you do just that:

  • Walk the talk. Show that you mean what you say by practicing it. Share your own healthy and effective stress-relieving tips and techniques in an open way. You may inspire team members to adopt the same strategies for themselves.
  • Offer health and wellness benefits and an Employee Assistance Program. When employers share the costs associated with physical and mental health care, team members are far more likely to seek the preventative care and treatment they need. Establishing an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) shows your team how much you truly care about their well-being.
  • Offer discounted gym, pool, or spa memberships. This is a great way to encourage a healthy and fit team culture. Fitness center fees can be cost-prohibitive, so many team members really appreciate this perk.
  • Provide fresh fruit and healthy snacks in the office for team members to snack on. Rather than stocking up on chips and candy at the next Costco run, buy the brain food! It fits the healthy culture you want…and ok, maybe buy a little chocolate every now and then.
  • Offer standing desks as an alternative to traditional workstations. Standing and walking encourage the emotional and mental re-set that helps us regain focus. Offer this option to promote maximum focus and creativity.
  • Offer flexible work schedules. Conflicting priorities and scheduling demands, particularly on parents and elderly caregiving employees, can lead to additional stress at work. If your company’s model permits, offer flexible work arrangements whenever possible. Rather than worrying about how much and when your employees are working, measure their success by the quality and timeliness of the output.
  • Offer resources and training courses on conflict resolution. Sometimes the source of stress at work originates from personality conflicts between co-workers. Few of us have formal training in the art of resolving conflict in healthy and productive ways, but there are courses, books, and materials out there that specialize in just this. Team members should be afforded these resources and encouraged to learn about them as part of their professional development.

Creating a healthy and supportive work environment is essential to reducing stress in the workplace and can help your employees feel valued and supported while also improving overall team morale. Ultimately this will lead to improved employee engagement and loyalty as well as healthier team members with higher productivity rates. Start implementing these strategies today for an effective way of promoting mental clarity throughout the office!

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