The subject of stress in the workplace is one close to my heart. When I look back on my career in corporate life, like many others, I considered myself unbreakable. Young, healthy and driven to succeed, nothing could stop me!
Only now with the benefit of hindsight (and a fresh direction in life) can I see how I too easily bought into a ‘work philosophy’ that was never designed to function in my best interests.
Given that everyone’s experience of stress in the workplace can be very different, I thought that I would initially try to put this subject in perspective by discussing some of the more typical signs and symptoms that contribute to the more excessive forms of stress we find in many workplaces. I’ll then try to provide some practical ‘habits’ that you can easily adopt to manage work related stress – in whatever form it manifests.
When Stress Becomes Excessive:
Mild stress is positive and healthy and its there to help focus the mind. We all need a degree of stress just to get things done. Deadlines loom and we know we have made a commitment to finish a task! However, when we find that the demands of work are completely beyond our physical capacity, then stress transforms itself into a cruel monster; devouring our happiness and attacking our mental health.
A challenging and fulfilling job in a good work setting can be wonderful. But when we feel we are getting too stressed, it usually coincides with the feeling of not being in control of our workload. Continuous high levels of stress are known to contribute to anxiety and depression. And those with a pre-existing condition become even more susceptible.
With no intervention this road leads ultimately to chronic fatigue and burnout. The potential damage to your mental and physical well-being is very very real!
Flashing Red Lights:
So what are some of the physical ‘flashing lights’ that tell you that you are not coping as well as you think you may be.
- Physical fatigue / exhaustion even when you have been getting ample sleep.
- Reduced appetite and possible nausea at the thought of eating.
- Chest pain and or accelerated heart beat while physically at rest.
- Tense muscles / pain
- Persistent headaches.
There are also several emotional signs of stress that may also be present. We need to be careful how we interpret these kinds of signs as they are not always clear indicators of stress. It is probably better to say that where there has been a noticeable deterioration in emotional behavior, that person may be responding to high levels of stress. Some examples may include;
- Uncharacteristic irritability or abruptness in conversation.
- Feelings of being overwhelmed or constant frustration.
- Indecision, even with relatively simple issues.
- Problems with memory relating to recent events.
- A persistent feeling of unhappiness without a clear cause.
It would be negligent of me to simply list symptoms of stress without also giving you a window into those all too common contributing factors. See how many of these you recognize in your workplace. If you don’t relate to any of these then Great, you are in a really good space!
- Unrealistic targets and deadlines requiring (expected) long overtime that may include evenings and weekends.
- Limited support or sympathy from the Management Team. “Don’t bring me your problems; just get the results” attitude.
- Low levels of personal recognition and reward.
- Poor internal communication making your job harder than it should be.
- Internal conflict; bullying; toxic supervisors / management.
- General feeling of job insecurity regarded as being the normal ‘status quo’.
My own experience has been that whereas many organizations will document their commitment to a healthy work life balance, the reality falls far short of the words! Driven by the endless demand to meet and exceed Quarterly revenue targets, it’s too often the shareholder’s Return On Investment (ROI) that has management’s undivided attention.
Don’t get me wrong. I accept that we live in a highly competitive world, and when businesses fail to compete then they don’t stay in business very long and everyone loses their job. But there is also a human price to pay when we expect, even demand, ever-increasing productivity and ROI.
When corporations leave a trail of broken ex-employees then we need to start questioning the real value that business brings to the community as a whole. Thankfully, not all corporations fall into this category. But my observations over the last 10-20 years has led me to the conclusion that the trend in excessive work related stress appears to be increasing rather than decreasing.
Tip: Over the next few years expect to see more fatigued, anxious people wondering why their lives are not feeling fulfilled….
5 Actionable Habits to Counter Excessive Work Stress:
There is no single magic solution to excessive work stress, other than your resignation! However, if that is not an option you are prepared to take in the near term then there are still some useful habits you should be adopting to help you better manage your situation. The most important habits are;
- Prioritize Your Priorities.
This has to be number one on everyone’s action list. I have written about this extensively in another article (The Ultimate Productivity Guide for Work). Its critical to define what is really important and why. Even more so in a High-Stress work environment! If possible cull your To-Do list of everything that is not critical to the next week / month. The aim here is to eliminate any lesser responsibilities that really should not be allowed to add to your current level of stress.
- Eliminate Unnecessary Interruptions.
This point is a natural extension of the first point on this list. We all realize that interruptions fall into different categories. We get phone calls, emails, instant messages and the sudden ‘drop-ins’ that need to speak with you urgently. These things will happen no matter what, but just remember that you are in control of HOW you respond. Some interruptions are recurring and can be easily anticipated. You should have preset criteria ready for how and when you will respond. With tact, you may also be able to ‘train’ those around you to only expect responses during certain times of the day. The aim here is to recover a degree of control over your day so that you can maintain your focus on what is important to you.
- Let Go of Perfectionism.
This may sound like a strange habit for some, but again we are aiming to eliminate unnecessary stressors. Do your work to the best of your ability. Be proud of your achievements. But for those among you who feel compelled to be ‘perfect’ in everything you do…Beware! You may be unwittingly setting yourself up for unnecessary stress. Especially when you have a manager of supervisor who expects perfection, but persistently sabotages your ability to deliver to their standard.
- Avoid Office Politics.
Why? Because getting involved in interpersonal conflict will take its toll on both your physical and emotional health. I appreciate that it can be very difficult sometimes to escape conflict with co-workers. However, we should never willingly ‘buy in’ to stuff going on around us. That means do not gossip, and don’t share too many of your personal opinions – particularly on sensitive subjects like religion and politics. Stay away from inappropriate ‘office humor’ and in particular those people who seem too keen to know everything about you. Trust should be earned slowly. Genuine friends and co-workers will always respect that.
- Exercise EVERY DAY.
Whatever the current state of your physical condition, most people can do some form of physical exercise. If you are under the pump at work and can’t get to the Gym then at least leave the office and go for a brisk walk for 20-30 minutes. Get your heart rate up and inhale / exhale deeply. If physical exercise is a new experience for you, then please start slowly and gradually get into a routine you can handle. This ‘habit’ is as important as all the previous points… It needs to stay on our daily priority list! Even if you just take short exercise breaks during the day, you will soon feel your mood lift and your ability to cope with stress will start to improve.
For more information on stress here are the 10 ultimate books for stress management.
I hope that you found this article interesting and provocative. If you like to read more, please subscribe to receive new articles as they are posted.