This article originally appeared in the July/August issue of Mailing Systems Technology.
Stress is an inevitable part of work and life. How well we manage stress will significantly influence our personal success — and the success of our teams. To help us better understand and manage stress, let’s dig into the causes of stress, consequences of stress, and coping mechanisms we can employ.
Causes of Stress
Stress is a reaction to situations (stressors) where we feel threatened or anxious. There are two major categories of stressors we face: Work Stressors and Life Stressors.
Work Stressors: We all know that work can be stressful, and job demands can disrupt one’s work-life balance. Following is a list of common work related stressors:
· Work demands — being asked to do too much or being asked to do too little
· Unclear expectations — not knowing what one is expected to do or how work performance is evaluated
· Role conflicts — feeling unable to satisfy multiple, possibly conflicting performance expectations
· Ethical dilemmas — being asked to do things that violate law or personal values
· Interpersonal problems — experiencing bad relationships or working with others we don't get along with
· Career developments — moving too fast and feeling stretched; moving too slowly and feeling stuck on a plateau
· Physical work conditions — lack of privacy, too much noise, or other unpleasant working conditions
Life Stressors: “Life happens” and can be very stressful from family events (e.g. family member illness), financial difficulties (e.g. loss of income by a spouse), and relationship struggles (e.g. a separation or divorce). People can also suffer from spillover effects that result when forces in their personal lives spill over to affect them at work or vice-versa. It is often difficult to completely separate work and non-work lives, especially in this age of smart devices that keep us continually in touch with work and personal affairs. Life stressors and spillover effects are highly significant and can affect us and our team members.
Consequences of Stress
Scholars talk about two types of stress. The first is eustress — constructive stress that results in positive outcomes. It occurs when moderate (not extreme or sustained) stress levels prompt things like increased work effort, greater creativity, and more diligence. Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal has a Ted Talk entitled How to Make Stress Your Friend, which speaks to potential benefits of moderate stress.
Moderate stress can prepare our bodies for higher performance by breathing faster, which delivers more oxygen to our brains, and releasing adrenaline, which provides energy. The hormone Oxytocin is released, which primes us to do things that strengthen close relationships. Oxycotin makes us crave physical contact with our friends and family, and enhances compassion and caring. It is a natural anti-inflammatory, helps blood vessels stay relaxed during stress, and helps the heart heal from any stress related damage.
The second type of stress is distress — destructive stress that is dysfunctional for the individual. Distress comes from excessive and/or extended stress and is a major cause of physical, mental, and emotional health problems, including high blood pressure, heart attacks, lower immunity, anxiety, and depression. Key symptoms of individuals suffering distress include increased absenteeism, increased tardiness, decreased diligence in work, increased negative attitude, increased resistance to change and less cooperation.
Managing stress well is important for us and our teams. Let’s take a look at 10 proven coping mechanisms that we can use for ourselves and others to deal with the stress that comes our way:
1. Take care of ourselves. We all know the basics: Eat healthy, well-balanced meals; exercise on a regular basis; get plenty of sleep; and take a break when feeling stressed out.
2. Get some fresh air. Research indicates that the vitamin D boost from sunlight may elevate your levels of feel-good serotonin. Taking in the sights, sounds, and smells around you redirects your focus from your worries, says Kathleen Hall, a health educator and the founder and CEO of the Stress Institute. Can't get outside? A Washington State University study found when plants were added to the workspace, people exhibited lower blood pressure. Translation: they were less stressed!
3. Talk to and care for others. Share your problems and how you are feeling and coping with a family member, friend, counselor, doctor, or pastor. Spending time caring for other people can help us get our mind off our problems and will be mutually beneficial to us and the people we show care for. McGonigal references a five-year study that showed for every major stress life experience the risk of dying increases by 30% (ouch!). But, people who spent time caring for others showed no stress-related increase in dying. Zero!
4. Keep perspective. Sometimes we get stressed over potential problems that never materialize. Winston Churchill spoke to this when he said, “When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened.”
5. Don’t dwell on the negative. Sometimes we jump to worst-case scenarios and obsess on the negative. If you make a mistake at work, do you assume you're going to get fired? Have a fight with a friend and worry the relationship may be over? Watch the negative self-talk and replace it with helpful advice like you would give a good friend.
6. Visualize calm. Techniques such as meditation, guided imagery (e.g. for me, it’s visualizing being on a beach in Maui!), and envisioning peaceful outcome to a current conflict can help relax us and reduce our stress.
7. Rely on rituals. Whether it's taking a relaxing bath before bed, listening to your favorite playlist on the commute to work, or walking the dog in the evening, in times of stress it helps to turn to a comforting routine. "Our bodies naturally crave routine, and by focusing on these consistent rituals you increase your body's ability to deal with the physical aspects of stress," says Christy Matta, the author of The Stress Response. When stressful situations leave you feeling powerless, following a routine allows you to take back control over part of your day and can help alleviate some of the anxiety and tension.
8. Cultivate gratitude. There is growing research on the benefits of gratitude, particularly on physical, psychological, and relational well-being. An "attitude of gratitude," as Dr. Robert Emmons (a leading researcher on the science of gratitude) calls it, has been linked to greater stress tolerance, increased positive emotions, better sleep, improved physical health, and healthier relationships.
9. Connect to your spiritual side. Many people find strong support from being part of a faith community where advice, encouragement, and support can be given and received. Spiritual disciplines like prayer, reading the Bible or other scriptures, and related activities like volunteering and worshipping with others can reduce unhealthy stress.
10. Play! A great technique to reduce stress is to take regular time to “play.” According to psychiatrist Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, adult play is unique to an individual as a fingerprint and could mean collecting stamps, reading a book, or climbing Mount Everest. (For me, I collect sports memorabilia and find it relaxing). Brown states, “What all play has in common is that it offers a sense of engagement and pleasure, takes the player out of a sense of time and place, and the experience of doing it is more important than the outcome.”
I recommend periodically taking time for your team to play together. Having periodic team "play days" and/or using time in team meetings to play and have some fun will help alleviate work stress and build greater camaraderie.
My final word of encouragement comes from Valerie Bertinelli, who suggests, “Happiness is a choice. You can choose to be happy. There's going to be stress in life, but it's your choice whether you let it affect you or not.” My best to you as you manage stress well in your life — and help others at work and in your personal life manage stress better too!
Wes Friesen is a proven leader and developer of high performing teams. He is also an accomplished university instructor and conference speaker and is the President of Solomon Training and Development, which provides leadership, management, and team building training. His book, Your Team Can Soar! Powerful Lessons to Help You Lead and Develop High Performing Teams. Your Team Can Soar! has 42 valuable lessons that will inspire you, and give you practical pointers to help you — and your team — soar to new heights of performance. Your Team Can Soar! can be ordered from Xulonpress.com/bookstore or wesfriesen.com (under Book) or an online retailer like Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Wes can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 971.806.0812.