In our demanding, deadline-driven, digital societies, avoidance isn’t a realistic tactic for dealing with stress. The working world is beset with all sorts of obstacles, difficulties and curve balls. Throw personal life upheaval into the mix, and overwhelm can creep up on us all too easily.
We all have different strategies for coping with stress. In a recent everywomanNetwork poll, one third of members said that their immediate reaction to stress is to tell others how they’re feeling. Nearly four in ten, meanwhile, tend to retreat into their caves, distancing themselves from the eye of the storm. A more modest, but still significant 17%, attempt to find an element of the stressful situation they can control. And just over one in ten, simply keep going, pretending everything is fine.
The problems with some of these techniques are clear to see. Sharing our stresses with the entire office is clearly going to create the sorts of impressions we generally want to avoid giving; running for cover, most of us realise, isn’t going to make the problem go away; taking control of a complex situation can be a futile exercise leading only to increased stress; ignoring the signs that something is wrong can be a fast track to burnout.
But let’s take a second to look at some of the advantages that these techniques afford us. Confiding in a carefully constructed support network can be an enormous help in challenging times; separating ourselves from a difficult situation can enable clearer focus on a pathway through; seizing power can render a problem squashed; carrying on in the face of adversity, is the mark of a truly resilient character – we do sometimes simply need to ‘just get on with it’.
So while the downsides of common stress management techniques are clear, we can see that they are also able to serve us well. If we start to think in this way, we can begin to better understand our current mechanisms for coping with stress, and build an action plan for how we can improve these resources to be drawn on in times of need.
In our recent webinar ‘Using Stress To Your Advantage’ everywoman associate Sara Parsons outlined four stages to turning stress into a career-elevating advantage.
1. Identify your own attitudes towards stress
We’ve already started thinking about this by looking at some common techniques for handling stress, and how they can both disable and enable our abilities to cope. Now think back to a particularly stressful time in your working life. Conduct a really honest assessment of the habits, attitudes, and even excuses you demonstrated throughout the period. Was the critical deadline so stressful because you procrastinated in its lead up? Do you tend to undermine the significance of the stresses in your life, rather than confront them (Sara recalled a time a mother dismissed her exhaustion while working around childcare, describing the situation as ‘temporary’ owing to the kids being still so young. Kids stay young a really long time, Sara had to remind her; and furthermore, they turn into teenagers!).
Another common excuse Sara is used to hearing: ‘My industry is very reactive so there’s nothing I can do about last-minute deadlines or overtime demands. There are always, stresses Sara, ways you can handle crises proactively, rather than allowing them to happen to you. ‘It’s vital,’ she says, ‘to take responsibility for the role you have in managing your own stress’.
2. Think about the positive outcomes of stress
There are many situations in which stress can really help us out. It might give us the energy we need to perform at our best. It can give us the ability to focus on the task at hand. It might help identify skillsets we need to develop.
Make this more tangible for you by listing all the benefits gained through your own stressful experiences. How did you grow? What have you learned about how to behave differently in future? What were the benefits to both you personally and your business or organisation?
3. Separate the stressful situation and your reaction to it
Allow yourself to imagine for a moment that you’ve arrived a few minutes early to meet a friend. You’re enjoying a cup of coffee and catching up on emails you’ve struggled to find time for all day. Suddenly you realise 15 minutes have gone by and your friend still hasn’t shown up. Irritation creeps in. Why is your time less important than theirs? Couldn’t they at least have let you know they’d be late? Now think about what you might be doing while you’re feeling this way. Sending a rather curt email? Wearing a facial expression that creates an awkward start when your friend finally arrives?
By understanding that our behaviours have a knock on effect on our thoughts and feelings, we can begin to understand that responding differently to a stressor might have resulted in a completely different outcome. What if you’d treated the lateness as an opportunity to catch up on emails or reflect on a busy day? Now look at ways you might have been able to reframe your past responses to stressors in a much more positive way. ‘There is often a light bulb moment,’ says Sara Parsons, when we realise that our reactions often create more stress and negativity than the stressor itself.
4. Nurture and feed your energy levels
‘Manage your energy, not your time,’ is a useful mantra, says Sara Parsons. We only have 24 hours in a day, and though the objective ‘make more time’ is bandied around workplaces, it’s entirely impossible. What we can do, however, is deal with our energy. Energy can be physical, mental, emotional and spiritual, and the things we do or don’t do in stressful times can either deplete or replenish our reserves
If there’s a particular person at work who winds you up, can we do something as simple as seat ourselves furthest from them in a meeting? If an overactive inbox is getting in our way of being able to focus, can we commit to shutting down our mail programme for a period each day? If constant interruptions from the team are undermining your powers of concentration, can you let them know you’re on a deadline and are unavailable until it’s passed? These are all simple tactics to safeguarding your energies, but what if our supplies are already low and in need of a charge-up?
Take time out to reflect on what specific workplace actions make you feel good. A particular aspect of your job, or just ensuring you always get exposure to daylight at lunchtime? Taking on more work can seem like a counterintuitive way to deal with a crippling workload, but doing more of something that aligns closely with your values, gives you confidence, or helps another person, can really recharge those batteries. A change, after all, is as good as a rest.