Imagine being Michael Phelps, arriving in Beijing in the summer of 2008, facing the worldwide expectation to swim better than you ever have before and, in the process, win more gold medals than any previous Olympian. Better yet, imagine being Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, faced with having to successfully land USAirways flight 1549 on the Hudson River. Now, there’s job stress. And although most job stress isn’t that extreme, it may feel like it is during tough times.
That’s because much of what happens in organizations during a down economy acts like a shot of adrenalin in boosting stress. Among the contributors are layoffs (and the threat of layoffs), increased demands for overtime, pressure to work at your best all the time and increased expectations that aren’t matched by increased job satisfaction or rewards. The only thing worse than constantly being told to “do more with less”? Having to tell the people who work for you to do more with less. No wonder those knots in your shoulders feel bigger.
Stress was designed to get us out of immediate trouble — being chased by an animal or threatened by a storm. The biological reaction is designed to be fast, hence the term flight or flight. But modern stress is usually anything but fast. It drags on for days, weeks or even years. Our bodies just aren’t designed to deal with this kind of chronic and debilitating reaction to the events around us.
Still, there’s no reason to get stressed about how stressed you are. Although it’s true that you often can’t eliminate the causes of stress, you can almost always control how you respond to stress. And there are numerous things you can do to (exhale) breathe a little easier and to create a healthier and more productive workforce:
• Don’t multi-task. Sure, your kids make it look easy to do homework, surf the Internet, text their friends and watch TV – all at once. In reality, the human brain is not well suited to multi-task — and when we try, everything we do is slower and less effective. (Sorry, kids.) It also adds to our stress. So focus on one thing at a time and do it efficiently.
• Learn your own stress signals. Before a heart attack, our body often sends signals that our stress level is approaching dangerous levels. Unfortunately, most of us miss those signals. That’s why it’s important to learn your own signals, which may include sleep disturbances, stomach aches, or irritability. Putting your early warning system to work will not only help your health, but it will also have a positive impact on the health of the people who work with and for you.
• Cut yourself some slack. The more you take on, the harder it is to do it all well. So don’t. Accept that you can’t do everything perfectly and focus your energy on those things that are most important. Unless you’re an airline pilot or a brain surgeon, 85% is good enough for many projects. Better to get it done and move on than to agonize about that last 15%.
• Avoid conflict. You know who they are: The office gossips and drama queens who anticipate disaster, suspect everyone of hiding something, and love to stir up trouble. All the negativity they brew and feed on ratchets up the stress level. So avoid those people as much as possible and look for your drama on TV.
• Get up earlier. The “I’m-late-for-work!” mad dash is a staple of TV and comic strip humor because we can all relate to it. But just because it’s familiar doesn’t make it a good idea. Skipping breakfast, fuming impatiently as we wait for the bus or subway (or as we sit in rush-hour gridlock), and racing in at the last minute (or after) all add up to starting the day in a high-stress state. Giving yourself even an extra 10-15 minutes in the morning will give you time to settle in and start your day prepared.
• Feel the burn. Study after study shows that exercise reduces stress. Not surprisingly, the more you invest in exercise the greater your return. That means that at least 30 minutes of activity that elevates your heart rate is ideal. But even shorter bursts of activity are better than nothing. No time to work out? Park further away from the office. Take the stairs. Get up and go talk to a colleague instead of sending an email.
• Tune in. You’ve heard the quote, “Music to soothe a savage beast.” Well, the quote (by the English playwright William Congreve) is actually “Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast,” (not beast), but his point is still valid. Music does help calm us down and alleviate stress. Happily, we live in the i-Pod age when we can listen to music without subjecting everyone in the office to our taste.
• Make friends. Those sage philosophers The Beatles were on to something when they sang about getting by with a little help from their friends. At work, turning to friends for help when you’re overwhelmed and need an extra hand can mean the difference between keeping your head above water and getting pulled under by the sharks. (Of course, you need to return the favor when called upon.) Away from work, having a friend who will listen as you vent about your day (and offer support and empathy as you do) is a proven stress reducer. And again, you should return the favor, too.
• Eat better. It’s not your imagination that a big meal leaves you feeling lethargic. On the other hand, being hungry can make you irritable and make it harder to focus. A steady level of blood sugar is better for helping you fell better and, in the process, reducing stress. Try eating smaller portions more frequently, instead of larger meals. And be sure that those portions are more often a fruit smoothie than an order of fries.
• Drink (and smoke) less. A glass of wine or evening cocktail feels relaxing, so it’s counterintuitive that alcohol actually isn’t helpful in fighting stress. When the immediate effects of a drink wear off the result is often higher anxiety. And more than one drink in the evening can interfere with your sleep. As for smoking, the dangers are well-documented elsewhere. Beyond the long-term dangers, nicotine is a stimulant (yeah, that’ll help cut stress) and having to step outside in a Chicago winter to sneak some puffs isn’t going to reduce your stress, either.
• Laugh. One surefire way to cut through the stress in any situation is with a big laugh, so don’t take the situation – or yourself – too seriously. Keep it clean, but find ways to bring some levity to the job. Your shoulder muscles – and your colleagues – will thank you.