About the fourth week of August this year, the early warning systems started signaling an oncoming tsunami. Three alarms went off for me. First, my editor at HBR.org asked if I could contribute to their increasingly popular series on stress in the workplace. Second, at the company where I write an employee advice column, the #1 request was about dealing with heavy workloads. Third, at an offsite, members of an executive team welled up with tears, overwhelmed with the both the volume and complexity of work ahead. Everyone seemed to know that the water levels were rising and as soon as Labor Day was over, that the wave would be upon us.
Stress is no joking matter. You definitely need to stop accepting the bumpf that stress is “par for the course,” because the more important you are the more stressed you are. I’m totally done with the “stress is a badge of honor” crap. Take stress seriously and be honest about when and how it’s affecting you.
Where is your stress level at today? What is your stress costing you?
You will have to figure out your own warning signs, but here are a few common signs that your stress is unhealthy: your sleep patterns are interrupted (either with significantly less sleep or significantly more); your mood is off (maybe you are acting more aggressively than normal, or maybe you’re withdrawing); your body hurts (headaches, back and shoulder pain, aching jaw); or you’re less productive than normal (spinning, losing focus, less creative).
Stop and think back over the past week or month…are there changes worth noting?
Stress is beguiling…it sucks you in and makes you think it’s real and objective and true, when really, stress is smoke and mirrors (and neurons and hormones)—your inner reaction to your perception of the world. So once you’re in stress, you are at its mercy. In fact, many stressed out people seem to want to be stressed and rebuff attempts to help them calm down (humans are weird).
You have to see stress coming and head it off at the pass. You be Roadrunner, stress is Wyle E Coyote. See him hiding up ahead with the TNT. Find a path around him.
Be clever about using time. Anticipate and block off thinking time in your calendar. I imposed a rule last year: no looking at my phone in the taxi on the way to or from the airport. It’s a silly little thing, but it gets me at least an hour most weeks to just think.
Similarly, find spots for exercise, for meaningful work that will recharge your batteries, and for rest. It will look like a longer path from A to B when you do things that aren’t mandatory, but Wyle E Coyote boobie-trapped the short-cut—don’t fall for it.
Get on top of it
Even with the best laid plans, stress will likely creep in at some point. It’s important to get your stress levels back down to manageable as quickly as possible. That means not getting stressed about being stressed. Sounds dumb, but is actually really important. Being stressed, using a coping strategy to take the edge off, identifying the root cause of the stress, doing something constructive to reduce the root cause, then moving on, is healthy and normal. Being stressed, telling yourself you’re stressed, doing unproductive things to console yourself for being stressed, then getting more stressed because you’re further behind, is not healthy—it’s a vicious cycle with an unhappy ending.
When you’re stressed, admit it, explore it, then take one quick action to help cope with the stress and one quick action to help alleviate the stress. Choose from one of these coping approaches:
- Breathe. Seriously. Breathe. Deeper. Slower.
- MOVE! Yup, get up and get physical. Walk around the block.
- Laugh. Hello YouTube! For me it’s “funniest Billy Connelly,” but insert whoever you want.
- Eat. You’re probably starving yourself. Try a healthy snack. DO NOT insert jelly beans.
- Reframe. Put the situation in context. What IS going well? What REALLY matters?
I never expect the coping strategies to get the water level all the way down, but an inch makes a BIG difference if it’s the inch that gets the water level to just below your nostrils.
Address the Root Cause
Once you’re out of the hold of the stress, then you can do something useful about the root cause. Do a task. You can do the scariest one first if you’re the adventurous type or you can do the easiest one first to get the momentum going. It’s up to you.
You can’t boil the ocean, but you can remove one pail of water and raise it to 100° Celsius. As it evaporates, the water level lowers and things get easier. Then repeat.
Through it all, one of the best strategies for avoiding stress and for dealing with it in the moment is to make a connection with another human being. You are probably suffering in solitude and that’s the worst misery of all. Just knowing that someone understands your situation and cares how you’re doing can go such a long way to keeping stress at bay. Try adding someone into your coping strategies above (invite a coworker to walk down and get coffee, find something funny and share it with a friend, break bread together, ask for help in gaining perspective on a problem).
Connection tends to melt stress.
It has to change
So now, I’m reflecting on this post and thinking “Liane, this is all common sense, nothing useful here.” But you’re not doing it often enough, are you? You’re carrying the weight of your obligations and they’re getting too heavy. You’re sucking it up and trying your best to shuffle along. You’re having moments (or days, or weeks) where it’s eating you alive. You’re suffering in silence.
I hope you aren’t. But I fear you are. Please don’t.