How to reduce stress at work

What is the main cause of work place stress?

Modern work life generally means ‘faster than’ before and ‘more of’ than before.  The ‘jargonistas’ call these dynamism and complexity. Research shows those people who know how to cope with stress at work survive with (or even thrive with) ‘faster than’ and ‘more of’.  Well, at least better than those (most of us) that aren’t coping very well with the the pace and amount of change. It is the number one indicator of under performance in every role.

Just look at most people’s work load and the demands being made of them.   “I want it yesterday!” and “Here are another three things to put on top of the five things you are already working on and haven’t yet had time to finish.” These are examples of “faster than” and “more of” – recognise them?

How does stress manifest it self in us?

These two workplace factors (‘faster than’ and ‘more of’) have an impact on us all and we (being human) get stressed in three ways.

Physical stress – We twist our ankle running for the train (ouch!) or over time we develop a 25 degree forward tilt in our neck, (predictor of Parkinson’s in later life!), from looking at a tablet, laptop or mobile screen.  Did everyone just sit up straighter! Our muscles tire, our joints ache, we lack energy, we physically begin to suffer.

Neck stress

Chemical stress – We wash down our micro-waved, gluten laden, salt and sugar filled, 4-minute, ready meal at our desk with a ‘Diet’ drink if it’s a snatched lunchtime – or cheap half-bottle of Chardonnay if its in the evening (Sending chemical shocks to about every system and organ we have including to the vital ones like the nervous system and gut – ‘nuking’ our brains and microbiome!). Then because we eat and drink s**t, we get ill  and on doctor’s advice we then ‘blanket bomb’ what’s left of the system with prescription drugs! You get the picture.

Chemical stress

Emotional Stress – well where do I begin, as we roller-coaster from supercharged Frustrated, Angry, Anxious to undercharged Apathy, Detachment, Depression to gushing Positivity, Determination, Red Hot Passion to Zen-like Tranquility, Contentment… and back round again. A constant emotional fairground-ride with heart thumping, pulse racing ‘highs’ and ‘stomach churning’, nauseating ‘lows’ (aswell as the long tedious, boring bits)  Most of us doing this blindfolded and not in control at all.  Just waiting for the next dip, or climb, or rush as we open our mailbox; walk into the meeting; confront our difficult colleague or admit our limitations.

Stressed man

Humans are naturally, well adapted to deal with all three stresses – to an extent anyway. As a species we are generally great at: repairing Physical Stresses (bones and tissues repair); balancing or neutralising the imbalances of Chemical stress (especially with a  healthy immune system) and providing resilience to Emotional Stress (in all sorts of ways including through our relationships). So should we even worry about it?

Is stress ever a good thing?

Sure, you need some stress in any system or structure for it to perform. That goes for the building you’re sat in now, the bridge your train crossed this morning on your way to work and well, every human being. The building, bridge and human being are all designed with certain amount of stress in the plan.  Which ever of these structures you’re looking at there are two really key issues.

Firstly, what is the maximum stress load of the structure (building, bridge or being)? In other words what is our capacity to cope?

Secondly, how do we know before we reach the point of overload? Once we are beyond this point it can be a fast, slippery slope to collapse.

This is what the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, Washington, USA looked liked on the 6th November 1940:Tacoma Bridge Washington

 

 

Any signs of stress!

The next day, 7th November 1940, a windy day, this it what it looked like:

Tacoma Bridge

 

 

 

 

The stress was just too much! The Pathe News video is great viewing.

This analogy for the human system illustrates the problem.  Everything seems fine one day, then something changes and suddenly we move quickly to over-stressed and then collapse.  Slippery slope!

So how do we know if we are over-stressed or not?

We all know awareness is always key to any change in our behaviour right? We need to notice something, if we are going to change it, simples! (if you’re waiting for rocket science you’re not going to get it!) But the downward, slippery slope of stress presents a problem. We quickly get into self-denial even at the first signs and lose the ability to be self-aware.  Asking the bridge to self-diagnose when the wind picks up (I’m sticking with the analogy – like it or not!) is usually useless.

“Of course I’m all right!”, “Yes, of course I am on top of things”, “Yes, I know its nearly 8pm and I’m still at the office! But its just this time” , “Yes, I know I promised I’d be home to read Johnny his bedtime story. But its just a one-off”. Shall I go on? No?  You’ve got the picture. We carry on believing it’ll come right but the “light at the end of the tunnel” is never reached!  We are in denial a lot of the time.

Denial

So, if this self-denial (and therefore an inability to even be aware of over stress) kicks in early, how on earth do we pull ourselves back once we are just on the wrong side of the brink.  Well more often than not it requires somebody else not only to notice for us but then to have the courage and compassion to help.

We are human beings right! We work and live with each other.  We need to have each other’s back, especially those closest to us or those who might rely on us. The bridge needs its engineer and probably these days some fancy technology to notice signs that are indicators of potentially bigger problems to come.

Are there signs that show someone is suffering from stress?

Interestingly,  in us humans the signs follow a pretty predictable path.  We have already mentioned the first step onto the downward slope – self denial!

“Why are you looking at me like that. I TOLD YOU EVERYTHING’S OK!”.

Step 2 is always some sort of performance issues. This can be at the Poor performanceoffice, in the bedroom, in the kitchen. Sometimes these are serious performance issues but often small things that never used to happen, a slip up here, a missed deadline there. Not always glaringly obvious but noticeably different to people around us.  Remember we are in self-denial so we don’t notice or we find other reasons and excuses.  The simple ‘must try harder’ is not usually enough here.  We are already losing grip on the downward slope.

Next comes step 3,  usually  some safety issues. Things get bumped, pranged, twisted, dropped or ignored causing some danger to you or thoseBanana skin around you. It may be distractions, bad decisions or choices.  People can get hurt, its starting to be a bit more obvious and serious!

 

These issues are then often quickly followed by step 4 another group of Blood pressurehealth related issues.  These may sometimes be small changes that could be explained by something else but are symptoms are of underlying stress.

 

You only have to look at ‘before and after’ pictures of our world leaders to clearly see some of the outward signs of stress that are manifest Barak Obamaphysically very quickly.

One of the biggest indicators with many people is sleep.  If someone is telling you they are not sleeping well, (unless they are camping out at the time! or they’ve just bought a bargain £39 mattress online!), then there is almost certainly stress in the system somewhere.

I’ll be talking about sleep in a future blog – it deserves much more attention because its soooooooo important!

If you think about it, we largely spend our modern lives either awake in fight/flight mode (adrenaline and cortisol coursing through our veins)  or asleep in rest/digest/repair mode and guess what? If we have disrupted sleep we don’t rest, digest and repair properly! (I told you you wouldn’t get rocket science!)

Human bodies are amazingly evolved systems and much better than the bridges we build, at repairing themselves. BUT if we cut out good sleep the cracks go unrepaired, remain and get bigger.  (warned you about the analogy too – get over it!).  If the next time you go to a your doctor for some minor ailment, if the first question is not “How are you sleeping?” change your doctor!  And don’t take drugs either for a goods night sleep! (Rant over!)

If after self-denial, performance issues, safety issues and health issues we still haven’t taken some action collapse is imminent.

 

 

 

 

It can happen quickly.  Remember poor Antonio Horta Osario the hero of Santander Bank in the crisis of 2008,who joined Lloyds Bank as a smart, healthy, vibrant, confident, experienced CEO in March 2011 (picture left) and by September, just six months later (picture right) was ordered to take enforced leave and eventually quit after reported collapse due to stress and fatigue. £930 million was wiped off Lloyds share value that day!  Who said you couldn’t put a price on your health!  (But you try being an HR Director trying to get a £50,000 budget for a stress management programme for its leaders!  “Can you demonstrate ROI?” Duh!)

We don’t have to be so helpless to just hope someone is going to notice for us and do something.  Most of us find ourselves in the self-denial place at different times.  I used to convince myself (and still occasionally do) that I cope well with stress. “People have told me so” I would declare.  “Cool under pressure that Keith”. Really?

So what can help people me notice and deal with stress?

Interestingly, there was something I realised that did work for me which I din’t find reading the books (there’s been quite a few of those!) and Googling.

In my role both when I had a team and also with clients as a coach / consultant, I spent time with people in very stressful situations coping or not coping in various ways.  I noticed when I found myself helping others to manage their own stress, I often found myself thinking and noticing things about myself.  I became more in tune with my own emotions, in fact much more when I was coaching or helping others through their issues. Weird huh! But actually effective.  Once I realised this I made a habit of it.

Whatever your own situation (whether you know it or not) it is always improved when you start to help others.  Try it! Reach out to someone you suspect might be stressed and in denial and maybe on the downward slope. Be a support to them, listen and show some compassion.  Then notice yourself.  Some of what you are saying to them turn back on yourself.  Notice the signs.  It’s quite empowering!

The first thing people need to do when they notice stress is to get back on the upward slope.  This requires reducing the load. You have to reduce your load and / or help someone else reduce theirs.  They go hand in hand. You can’t hope to hope to reduce stress while maintaining or increasing load (where’s a physics graduate when you need one?) it doesn’t work.  We have to do this first before we use positive strategies of development which I mention later.

What is empowering about managing your stress?

Firstly, You have choices!  Yes, I’ll say it again, YOU DECIDE!  Exercising those choices will give you back control.  The world might be presenting us with ‘faster than’ and ‘more of’ as we mentioned at the beginning but we are not victims or slaves to those.

You have choices.  You can say NO! You can decide to eat different things.  You can decide when you go to bed and when you get up (new parents with brand new babies aside! No sympathy your choice was much earlier in that particular process!)

You can decide to miss the rush hour or leave more time to get that meeting. You can decide that there is more to life than a bigger car, or mortgage or promotion or time spent with loved ones.

At work we need to find ways to have ‘adult’ conversations about what it is reasonable to expect and what you are prepared to do so your health isn’t compromised. We need to challenge our managers and managers need to be understanding and flexible.  We need to be ruthless with our diaries and block out  time for travelling, reflecting, thinking, resting, laughing, walking and talking.  Not just fit them in when we can.  Start to try it.  Look at next weeks diary and take back 90 minutes each day to do what you want to do.

Beyond just ‘coping’ better what else can you do?

Like the bridge in the earlier analogy, performance under stress can be improved by increasing capacity (able to handle more load), endurance (ability to sustain performance over time), resilience (ability to recover and ‘bounce’ back) flexibility, (willingness and ability to change, adapt and ‘flex’ without breaking).

These abilities don’t just come to us and they aren’t cured with a magic pill.  We have to learn and develop.  We have to try new things, fail, improve and gradually build our capacity, endurance, resilience and flexibility.

There are many ways to improve ourselves and many people find it easier to have some sort of goal, so you can notice your achievements and plan, so you can practice.  Remember you are in control and decide what it is you will work on first or what is likely to give you the best return given your own goals.

The world isn’t stopping any time soon and so unless we are doing something about managing our stress and improving our ability to withstand the pressures, then we are just waiting for that big wind to come and blow us over.  I have recommended some reading and there are some other good, affordable online courses available.

Here is a really simple approach to taking back control. Try is as soon as you have watched the video. Take action.



So to summarise
  • Change in the outside world in the form of ‘faster’ and ‘more of’ is impacting all our work lives and making them more stressful
  • Stress is needed to perform but once we are passed the peak and get over-stressed it can be a slippery downward slope to collapse
  • There are four steps before collapse that we can notice about ourselves and others: 1) Self-denial, 2) Performance Issues, 3) Safety Issues, 4) Health Issues
  • Friends and colleagues can help each other by noticing these signs and not ignoring them. Show understanding and compassion. Help take away the load that’s causing the stress
  • There are three types of stress 1) Physical, 2) Chemical and 3) Emotional and while stuff happens around us we are more in control than we often like to believe. Start to notice and be aware of your own ‘system’. Which bits are under most stress?
  • Help someone else. Don’t stand by and watch someone in trouble even if they are in self denial.  When helping notice yourself.
  • Say NO more often, be ruthless with your diary and plan in more reflection, thinking, fun, walking and travel time.  Take back control.
  • Plan to develop and improve aspects of your capacity, endurance, resilience and flexibility. Get help, have fun, move and improve!
Some of my favourite books and audio books on stress





If you need more than a read try perhaps an online programme.

Click here to visit E-Stress Management.

If you need some more inspiration here is a great Ted Talk by Kelly McGonigal on “Making Stress Your Friend”.



For others it maybe we need a good work out to alleviate the stress.
Click Here!
 

Let me know what you think with any comments, experiences, ideas, challenges or questions below.

Thanks,

Keith

22 thoughts on “How to reduce stress at work”

  1. What a great article! I think we underestimate the effects stress can have on us in the long term. Sometimes it simply creeps up on us, and then there’s some sort of “incident” that makes us realise we need to take a second look at ourselves and our lifestyle. I’m now in my 40s and it’s taken me this long to realise the sun will still come up tomorrow if I don’t finish that last task! I completely agree with your take on eating the wrong foods in a rushed setting! Don’t you love the saying “you are what you eat”? Weonly get one life, and it’s a good idea to try and look after ourselves a bit more.

    1. Thanks Mara for your kind comments.  Yes I am a late convert to the “you are what you eat” world and am a real believer in the fact that we are naturally self regulating as a species as long as we aren’t frying ourselves from the inside out.  I think nutrition is where we need to start and as they say “rubbish in, rubbish out” Thanks again Keith

  2. KeithLiddier; You have said a whole mouth full. STRESS.

    I am totally in agreement with you.

    Stress at the workplace is causing a lot of negative occurrences in people day to day life. It is not because some of us don’t notice it. It is more so because of fear we allowed it to take root.

    When you have to pay rent, and you are the sole bread winner. You know you are stressing negatively but you pretend not to notice.

    Often forgetting that when you allow the stress at the work place to take you out.

    The boss will fill your space without a shadow of doubt
    leaving your bereaving family to rough it out.

    I will say that for you to ex plane it as good as you do, you must be very observant, or have experience in the medical field, as well as being a work place stress victim, as I have been.
    Cheers!

    1. Thank you for kind words, I am glad you liked it and appreciate your comments.  I think its hard for all of us to feel like victims but I really liked Kelly McGonigals Ted Talk on making “Stress Your Friend” and thinking about it in different ways. Thank you again. Positively, Keith

  3. Hi Keith,

    Super article! Stress is sneaky; you may not recognize the symptoms you have as stress-related. Too many people try to ‘soldier through’, not realizing that they are doing more harm than good in the long run.

    Part of it too, is that upper management expects us to do whatever we have to do to get the job done. It makes it hard to break the cycle when there’s added stress over job security.

    You have some interesting-looking books on your list. I’ll be sure to check them out.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Sophia

    1. Hi Sophia I am glad you enjoyed it and thank you for your kind words.  Yes it certainly can be sneaky so the more aware we can be for ourselves and others the better. It is never easy especially with real issues like job security though this can sometimes be more about mindset.  I have worked with a number of people over the years who clung onto ‘the security’ of a job but when they did finally ‘let go’ they found themselves better positions and happier. Thanks again, appreciate your comments. Positively, Keith

  4. Stress at work is something we cannot do without. There is no way around it. Stress start from the time you are leaving your house to work. The first stress you will encounter is traffic. When you get to work, you are compounding the stress with the one you already had. What is very important about stress is controlling and managing it. The most effective way to control stress at work is to take some time off. Taking time off will go a long way.

    1. Hi Emeolu, Thank you for our comments, much appreciated.  I agree with you that stress is not something we can avoid and absolutely we need to really to control and manage stress.  We need time out to recuperate for sure and actually good sleep is half the battle.  Thanks again, Positively Keith

  5. You covered stress very well.
    I am doing a presentation on stress at the workplace for doctors.
    For us it starts with emotion draining after being surrounded by illness and pain all day.
    It is suggested that we get counseling once per month to help cope with this stress or do stress exercises frequently.
    Many doctors fail to deal with their stress from the early stages and get Over-stressed and have a nervous breakdown just like your bridge analogy says. This is why so many doctors smoke!

    1. Thanks Crystal, Glad you enjoyed the post. Yes many health professionals work in very stressful situations but I guess some will handle it better than others.  I have also observed, like you, that many Doctors don’t look after themselves as that should.  It seems to be the wrong way round to be using counselling once a month but having a quick cigarette before you go in! I don’t think you can disassociate the internal stresses of toxins from smoking and poor nutrition from being fit to cope emotionally. Thanks for your helpful comments and observations they are much appreciated.  Good luck with your presentation and if you need any more materials to help let me know. Take care, Keith

  6. Thanks Keith,this is a great post .I was enjoying this article as I was reading all the well written paragraphs and I managed to learn a lot of information about the impacts of stress in our life.Stress is not a good thing and I liked the way you explained the effects of stress in our day to day life for sure If my friend is stressed I will give all I can to help.Stress is never a good thing.

    1. Hi Lorrinc Thank you so much for you kind comments. I am glad you enjoyed the post. It is always good therapy to help someone else and we can all do with someone to help us from time to time. When you help your friend notice your own stress and look after yourself too. You take care my friend. Thank you again much appreciated. Positively, Keith

  7. Great analogies about a bit of stress being needed for structures like buildings and bridges to perform. I’ve never thought about that. Just thinking about that in itself is a stress relief!

    Thank you!

    1. Thanks Eric, Glad it had the desired effect!! I only ever imagined you as a chilled out guy! Glad you liked it and appreciate the comments. Keith

  8. Great informative and helpful article, I stress a lot and found your information to be very helpful in my case. Especially since I have long work days and very little time to relax, I am constantly overwhelmed.

    1. Thanks Deep, I am glad you liked it and I appreciate the comments. Make some good choices with your time and look after yourself. Make sure you get good quality sleep and if you need some tips that is plenty of stuff out there. I’ll be doing a post soon just on sleep and how to reduce stress through proper recuperation. You take care. Positively, Keith

  9. I must let my wife see this. She has one of those jobs that really stress this has to be done and that has to be done quickly because it all deals with insurance claims. I can see the stress in her actions when she is at home. She tries her best to hide it but I can tell it gets her bummed out especially since they made her team leader over a department. And this ever changing world will probably only get worse. Thank you for your advice and I hope it can help her.

    1. Thanks Ronnie, Appreciate your comments and I am glad you found it helpful. Show your wife the post and I suggest you look at it together and then discuss it. Find some actions that are going to improve things and support each other. I would say you need to ‘reduce the load’ somehow. After that your wife may want to focus on developing her team leadership skills which is increasing her ‘capacity’ and therefore deal with the stresses of people management. I would also see it as an opportunity to really change mindset and see your wife’s role as a team leader as an exciting (albeit challenging) opportunity to help and develop others (her team) with their stresses and strains. The more we can change anxiety into determination the better. Thank you again. Good luck and let me know how you get on. Positively, Keith

  10. Hi,
    I was wondering about chemical stress. Because my friend works at construction business and always seem so stressed. However, he once said it is not emotional etc. So I think it might chemical stress. Since he always eats and drinks whatever he finds and that just might cause this problem. What do you think about it?

    1. Hi Furkan and thanks for the comments. I am not sure where your friend works but on the whole construction sites have improved hugely over the last twenty years in many parts of the world and companies have generally got better at health and safety especially when it comes to known toxins. There are still some parts of the world that this is not the case and I am sure contributes to chemical stress. If your friend is eating a ‘whatever he finds’ diet this is almost guaranteed to be contributing to chemical stress. Once gain the body is very good at self managing so can deal with an amount of stress but modern diets and habits can just overload it or damage it. Its always about balance. Food is never ‘bad’ in itself but if we have imbalances that’s the problem. If your friend is ‘finding’ plenty of fresh vegetables, fruit, non-processed food etc. then he won’t have a problem. I suspect not so I would start here. Also when you eat and drink can impact sleep so again work out how to get good rest as well. You take care and thank you again. Positively, Keith

  11. My personal take on how to reduce stress at work is to workout regularly and sweat it all out! Of course the ways you mentioned “We have to learn and develop. We have to try new things, fail, improve and gradually build our capacity, endurance, resilience and flexibility.” these are very professional advice in a sense. There are many ways to reduce stress in a non-professional way. I love to work out and talk to my loved ones such as family and friends. Life is short and sometimes when you can see things in a broader view, you’ll realized that your stress and worries will disappear without a trace!

    1. Thank you Leo, I really appreciate your comments and I think you advice is spot on.  Working out and being in good physical shape helps in so many ways with managing stress.  It builds endurance and helps with sleep so we can rest, digest and repair properly.  I especially love your point, which is well made, about having the broader view.  I find spending time with not only friends and family but with strangers as well gives me that broader view.  Talking with (and listening to) family and friends are especially great stress busters.  Thank you so much again Leo. Really appreciate your comments. What work outs do you?  Do they help with sleep?  Take care. Positively, Keith

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