January 11, 2011

Stressed? Do I look stressed?

People have often commented to me that I don’t seem to get stressed. That’s not really true. I use the analogy that many of you have heard: a duck may look calm above the water, but its feet may be frantically paddling beneath the surface. That’s how I am sometimes; while I appear calm on the outside, my mind (and stomach!) may be churning on the inside.

The topic of stress recently came up when we did an employee survey. The survey asked employees if they were bothered by too much stress at work. The key words are "too much." If the question was, "Are you bothered by stress at work?", I would imagine that virtually everyone would say yes. Think of a parking ramp attendant, who typically seems relaxed and may be reading a book. However, they might run out of change, the gate could get stuck and the line would get all backed up, someone may not have any money on them....

At any business, demands for quality and productivity are high. In addition, in the economic times that we’ve been in the last couple of years, businesses are running very lean and consequently more work is being done by less people. This obviously leads to more stress.

But what is "too much" stress? In my opinion, if the stress level affects your work performance, health, personal relationships, or attitude at work, that’s too much stress. The question then is, "What should you do about it?"

It’s important to consider the source of the stress. I was talking about this with our head of HR and she mentioned she often sees personal stress getting carried over to the job. It may seem like someone is undergoing work-related stress, but it could be personal stress manifesting itself at work. Personal stress may cause someone to be late, it may create the need to deal with personal issues during a workday, or they may simply be mentally distracted. All of these things obviously add stress. If you run into such a situation, communication between you and your manager is key. You may be able to come to an arrangement to temporarily flex your time or strategically take time off to deal with your personal stressors outside of work. You may also find your company’s Employee Assistance program (if they have one) to be very beneficial.

So how do you deal with work stress? While there’s nothing new or magical here, when people are overwhelmed they often overlook some basic strategies. First, talk to someone like your mentor (and if you don’t have one, this is a great reason to develop that relationship) or your supervisor. Remember, your supervisor’s job is to "help you succeed" (see Nov 16 blog). They may be able to offer observations, advice, or help with workload prioritization. The other thing to do is to look at your work-life balance (see Dec 14 blog). Make sure there are other things in your life that bring you joy and fun like friends, family, and hobbies (say, building tiny ships in a bottle — I guess somebody must really do that), and opportunities for stress release like exercise, yoga, or meditation.

Feeling overloaded is often the most common issue that triggers stress at work. The best you can do is to break things down so they do not seem so overwhelming and then use good time management and prioritization. I recommend creating a list, which eliminates the need to worry that you might forget something, and then prioritizing that list so you are working on the "right" things (not all the little urgent, unimportant, and distracting things that can pop up and consume your day). If you stay focused on what’s time sensitive and critical, you can keep from feeling worried about all the other things on your to-do list that will undoubtedly need to (and ultimately will) get done in the future.

No doubt stress is common in the workplace, but is there anything you can do about it? Absolutely! As Maureen Killoran said, "Stress is not what happens to us. It’s our response to what happens. And response is something we can choose."

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