This article is about dealing with stress in the workplace. While certainly stressful, abuse and harassment are outside the scope of this article. If you are experiencing these on any level you should seek guidance from your human resources department or, if severe enough, legal or professional help. Abuse and harassment should never be tolerated.
We’ve all been there: a meeting you didn’t want to have; a co-worker caught you off-guard; a presentation you were afraid to give; you got stuck in traffic and are wondering if you can make your appointment. All of these activities have one thing in common: they induce stress. Stress in the workplace is prevalent, powerful, and only getting worse. In fact, studies have shown that, in the US, work-related stress is the number one source of stress in adults. But what exactly is stress? Furthermore, how can we deal with it or, when needed, even use it to our advantage?
Work-related stress is the number one source of stress in adults.
What Is Stress?
Before we talk about ways to spot and alleviate stressful situations, let’s spend a moment talking about what stress is. Stress is a response that happens in the body when it reacts to a strain or adjustment. These strains can be both real and perceived. As humans evolved, this was a useful trait; it set-off something like an internal alarm clock. When stressed, the fight or flight instinct kicks in. Your breath quickens. Adrenaline increases your heartrate. Cortisol (the main stress hormone) helps curb normal functions deemed non-essential to survival situations. All of these aimed to provide us with the short-term energy needed to respond to differing situations—usually a threat.
The problem is we don’t live in “survival of the fittest” environments anymore (well, at least not against apex predators bent on making us lunch), and while existential threats are largely placated, perceived threats can trigger the same responses. The reason getting yelled at by your boss feels so awful is because at a subconscious level your body triggered the same processes that thousands of years ago it would have used in a life or death scenario. Does this mean that working at a job we don’t like is equal to surviving in the Sahara? Of course not. It just means that stress occurs naturally, that utilized correctly it is actually a good thing, and that the biological processes that helped us deal with such situations in our antiquity are still ingrained in our DNA.
Why Should We Care?
So now we know what stress is; why should we care? We should care because stress was never meant to be a constant thing. Sure, for a short amount of time, it’d help to be more alert, run faster, and have a higher tolerance for pain. But all of this came at a cost. Occasional occurrences provide valuable stimulation. But over time constant repetition brings on fatigue and inefficient use of energy. The body needs time to re-adjust and return to normal levels. Chronic exposure to cortisol and increased adrenaline levels cause a hormonal imbalance that can lead to everything from anxiety and obesity, to sleep disorders and heart disease. If your workplace is constantly stressful, learning how to deal with it does not mean acquiescing to new-age mumbo-jumbo. It literally means taking control of your quality of life.
Methods to Manage Stress
There are numerous methods of dealing with stress. Different ones will work better or worse given one’s personality, context, and the severity of the moment. Below is a list of suggestions that pretty much work across the board however:
Have a Good Foundation
By this I mean do your best to get a good night’s sleep and eat a healthy breakfast (key word: healthy). Stress takes up a lot of energy. Without the nutrients and restfulness to supply some of this energy, your body will cannibalize it from elsewhere. Eating breakfast also keeps your hunger satiated, potentially saving you from stress eating as well. Foods with good complex carbs (e.g., oatmeal, for replenishing serotonin), folate (e.g., spinach for your dopamine reserves), and antioxidants/phytonutrients (e.g., blueberries, for reducing cortisol) are all good choices.
Know Your Triggers
Keep a journal, or at least try to become self-aware of what affects you and what doesn’t. Some things I can be pretty apathetic about, but others affect me differently. Knowing what these are and how you typically respond to them will help better prepare you for stressful situations.
No, really. Remember, stressful situations usually cause you to breathe fast to help pump blood more effectively (because, remember, it thinks you either need to fight or run). Taking a moment to consciously think about and then practice breathing techniques—aside from lowering your heart rate—is a way of telling your brain, “No, don’t worry, we’re not about to get eaten, you can chill out.” There are numerous techniques for working on breathing. So, pick one that works for you given your response time and environment. (Sidenote: Notice I wrote, “Pause. Breathe” with a period (.), not “Pause & Breathe,” because it made you pause...more.)
Mindfulness is about finding ways to be aware—not judgemental—of your thoughts and what is happening. This is different from knowing your triggers (that’s an inventory). This is about being able to respond in the moment and just “step back” to reassess the situation. Mindfulness is far too big a topic to go over in one article. But if you’re constantly dealing with stress, it is something I would recommend looking into.
Take a Walk
Walking has more benefits than just some light exercise (though that is good, too). You’re also removing yourself from the situation—changing the scenery, removing yourself from the context. Better yet if you can get outside to maybe a nearby park, trail, or greenspace. Studies have shown that walking in forests or parks has a more positive effect on stress reduction and visual, olfactory, and auditory pleasantness versus that of urban environments. So, get out and take a stroll!
Practice, Even When not Stressed
Humans are habitual creatures; we do what we know. Reading the above, even internalizing or memorizing it, won’t be nearly as effective when dealing with stress unless you start creating habits that can be implemented when needed. The Greek poet Archilochus was right when he said, “We don't rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”
Stress Can Have a Purpose
Not all stress is a bad thing. If it didn’t serve a purpose, the trait would have been discarded long ago. Stress can create focus, drive, and creativity—all things that can be useful in the workplace. Harnessing the power of stress might be just what you need to get you over that hump. But relinquishing power to stress, and constant exposure to stress, can have severe consequences over a prolonged period of time. So, the next time you feel yourself getting worked up, remember this too shall pass. But using some of these techniques may help it pass a little easier.
Adam Rauh has been working in IT since 2005. Currently in the business intelligence and analytics space at Tableau, he spent over a decade working in IT operations focusing on ITSM, leadership, and infrastructure support. He is passionate about data analytics, security, and process frameworks and methodologies. He has spoken at, contributed to, or authored articles for a number of conferences, seminars, and user-groups across the US on a variety of subjects related to IT, data analytics, and public policy. He currently lives in Georgia. Connect with Adam on LinkedIn.