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How to Deal With Stress at Work: A Guide for Managers and Staff

Jul 20, 2020

Tired businesspeople sleeping in office at night

You have two ways to deal with stress at work and stress in general: One is to be overcome by it all, the other is to be inspired by it all.

The first way is easy to choose and hard to live with; the second way is hard to choose and comparatively easy to live with -- even if you choose it crabbily. Choosing it crabbily might even help.

Speaking from experience

As I write these words, California -- the world's fifth largest economy and my home state -- has been partially shut back down. Moreover, my dominant arm is in a sling from shoulder pain: often unrelenting and off the charts. It's like being jolted awake every night to "Helter Skelter." Except it lasts longer.

Everyone's living their own set of hardships right now: the ones others know about and the ones they know nothing about. Whatever you're going through, you have my respect and you have my empathy.

But we can do this. We can rise to the challenges before us. Given how much time we spend on the job, let's start with how to deal with stress at work. May today's post help you -- and your staff -- do just that.

Leading through change

"The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulenceit is to act with yesterday’s logic." — Peter Drucker

Adjusting to life back in the office

Here's an example of how a manager I know is leading through change and lowering stress among his staff: As he and his staff transition from home back to the office, he doesn't let his team's underlying anxieties --or his own -- go unacknowledged.

On the contrary, he names them: fear of losing one's health. Fears of the unknown. The concerns about making sure kids are cared for and educated. The logistics of managing multiple priorities and their accompanying schedules.

More specifically, he meets with his staff as a group, then lets them know he'll be checking in with them individually. Even with the most trusting teams, individual members can say things one-on-one that they might not feel comfortable saying in a group. 

Stress at work diminishes when anxieties are acknowledged and dealt with.

Does your management style reflect these realities? If so, you'll be rewarded with more trust, more engagement, and greater willingness to pitch in. This, too, was confirmed by the manager I just described.

But he takes it a step further. Once he's worked out a schedule that reflect's the group's circumstances, he presents to each of them individually so they can respond to it in private. No surprise, then, he has a group of high performers who will gladly pitch in and do what needs to be done.

Maybe your team is too big, and you're not able to take such a personalized approach. But you can look for other ways to show consideration. Does that sound like overkill? In the hokey yet more spot-on than ever words of Stephen Covey, "Win-win or no deal."

I mention that quote because I have known entrepreneurs who viewed themselves and their team as rivals. Yet I've never seen anyone win this battle. Whether you're an entrepreneur or simply a company manager, you have got to get yourself and your team on your side.   

For more insights on the importance of a leadership mindset, click on What Every CEO Needs to Understand About Company Culture

Talking through scenarios

Another key way to deal with stress at work: Identify scenarios that could or most definitely will come up in the near future -- and come up with a plan now for how you will handle them. Examples: 

  • Handling layoffs: Are there ways you can soften the blow if layoffs become unavoidable?
  • Dealing with disruptions in the office: How can you minimize them or reframe them?
  • Keeping staff, customers and suppliers safe: What are the protocols you need to start putting in place now? Do you need a backup plan?
  • Preventing personality clashes during this stressful time: What ground rules can you set to keep your staff focused and productive? Can you give them a say in these rules? If so, you'll get more buy-in.

You get the idea. Unprecedented times call for higher forms of leadership. Rising to the occasion will inspire your staff to set aside differences and come through toward a common vision. But it's up to you to paint that vision. 

Taking a break from work (now)

"If you aren't taking regular breaks every couple of hours, your brain won't benefit from that extra cup of coffee." — Daniel Levitin

Search online for quotes on vacations, and what you'll find is not a wealth of wisdom about how important vacations are. No. What you'll find are a lot of celebrities and well-known leaders practically bragging about how they hate vacations -- and rarely if ever take them. These are not people I would want to hang out with.

Ever spent time around someone who was burned out? Or addicted to their work? I'm guessing it wasn't much fun. 

Sometimes the only answer for how to deal with stress at work is to take time off.

I learned this last month when I woke up one Monday morning and thought, "How long has it been since you've had a vacation?" Answer: six months. 

So I decided I would do what it took to take the following week off. There's something ironic about taking a stay-at-home vacation when you've spent the last several months on stay-at-home orders. But the time off from work helped beyond words. 

How long has it been since you've had a break? Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project, wrote an article called More Vacation is the Secret Sauce. Though written long before Covid-19, many of the same principles still apply. Take more breaks -- ideally, before you desperately need to.

Stress management tips

“These mountains that you are carrying, you were only supposed to climb.” — Najwa Zebian

So far I've been speaking largely to managers. But what if you're an individual contributor? How do you deal with stress at work? My five best tips: 

  1. Treat sufficient sleep like the non-negotiable item it is. It might surprise you to learn that high performance is correlated with more sleep, not less. For tips on better sleep, please see my earlier post, Sleep and Work Performance During COVID-19.
  2. Put some parameters on your work. At the end of a long workday, have the courage to say "I'm done." The work will still be there in the morning.
  3. Admit when you're struggling. Then ask yourself, "What would help right now?" If you're not sure, try something simple, from taking a walk to changing into more comfortable clothes. Sometimes a simple change in your environment can help you reclaim your energy.
  4. Ask for help or clarification. When you're stressed at work, ask yourself what information or other resources would help you feel less stressed. I can remember a co-worker who came to me in a moment of frustration -- and how much I appreciated that she didn't blame or blow up. She simply came to me and asked for needed help. I was glad to give it.
  5. Learn to say no. In that recent shoulder injury I mentioned, half the blocks on my calendar got taken off out of necessity. I'm okay with that. Why? Because it's given me a chance to focus on time- and energy-investments with higher return. 

But you don't have to wait for an illness or injury to take charge of your calendar. Doing so now is one of the most surefire ways to lower your stress at work -- and outside of work. 

Bonus tip: Cultivate a meaningful life outside of work. As an example, I have three close family members right now who cannot afford the risk of COVID-19. Since I can't go see them -- and I don't know when I'll be able to -- I make a point of connecting with them in other ways: sharing music, for example, or videos. 

Last week I sent my parents this sketch from The Carol Burnett Show. Knowing they laughed as they watched it together created a small bond for all of us. Spoiler alert: Harvey Korman's smile at the 5:00 mark, well, it's truly a thing of beauty.

Wrapping up

I don't know anyone who has it easy right now. In the memorable words of Steve Harvey, "Everybody trippin' through something." Yet all the more reason to make your work count. Why? Because your whole team is stressed -- and they're counting on you.

When you show your team they can count on you, by the quality of your work and the spirit with which you carry it out, stress may not disappear. But it loses some of its power. It serves a noble purpose.

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