How to manage stress at work

As part of Fellowes’ ongoing campaign to boost workplace wellbeing, we’ve teamed up with psychologist Kevin Tobin to help you understand the factors that can help you identify and manage stress.

Kevin Tobin

We all know that when we’re stressed for a long period of time it starts to affect our wellbeing. We feel we can’t cope, life starts to feel heavy and even our bodies can start to suffer with symptoms.

Research shows us that short periods of intense pressure can be coped with and can even be productive.

However, if this perceived external pressure continues for too long (and this is different for us all and at different times for us all), we will experience negative health and reduced coping.

The good news is that with positive thinking and healthy strategies, we can build our resilience and ability to manage stress.

What is stress?

Stress is the response we experience on emotional and physiological levels to environmental experience.

This could be in our working day, in life outside work or both.

It’s the emotional and physiological response we have when an external event which could pose a threat to our wellbeing, is perceived as exceeding our resources.

This is the essence of stress. It’s about the perceptions of us all as individuals. This is why one thing that may stress your co-worker out doesn’t stress you in the same way.

Why do we get stressed?

New research defines the experience of stress as a ‘transaction’ between you and your environment.

In Psychology we use this model of stress as our framework for evaluating people’s abilities to cope with stressful events. This theory emphasises how both major life events and daily hassles impact our emotions and stress levels.

The major emphasis here is on ‘cognitive appraisal’ – meaning that these transactions depend on our personal perceived impact of the stress.

Cognitive appraisal affects us in two ways:

  1. Assessing how harmful or threatening a situation is to us.
  2. Whether we feel we can personally manage and cope with the situation.

There are many factors which then affect how well we all cope: psychological make up, belief system, personality traits, negative thoughts, depressive symptoms or low mood and mood swings that may be present, or any tendency we might have to anxiety or panic can all have an effect on our stress response.

Major life events and stress

Stress can be triggered by what are often referred to in Psychology as major life events or ‘big T traumas’. These are events that are unforeseen, unpredictable, and outside our control.

Anything from war, terrorist attack, being left by a partner, a bereavement, or a life-threatening illness. Even being made redundant can impact us in this way.

The way we perceive these events and how we perceive the ‘personal impact and significance’ of them to us is key. i.e. what the event means to us as individuals.

For example if you got made redundant you may have hated your job, so you believe it is a new opportunity for your life which will increase positive emotions and therefore you’ll experience less stress than someone who loved their job and viewed it as part of their identity.

Daily hassles and stress

The other type of events that are important to us all are ‘daily hassles’. I’m sure we don’t need to go into too much detail as well all have them, but these are those things that create annoyance, frustration, worry, distress, and disputes with other people – either at home or at work.

Daily hassles happen more often than major life events and because of that they probably account for more causes of stress.

They often centre around family, work and social life but also finances, arguments, worries and frequent annoyances like being regularly caught in traffic or long commutes and physically and mentally demanding schedules.

So what can you do?

When you’re looking at your own stress, both the volume of stressful situations you encounter and also the amount of times you encounter the situation can both impact on your wellbeing.

We can all cope with temporary stress – in our perceptions of our ability to find the resources to manage. However, if this is sustained for too long it can have a negative impact on us.

Is there such a thing as good stress?

If you plot a graph with ‘performance’ on the vertical axis and ‘pressure’ on the horizontal axis, it makes an inverted U or normal curve.

Performance-Pressure Graph

Image from www.mindtools.com

The more pressure you are put under, the better your performance. There is a section in the middle at the top of the curve which is your optimum area for the combination of pressure and performance.

If things are very pressured for a short time you will cope as you know it will return to more manageable levels soon.

Avoiding burnout

However, if that greater pressure is sustained longer term, performance may well decline and burnout is often the result.

Another graph illustrates this too. The stress response curve shows how again if we plot ‘performance’ on the vertical axis and ‘arousal of the stress response’ on the horizontal we see a similar curve.

Stress Response Curve

Image from www.explorable.com

The more we are engaged in our stress response the better we perform. However, if we keep engaging our stress response for too long, our performance will decline due to exhaustion and fatigue.

This all tells us that our stress response, also known as the fight or flight system or sympathetic nervous system, is designed to be engaged in temporary action to get us through threatening situations.

It is not meant to be engaged constantly in our day.

So what can we do to help manage stress?

Good stress management training, which may need to be multi-faceted, can help to prevent the decline into exhaustion at least for a significant time, making us more resilient and boosting our wellbeing.

Challenging our automatic ways of thinking or the assumptions we habitually make about daily hassles in particular, can help start to create more positive beliefs and attitudes that help build resilience.

We all have negative thoughts sometimes, however recurrent negative thinking can create anger, frustration, annoyance, irritability, fear and anxiety. They are negative thoughts and need to be looked at, challenged and questioned.

Notice what you say to yourself on a repeated basis – if you’re consistently saying negative things to yourself like ‘I can’t do this’, I can’t cope’, try cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). It helps you to confront, dispute and challenge and change these ways of thinking in order to create a way of building resilience and strength to battle on under pressure.

Practices like mindfulness can also help to look at your situation in a new way and to be more self-compassionate.

The two above concepts are combined in mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).

Stress management also needs healthy breathing. When we are stressed we are activating our sympathetic nervous system. Meditation and relaxation can also help as they switch on the parasympathetic nervous system in which our bodies replenish their resources.

Stress management should also look at diet, for example managing blood sugar levels, caffeine and alcohol intake and our sleep pattern.

These factors are all important in coping with stress and building resilience to create a work and home life that is fulfilling and productive.

Research shows that being stressed for long periods of time is unproductive, so find your stress ‘sweet spot’ and learn to manage the factors that contribute to your stress to help you remain healthy and resilient in your work and home life.

 

Kevin Tobin is a counsellor, psychotherapist and psychologist who has over 25 years experience in wellbeing consultation and has worked with the Police helping those who’ve been through high stress and traumatic situations. He is now as a private practitioner and specialises in EMDR CBT Person Centred Therapy. Kevin coaches in the workplace to help managers improve performance and resilience and wellbeing.

His experience as a Psychologist has involved him working with a wide range of individuals and groups to help them respond appropriately to workplace demands, service deliverables and organisation cultural nuances. Kevin has a keen interest in occupational health and wellbeing and is experienced at working with both management and staff to build up a number of skills including developing individual coping strategies, decision-making, emotional control, resilience and stress hardiness.

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