This post is a summary of the information on the Wikipedia article, as well as some of my own advice that I've composed from over the past year. I hope that you might find at least some of it useful.
Workplace stress is the harmful physical and emotional response that arises when there is a poor match between job demands and the ability of the worker to cope with it. As well as the emotional strain involved, it takes a physical toll on the body that can be measured. During times of stress, levels of the hormone cortisol rise in your bloodstream and interfere with normal bodily processes. People living highly stressful lives can suffer from sleep disorders, mood disturbances and suppressed immune systems. If you work under stressful conditions for extended periods, you are also putting yourself at a greater risk of developing chronic cardiovascular disease.
Happy and motivated workers are more productive and less inclined to make mistakes. St Paul Marine and Fire Insurance Company has conducted several studies on the effects of stress prevention programs in hospital settings. In one study, the frequency of medication errors declined by 50% after prevention activities were implemented in a 700-bed hospital. Dealing with stress will not only make you a better worker, you also owe it to yourself to lead a more enjoyable and rewarding life.
Most of the stress management advice online describes what I think of as 'winding down' or distraction techniques. They're useful to know, but there are also some broader ideas that I want to note here. It can all be broken down into three main points:
- Boost your ability to cope
- Focus on non-material goals
- Build close personal relationships
We'll talk about these more in a second, because first I want to talk about emotions.
Emotions are what make us human. They're not a bad thing in that sense. However, they often get us into trouble and it's quite possible that the deliberately emotionless Vulcan race from Star Trek have a good point. I think we shouldn't try to deny our feelings, but if we let our feelings override our logic, it can often be most detrimental to ourselves. We all feel angry at times, but you'll probably be hard pressed to remember the last time that a situation improved after you had an angry outburst.
I think the more primitive emotions are the ones we need to focus on getting under control. How many situations can you think of involve the best solution being for everyone to panic? Things like anger, panic or fear are primitive psychological responses emanating from our amygdala, an ancient part of the brain that we evolutionarily share with lizards. They're not often useful for your average homo sapien in a developed world. Another proof that they're primitive is that less neurologically complex organisms experience them. For example, you can make a snake, a spider or even an ant angry if you want to. Birds can be seen to panic when cornered, and the humble shrew has been known to die of fear at the sound of a thunderstorm.
Perhaps the better emotions to savour, as a more cultured entity, are the sophisticated and subtle ones, like mild amusement, melancholy or nostalgia.
Anyway, the main point I want to make here is that you can avoid making a lot of bad situations worse if you can learn to control your emotions.
So back to those three main points...
Boosting your ability to cope all comes down to what we were talking about when there is a 'poor match between work demands and your ability to cope'. If the boss wants you to submit three reports by Friday but you are only realistically capable of completing one, then you're going to be stressed. On the other hand, if you could churn out four experiments by next week, but you're only required to complete two, then you're going to be feeling pretty good about yourself. Therefore, you can tackle the stress by either lowering the demand (ie. negotiating with your boss for a more realistic deadline) or boosting your ability to cope. Because the former is often not a valid option due to the fickle mannerisms of the boss species, let's focus on the latter.
Most of the winding down and distraction techniques fall into this category. Listening to music, going for a walk, meditation, healthy food and regular exercise are all ways to energise yourself so that you can tackle your challenges with more bounce in your step. Getting a good sleep at night and eating a large breakfast in the morning can also work wonders. Heather and I have been dabbling with meditation for a few months now and it really helps to clear your mind. I'll post about it in a couple of weeks.
Focus on non-material goals. The monks have it right when they say that the root cause of all human suffering is desire. The more things you want, the more pain you put yourself through to get them and the more pain you feel when you lose them. Material goals are things like more money, a nicer house or getting that degree. It has been well documented that increasing amounts of money beyond the average income do not correspond to increasing happiness. Deep down we all know that becoming filthy rich would probably transform us into selfish, suspicious and reckless people, yet we can't help but fantasise about it. Sixty thousand dollar shoes might make you feel good for a week, but overindulgence numbs us to the things that really matter. Getting a title or a promotion is also a material goal, because it is something that can be taken away. Non-material goals on the other hand, are intangible. Working because you want to become a better person is a non-material goal. The pursuit of wisdom is another. Some PhD students are utterly fixated on getting their degree, which really is just a piece of paper. The non-material goal they should be focusing on is the life experience that one gains while doing the work. No one can take that away, and therefore the benefits are long lasting. Keep this in mind when you get up in the morning. Try to think of the reasons you work, apart from the paycheck.
Build close personal relationships. Being the social monkeys that we are, having meaningful relationships with others gives true meaning to life. If we evolved from snakes or stick insects, we'd probably be perfectly happy living everyday alone. But that wasn't the case. Friends gives us an avenue to vent our frustrations and a way to share our successes. People who are very stressed in the workplace may notice that their relationships with others aren't going too well. Conversely, if you get along magnificently with everyone at work, it's likely that your job will be enjoyable even if the workload is tough. True friends give us realistic feedback and emotional support when it's needed most. But not all of your personal relationships have to be good friends. Being polite and friendly to the security ajossi in your building can work wonders at a later date when you need his help to move out. Remembering someone's name with a friendly smile can also set the wheels in motion for a future working partnership. Simply put, building relationships is an investment in time and effort, but the dividends are long-lasting and good for everyone involved.
The American Psychological Association also reinforces these ideas with their "10 Ways to Build Resilience", which are:
- maintain good relationships with close family members, friends and others
- avoid seeing crises or stressful events as unbearable problems
- accept circumstances that cannot be changed
- develop realistic goals and move towards them
- take decisive actions in adverse situations
- look for opportunities of self-discovery after a struggle with loss
- develop self-confidence
- keep a long-term perspective and consider stressful events in a broader context
- maintain a hopeful outlook, expecting good things and visualizing what is wished
- take care of one's mind and body, exercise regularly, pay attention to one's own needs and feelings and engage in relaxing activities that one enjoys.
So along with these little pearls of wisdom, remember to Boost, Focus and Build. None of us can avoid stressful situations entirely, but we can always change the way deal with them.