Work stress – techniques for handling the new normal  

By on September 16, 2015
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Work induced stress is not a new concept; but in today’s society, excessive stress has become the new normal and dealing with stress-related challenges requires a new strategy, an expert says.

“Extreme stress is now considered par for the course in the workplace. But while some stress is indeed normal, the challenge is to be able to differentiate between acceptable levels of stress and excessive stress, and then to manage the latter,” says Peter Kriel, Head of the Faculty of Business at The Independent Institute of Education, SA’s largest and most accredited private higher education institution.

“It is important to both the employee as well as the employer to address dangerous stress levels, because these cause people to feel anxious, irritable and sometimes even depressed, which impacts on productivity as well as quality of work,” says Kriel.

He says for the individual experiencing the stress, the impact goes beyond the office into personal life and relationships and in severe cases can become life threatening.

“Work stress, coupled with external stress factors such as looking after the family, paying the bills and the proverbial keeping up with the Joneses, can even cause physical illness,” notes Kriel.

He says that although employers have a responsibility to assist with stress management in the workplace, there are some guidelines for employees, especially those in more junior positions, on how to manage the kinds of stress and stressors experienced in the workplace of today.

“The most important step is to determine which stressors you have control over and which ones you don’t,” says Kriel.

Examples of contributors to stress in the workplace, over which you have little or no control (unless you are in top management) are aspects such as the financial stability of the company, the overall company strategy, the staff shortage in another department and even the personality of your line manager.

“Every time you feel stressed, ask yourself if you can in any way control the situation. If the answer is no, let it go and direct your focus somewhere more productive.  One place to direct it is to think about where you can contribute to changing the situation – even if you cannot control it. If, for instance, you are experiencing conversations at the coffee station as bitter and angry, don’t go there when those people are there,” says Kriel.

“This sounds so simple but it is actually profound in the management of stress – people who behave differently begin to feel different and they attract fewer stressed people to them, which is self-re-enforcing.”

“On the other hand, if a stressor is something that can be managed, it is worth accurately pinpointing where it is coming from and then doing something about it. This will go a long way in making you more happy and productive at work and more fulfilled in your personal life,” Kriel says.

Kriel says there are a few general but effective ways in which a worker can head off unhealthy stress by managing themselves differently, including:

DOING YOUR JOB 

One of the leading causes of stress in the workplace is underperformance, not meeting deadlines and simply not delivering what you are employed to do.

“Procrastination is often the first step down a spiral of increasing disempowerment, and an inability to get daily tasks crossed of to-do lists. Check your social media behaviour and don’t get caught in the trap of putting things off until the very last. Get things done consistently and as a matter of course – this will make the small tasks run-of-the-mill, and the bigger tasks manageable.

“It is also important to differentiate between real underperformance and perceived underperformance. The easiest way to know the difference is to simply ask your line manager if you are meeting expectations and if there is anything specific you are not delivering on. Even senior people in the workplace sometimes still suffer from something called impostor syndrome – where they constantly fear they are not qualified to be where they are. If you are doing your job, and your manager agrees that you are performing well, then banish this stressful notion from your mind.”

IGNORE OFFICE GOSSIP 

In our tough economy, rumours often run rife about downsizings, retrenchments and other potentially bad news for employees.

“Remember that gossip and rumours are most likely a whole lot of embellishment with only a little, if any, truth to them. Someone mentions the word retrenchment in the tearoom and the next minute you are stressing about the fact that the whole company is going to close down. Don’t get into a panic that will affect your performance, about information that isn’t officially communicated.  If and when bad things do happen there will be plenty of time to deal with it then. Our experience is that these things happen far less often and far more humanely and responsibly than the office gossip would suggest.

“Also steer clear of idle office talk about colleagues and managers. This will ensure you don’t become part of a negative narrative about your work environment, and will assist in you being able to focus on the positive.”

PLAN YOUR WORK-LIFE BALANCE 

Unless there is a real emergency, leave work for office hours.

“In our connected world, it may indeed be a reality that you will receive a work-related e-mail on a Sunday morning. If you read the mail, make sure you understand its urgency or lack thereof. A general request to deliver on something in two weeks’ time is not something you must attend to immediately.

“The same applies to overtime. It is acceptable and even good that you will sometimes be required to work overtime and many ambitious people are putting in more time and effort than their colleagues.   The ones that succeed though, manage when and how often to put in the overtime and they do switch off regularly – both emotionally and from their technology.   On the other hand, if you are having to work overtime because you are not performing or you are using your office hours for unproductive or destructive engagement, then that is what you need to deal with.”

Kriel says that, as always, investing in a healthy lifestyle will also go a long way in helping a person cope with stress in and out of the workplace.

“Get enough rest and exercise, eat the right foods and do not overindulge in alcohol. Make time for quality family and leisure time and remember to differentiate between those stress factors you can control, and those you can’t.”

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