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In this month’s spotlight Andy is going to give us some useful advice on how we identify and manage pressure in the workplace.
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Next time you feel mounting anger or frustration, try to stop and ask yourself whether the target of your anger is really worth your energy. That might sound obvious, but you should remind yourself that there are two types of stress.
First, there is the long-term stress of a demanding job, where you have valuable objectives to achieve but various obstacles in your way. Second, there are daily hassles, which range from irritating colleagues interrupting you through to slow broadband speed.
Research suggests that the daily hassles actually affect your health and happiness more seriously, especially when combined with the long-term pressures. So that means that a lot of your energy and emotion could be getting wasted on insignificant annoyances when it should be saved for the big stuff. Try to stop yourself getting dragged in emotionally to trivial but infuriating hassles. When you feel that is about to happen, redirect your attention to your true goals. That’s one way to score a victory over frustrations over which you have little control.
It depends on the circumstances, as you may already be aware. The basic model of stress and performance is a curve: with a little added pressure your performance improves (because you are motivated and focused); this reaches a peak at some point, after which any further stress has a negative effect on your performance. So the key thing is that you want to be at the top of that curve, not on either side.
That’s the basics, but there is more to it than that. Imagine you are playing tennis or pool. Now imagine the following alternative possibilities and what effect they might have on your performance:
- You think you are quite good at the game – or not very good.
- A small crowd gathers to watch – or a big crowd.
- You know the people in the crowd – or they are strangers.
- The crowd are supporting you – or hostile.
Different people react in different ways to each of these. And the different variables interact with each other. So if you think you are good at something, you might actually be spurred on by a hostile crowd. What this means is that the top of your curve will shift its position according to various circumstances. In other words, the amount of stress that brings out the best in you depends on a complex set of factors.
Bear in mind that you can sometimes change some of these factors, sometimes not. But you can always change what you think about. So thinking obsessively about the negative aspects (‘They might hate my presentation’ … ‘I don’t know enough about this subject’ … ‘I can’t do this in the time allotted’) is self-defeating. Instead, think through the negative scenarios realistically, preferably with the help of a calm friend. But also think about what you can control. Think about what counts as success for you in the given circumstances. Think about what someone who personifies professional excellence would do if they were unlucky enough to be dealt the hand that you are being forced to play… and then do that.
Strategies for coping with stress fall into two groups: problem-focused and emotion focused. Both are useful.
A problem-focused approach is more common among males. It involves trying to remove the source of the stress, rather than dwelling on your feelings. This works well if you are an assertive person, which means you are able to express emotions constructively and have difficult conversations as a way of reducing – not increasing – stress. It also works well if you are dealing with a familiar type of problem. For example, surgeons, athletes, soldiers and pilots are able to fall back on training and experience to guide them through – and defuse – situations far more pressurised than most of us have known.
But beware: many workers feel it is more ‘professional’ to use a problem-focused approach rather than admit they are upset or over-stressed. That’s a problem because their emotional state has not been relieved and their judgment is impaired. This can make their attempts to solve the problem counterproductive or inflammatory. Trying to use a problem-focused approach is also disastrous if the situation is actually outside your control, and it is important to recognise when this is the case.
Emotion-focused coping is usually recommended as a first resort. So before you set about tackling the problem that is stressing you out, take a step back and use some of these techniques before you re-enter the fray:
- Exercise relieves stress. This needn’t – and shouldn’t – mean pushing yourself to the limit in the gym. Small but frequent stints are more valuable than macho marathons and swimming, running and yoga all enhance your physiological state in the short term, which partly determines your psychological state.
- Don’t rely on coffee, cigarettes and alcohol. You don’t have to be an angel, and we all need to let off steam, but look for other tactics when stress is mounting.
- Relax actively. This means taking a moment to be by yourself, breathe evenly, think powerful thoughts and gather your focus. You can do this in two or three minutes.
- Use support networks. Your friends and family can take a load off your mind. And make sure you don’t just rant about the sources of your frustration. Take care to admit your feelings – that’s a strength not a weakness.