Simple strategies to reduce stress at work

Last updated on March 4th, 2021 at 12:01 pm

Stress is everywhere in the workplace. We all know that sleep, nutrition, and exercise play a role in stress reduction. But what else helps? Certainly not watching replacement refs make calls at the end of a Packer game.

Think of your favorite place to be. Somewhere that you escape to once a year or once a week if possible, where you feel completely relaxed and at ease.

We each try to visit places like this regularly because they are stress-free. While the bartender serving us a mojito on a tropical beach might be stressed because the produce truck didn’t arrive with fresh mint leaves before the start of his shift and it’s ultimately the fault of his incompetent boss who he wishes would get the ax… well, all that just doesn’t matter when we are barefoot, slathered up with sunscreen, and taking our mojito back to our beach chair.

The bottom line of that image is this: we all need an escape hatch from stress. We all need destinations that feed our souls. We slow down, reconnect, and breathe. We feel at peace.

The great news is: We can escape from stress while we’re sitting at our desks under the fluorescent lights at work, with the fake plants and gurgling zen fountain in the corner earnestly trying to fill the void of nature. It’s not the tropics, but it’s our life the other 51 weeks of the year.
Sleep, nutrition, and exercise are fundamental strategies for reducing stress. However, as our lives demand more from us, our first choice to accommodate these demands often involves sacrificing all three. I’m not going to harp on this. You’ve heard the speech a hundred times. So let’s move on to other very critical components for reducing stress and ultimately, enjoying both work and life a bit more.

Check our feelings

Yep, feelings. Emotions. The ingredients of our mood, either positive or negative. We all choose to either process our emotions or not, to acknowledge them or not. Italian men express their emotions a lot more than Norwegian men. Women tend to do it more naturally. Look around you at work and at home. Are you surrounded more by the Italian types or the Norwegian types? Emotive or stoic? Neither is right or wrong. But acknowledging your feelings is critical to undoing stress and thriving in life.

Emotions only last for 30 seconds.* Then we perpetuate them by continuing to think about the situation that fuels those emotions. If you’ve ever laughed for days about something comical that happened to a buddy, you’re laughing because you’re reliving the moment in your mind. Those thoughts trigger you to laugh. The same is true for negative emotions. Last week’s horrendous referee call at the Green Bay Packers game had fans stewing for days. Every time they thought about the call or heard about it on talk radio, it triggered their frustration or anger response. That emotion only lasts 30 seconds, unless we feed it.

The good news is that we can control our negative emotions by diverting our attention and cutting off the triggering event. It’s a four-step process: notice that you’ve been triggered, identify what you’re feeling, and decide whether you want to continue feeling that way. If not, then take some very deep breaths and refocus on something positive.

Try it at work. If a group of people are complaining endlessly about something and fueling negativity, just walk away. At a later time, you can introduce a more positive perspective or make a positive comment on some element of the situation. You’re not trying to ignore the bad parts of a situation; you’re simply balancing the good with the bad. Authentically of course. This leads into the next strategy: Change our beliefs.

Change our beliefs (emulate Mike McCarthy)

We all suffer setbacks in our day-to-day work life. We can either allow negative emotions to take over, because we hold negative beliefs, or we can look for a more positive perspective, which leads to positive emotions.

Coach Mike McCarthy of the Green Bay Packers phoned the referee who made the bad call that cost the team the game. While fans called the referee relentlessly for the first 72 hours after the game to likely make personal attacks, McCarthy called to show his respect for someone who he believed was doing the best they could in a tense situation. Rather than dwell on the unfairness of it all or believe the ref was incompetent, McCarthy chose to focus on the positive side, to believe differently.

There is a cause and effect sequence of events that take place when we experience an uncomfortable situation. First, we have the situation itself. A football referee rules a pass to be complete rather than intercepted. Second, we have the belief that accompanies the experience. We believe the referee is incompetent. Third, we have the emotion that accompanies the belief. If we believe the referee is incompetent, we aim our anger at him. Fourth, we have the behavior that accompanies the emotion. We jump off our couch, throw down the remote, kick the magazine rack, and call the referee names.

At work, our behavior is typically the only element of the sequence of events that is visible because we hide our emotion and never even question our beliefs. Our behavior is the tip of the iceberg, the piece that sits above water. There’s a lot more going on underneath the surface. When we better understand the links between our our beliefs, our emotions, and our behavior, we can address the real source of our problems.

Employ non-violent communication skills

Relationships with certain people at work can make our blood pressure rise. We sense that “this person has no clue about what’s really going on” or “this person is selfish” or “this person is part of the problem.” When we judge people in this way and conclude that we can’t work with them, we make any progress difficult. Conflict goes unresolved. We don’t address differences. If we do make an attempt, since we have labeled the other indiviual in a negative way, we lose our ability to understand their own point of view or find common ground.

Marshall Rosenberg, an American psychologist, explored this problem and developed a communication process that “helps people to exchange the information necessary to resolve conflicts and differences peacefully.” If he can help gangs in L.A. and the L.A.P.D. find common ground, the process can certainly prove effective for us at work.

The process allows each party to acknowledge the needs of the other party. Most conflict results from unmet needs. (These are often needs for status, certainty, autonomy, and fairness.) First, we let the other person talk. We let them express their needs and frustration. As they speak, we paraphrase their concerns and frustrations, such as, “I hear ya. You feel that the we deserve more support for the manufacturing plant.” “Yep, I get it. You wanted more room in the budget for replacing the equipment in the plant.” If that’s uncomfortable, just go with “Yah, man, I can see how that would be really upsetting.”

Then we implement Rosenberg’s four steps to get our own views across: 1) make our observation of the facts of a situation (without evaluation), 2) say how we feel, 3) express our need, and 4) make a request of the other party.

For example, “I understand your anger that your plant equipment will not be replaced next year.There have been many meetings questioning the rigor of the analysis that led to the reduced plant budget [observation]. We are expending a lot of energy during these meetings and yet we’ve been told that the budget will not change [observation]. I feel frustrated by all these meetings because I need for us to focus our time on making the plant viable under the new restrictions. Would you be willing to turn your focus to how we’ll keep the plant operating next year?”

This technique is more effective than: “Listen, you need to stop complaining about something we can’t fix. I can’t stand all the rehashing of how it was a bad decision. It’s such a waste of energy and I’m afraid we’re going to fail next year if you’re not smart enough to refocus on the future. You need to get with it.”

For the NFL example, If I were a coach, I might go to the owners and say, “I know you’re trying to control costs. And as we all know, the calls by the replacement referees have been dicey. I am angry because I need a fair playing field that my team can depend on. Could you settle this dispute quickly before more harm is done and still achieve what you and the refs need from it?”

The technique works because it doesn’t label the other party as stupid, mean, imcompetent, or other traits that the party would find offensive. While it’s easy to sling around labels and make personal jabs, it only alienates a party further. At some point, finding reasons to respect each other and understand each other’s needs is critical.

Don’t try this at home, Try it at work.

Each of us is unlikely to win the lottery and buy a tropical island with happy bartenders and beautiful beaches. And while sleep, healthy meals, and exercise might elude us during periods of our work life, we still have control over our emotions, beliefs, and communication skills. Our choice to exercise some control can make all the difference in whether we languish due to chronic stress, simply survive, or thrive at work.

Please share your own experience by posting comments below. How have you dealt effectively with stress through changing your beliefs, emotions, or communication skills? Are people around you unhappy in their jobs? On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being highest), how happy are you in your job?

Julie O’Keeffe of Wauwatosa is a speaker, coach, author and owner of Next Step Goals LLC.

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