How to Deal With Stress at Work

Kathy Simmons

Is your job stressing you out? Don’t feel alone. A recent Gallup poll shows only 14 percent of workers are dissatisfied with their job, while a whopping 34 percent are dissatisfied with how much stress they face at work. Stress elicited the highest level of dissatisfaction from a list of common problems–even exceeding recognition, promotion opportunities, and salary!

Sadly, anxiety in the workplace is likely to increase. Stiff competition, expanding roles, and demanding technological advances all blend together to produce a heavy dose of stress on even the heartiest employee. We’re not just talking about management. No level of staff is immune. For instance, the days when typing speed was the main challenge for office professionals are long gone. Now they are expected to master skills ranging from high-tech office equipment, complex software, and purchasing to communication with a wide range of cultures and personalities.

So what’s the answer? Obviously you can’t control technology, the world’s economy, or even how your coworkers or boss chooses to behave. But you can master the way you filter stress so that it takes a minimal toll on your attitude and physical health. Following are some tips for keeping stress at bay:

Remember: Stress Is a Response
Picture this: Two coworkers’ phones ring simultaneously. One of them answers right away with a smile, eager to satisfy the caller in a cheerful manner. The other grumbles loudly, protesting that the phone is ringing again. Her blood pressure rises, and she makes it vehemently clear to all within earshot how much she resents the intrusion. What’s the difference between these two workers? One thing is for certain–it’s not the phone.

Top performers don’t come in contact with fewer potentially stressful situations. Nor do they avoid challenges. They simply have learned to monitor their responses so that they are in control.

The next time you are faced with an irritable boss, traffic jam, or pressing deadline, remember that the event does not determine your response–only you can do that. Deciding to remain calm is sure to lead to a better outcome than succumbing to emotions such as fear or anger.

Learn to Laugh
Laughter is powerful. In the words of Mark Twain: “Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”

Psychologist Steve Wilson, author of The Art of Mixing Work and Play and Super Humor Power, knows the value of humor in stressful situations. Wilson explains, “The immune effect of laughter stays with us for a lifetime. In light of the data about how stress defeats the immune system, the saying `laughter is the best medicine’ contains indisputable scientific backing.”

A hearty laugh relaxes muscles, reduces levels of stress-creating hormones, and lowers blood pressure. Furthermore, people simply get along better and perform more creatively in a fun environment. Have you ever noticed how a well-timed joke can cut through tension and misunderstandings? So it is with stress.

You can drastically lower your personal stress level by taking a few laugh breaks. Sharpen your sense of humor, and you are sure to dull the effects of stress.

Be Gentle With Yourself
You wouldn’t remain friends for long with someone who constantly makes remarks such as “You’ll never finish” or “You can’t handle that,” would you? So why tolerate it in yourself? Negative self-talk doesn’t do a thing for your self-esteem or stress level. A positive mind-set is more than half the battle when it comes to managing stress effectively. When faced with a situation in which you are likely to feel defeated, repeat kind and positive words to yourself.

For example, suppose an unhappy customer verbally berates you. A natural response would be to lash out and become defensive. Another reaction is the “whipped puppy” response, when you feel like an undeserving victim. These attitudes will only cause the situation to become more stressful. Instead, take a deep breath and say something like “I will remain calm. By the time we hang up, we will be having a friendly discussion.” Treat yourself with care and concern–just as any supportive friend would. Practice positive self-talk at every opportunity.

Take a “Technology Holiday”
Technology was supposed to make our lives easier. But many have come to realize that it’s actually a double-edged sword, creeping into our personal lives and increasing stress levels for most workers. Laptop computers, pagers, and cellular phones have, in essence, created a 24-hour office from which there is no escape. Surveys show that 60 percent of workers feel their levels of stress have increased since computers made their debut into the workplace. Nearly 50 percent feel their workload has increased since that time.

Eighteen years of practice in the field of occupational medicine have enlightened Robert du Puis, M.D., author of How to Avoid High Tech Stress, of the dangers of technology. He encourages employees to take a technology holiday to reduce stress.

“Putting technology in proper perspective as a useful tool but not allowing it to run our lives is becoming increasingly difficult,” du Puis explains. He advises that escaping e-mail, voice mail, cell phones, and beepers even during the evening or lunch hour is a sound step toward lowering stress.

Just Say No
The less control people have over their workday, the more likely they are to suffer stress-related illnesses. Somewhere along the line we convinced ourselves that saying no is rude. We fear people won’t like us. Unfortu-nately this logic carries a steep price tag in matters of stress.

Imagine you are staring at the last few hours of a pressing deadline when a talkative coworker comes to your office to chat. Do you entertain her, hoping she will run out of things to say eventually? If so, you are unnecessarily inviting stress into your life. If the deadline is missed, you will encounter stress. Even if your frantic efforts allow you to meet it, you will also encounter stress. It’s basically a no-win situation when people cannot behave in an assertive manner.

The next time someone asks “Got a minute?” try answering politely, “Not right now. Can I get with you later?” You might be surprised how well they will take it–and how much more control you will have over your workday.

Forgive and Forget
Have you known coworkers who remained in perpetual states of resentment? Did they seem to have an elephant’s memory when it came to injustices? Indeed, they probably took a perverse delight in repeating all the gruesome details to any willing audience.

Talking about it over and over is far from healthy. In fact, studies show that reliving a negative experience carries an undesirable consequence–it forces the grudge holder to relive the physiology that went along with the stressful moment. In other words, the stress is repeated as many times as they choose to walk down unpleasant memory lanes.

Commit to unloading grudges and anger in order to reduce your stress level. An added by-product is that you will be a much more pleasant person to be around!

One thing is for sure: Stress is a choice you don’t have to make. Your physical health, coworkers, family, and emotional well-being will all thank you for learning the important life skill of strong stress management.

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