We only hear about the bad aspects of workplace stress and how it affects our mental health. But stress is a double-edged sword. It can be terrible for your health and send you into the ‘choke zone’ or it can boost your physical and mental performance. So, what’s the difference? Here’s how to make stress work for you, instead of letting it consume you.
Workplace stress has been a hot topic for years. Ever since I can remember, people have talked about deadlines, over-bearing managers and lack of resources – which is business speak for “we’ve got too much work and not enough staff!” Then people began to talk about more general stress – whether that was financial stress, relationship stress or the stress of being a new parent trying to juggle work, family life and very little sleep. We began realising that all of this contributes to workplace mental health.
Now, in the last two years (this is being written in 2022), with the covid pandemic forcing people to work from home at best and, at worst, lose their livelihood or their loved ones, stress has become a more ubiquitous discussion. No longer are the old guard saying, “suck it up and just deal with it,” but instead we are all beginning to realise that stress is a living, breathing organism that affects everyone at some stage.
Stress affects our work, our relationships, our ability to control our impulses and our emotions, our appetite, our concentration and quite simply our ability to think straight. Even the most old-school manager surely understands that this makes us worse at our job. And the more enlightened manager will understand that workplace stress is a recipe for burnout.
But to understand how to make stress work for us, we first need to understand some nuts and bolts of the stress response.
STRESS CHEMICALS: THE NUTS AND BOLTS OF STRESS
Let’s get technical for a moment. Stress works in very specific ways. We get increases in adrenalin and cortisol, our heart rate and blood pressure both go up. We narrow our visual focus, and we might sweat or possibly even tremble. Cognitively we become reactive, switching on our auto pilot so that we can instinctively react to whatever is creating the stress.
"We narrow our visual focus, and we might sweat or possibly even tremble. Cognitively we become reactive, switching on our auto pilot so that we can instinctively react to whatever is creating the stress"
But stress is also general. While this reaction can be caused by seeing a snake on the ground in front of you, it can also happen in social situations like public speaking, and it can manifest in workplace stress as we approach a deadline and feel unprepared or overwhelmed.
When you think of stress you probably think of the above, negative situations. But there is also positive stress. We can get the stress response when good things happen to us. Just think of when you hear some really great news – you get a hit of adrenalin, your heart rate spikes, you might instinctively yell out or pump your fist. That is the exact same physiological reaction just expressed in a different way.
We also get the stress response when we do high intensity exercise, when we are too cold or too hot, when we’re anxious or when we’re excited.
So, we need to think about stress not as a negative feeling, but a response that takes place in our body. Removing the judgement from stress – and especially workplace stress - will help us to make stress work for us.
So, if we’re excited or anxious, we get the same physical reaction. The only difference lies in the way we perceive the stimulus and, it turns out, that is the key difference between stress that helps us and stress that hurts us.
BUT STILL, HOW DOES STRESS WORK FOR US?
We’ve all had those moments when stress works against us, but how does stress work for us?
Think about it like this: You have a project that is due in four weeks’ time. For the first week, you barely think about it. In the following week, you know you should get started but you just can’t get motivated. Other things seem important and instead you procrastinate. Then, the Monday of week three comes around and you have two weeks to get this project finished, so you finally get started. At this point, the deadline is providing good stress. Why? Because that stress of the deadline has moved you out of procrastination and into focus mode.
Another way that good stress works for us is through a potential reward. If your boss offers you a bonus for completing the project, or you get to work with people you love in a project team, these might give you enough motivation to put in some extra effort.
In both above cases, you’ll find that you get a little hit of adrenalin, a squirt of dopamine and you’ve started to narrow your focus. That’s a stress reaction, it just comes in the form of what we call ‘motivation.’
WHEN DOES STRESS BECOME BAD STRESS?
The general rule is this: High levels of stress lead us to choke, while moderate stress helps us to perform.
Negative stress (fear, frustration etc) easily becomes bad, but positive stress (reward, excitement, satisfaction) is more likely to be the sort of stress that works for us. This is because we process positive and negative emotion differently. Negative emotions give us a far greater emotional response than positive emotions do. A great example of this is that if I went to a casino, I would be more angry with myself about losing $100 than I would be happy about winning $100.
Because of this phenomenon of over-reacting to negatives, it stands to reason that stress from negatives has the propensity to push us into the choking zone easily, while the moderate effects of positive stress are good for performance and even workplace mental health.
But there are some other things that determine whether stress is moderate or high level. If the stress is controllable, predictable or if we can see when the stress will end, this has a lot less effect on us than if the stress is uncontrollable, unpredictable and is seemingly going to go on forever.
HOW DO I MAKE STRESS WORK FOR ME?
There is a short answer and a long answer. The short answer is this:
If you don’t think stress is bad, then it’s not.
If the difference between good and bad stress is how we perceive the situation, then stress is not about the situation at all – it’s about how we think and feel about the situation.
Take getting a new puppy for example. If you’re a parent, getting a pet is massively stressful. But if you’re the kid, getting that puppy is one of the most joyous occasions of your short life. Both parent and child have the same situation, but the way they think and feel about the situation is very different.
Short answer: just think it’s ok and it will be ok!
"If the difference between good and bad stress is how we perceive the situation, then stress is not about the situation at all"
The long answer is that we can change the way we deal with stress to lessen its impact. But the ‘thinking’ part is hard to change and you need some specific skills to be able to deal with bad stress effectively. You can’t just say ‘oh that doesn’t matter anymore.’ It doesn’t work like that.
Here are four tips for making stress work for you. They work for workplace stress as well as others, and will greatly increase workplace mental health.
We have an entire course devoted to beating stress
1. Reframe: “I'm excited”
This is handy for when you are feeling anxious before a big presentation or similar.
You can’t control the mind with the mind. You control the mind through self-talk and actions. Sometimes it is as easy as changing the way you describe a situation. If the physiology of good stress and bad stress are the same, then to make stress work for you, you need to change your perception.
One way we do that is through our internal dialogue. Note the things you say to yourself in stressful situations, when you are feeling anxious, and you will probably notice that it’s not helpful. If you are about to give an important presentation, you might find yourself saying “I hope I don’t stuff this up!”
Instead, a simple way to move this is to say, “I’m excited.” Literally saying this to yourself (or even out loud) can help change the way your brain interprets what is happening in your body. Sounds silly, but studies show that this simple technique can help you feel better and perform better in anything from karaoke to math exams!
Another way to change our perception is with another language – body language. There is a concept known as ‘embodied cognition’ and it tells us that when we act a certain way, we feel a certain way. When you smile, you feel happier. If you are upset and you start laughing – even if it is completely contrived – you instantly start to feel better (and a little silly). Your anxious body language and your confident body language are probably completely different. It might be as simple as standing up tall, shoulders back, chin up, and speaking a little louder than normal – these things will almost certainly change the way you feel.
2. Change Your Perspective: Broad focus
This is helpful for when you find yourself dwelling on something negative that has happened.
We have talked a lot about perception, but this technique is all about perspective. Putting things in perspective is a way of changing how we view a negative event. If you bought shares in Apple and you looked at the stock market one day and saw they had gone down by five percent, this might cause you some stress. But if your investment timeline is 30 years, then the same five percent dip probably doesn’t affect you at all.
A great exercise for this is the rule of six. When something bad happens, ask yourself: will this matter in six days? Six weeks? Six months? What about six years? The things that happen to us rarely matter in six months’ time and almost definitely not in six years. If it will still matter in six years – it is probably worth stressing about!
3. Chunk Things Down
This one is especially helpful when you feel overwhelmed by what needs to be done – a hallmark of workplace stress and poor workplace mental health.
We perceive stress a lot differently when we feel it is controllable. In one of the landmark stress experiments, participants were locked in a room with a horrible piercing noise piped in over the sound system. Different conditions led to different abilities of the participants to cope. For example, if they knew when the noise would end, stress was low. If the noise was random, unpredictable and they had no idea when it would stop this created the worst condition for stress. If there was a button they could push to stop the noise, stress was negligible.
So, the way we make stress work for us is to make it controllable. How do we do that? A feeling of control often starts with making a plan and seeing where we can fit all that urgent work into our schedule. By breaking it down into small projects and diarising when those small projects are going to get completed, it gives us both a sense of control and the ability to tick these small milestones off as we go. Both of these promote positive stress with deadlines that make us productive rather than paralysed. It also gives the stress an end point that you can clearly see in your diary.
4. Know the Process of Progress
Here’s a good strategy for literally anything that doesn’t miraculously give you linear progress (that is pretty much everything you do, from losing weight to leadership development). Know the process of progress.
What does this mean? Well, you need to understand how progress happens. When people are trying to lose weight, and that number on the scales doesn’t go down, they get frustrated, angry or upset. But this is unrealistic. If you’re on a weight loss journey and you decide you want to weigh yourself every day, the reality is that some days that number will go up, some days it will go down, and other days it will remain stagnant. But – if you’re doing the right things – it will, on balance, go down over the long term. That is how progress works when you’re trying to lose weight. When you acknowledge this and accept it as part of the process, it no longer upsets you when it happens.
The same is true of stress. It’s tempting to think that we can rid our lives of stress completely, or that we can build enough emotional skill to be able to neutralise it whenever it pops up. But this too is unrealistic. We can, however, accept that stress is a part of life. That it will pop up from time to time and sometimes we’ll be able to make stress work for us and other times we won’t. That’s ok. Ironically (and thankfully) the upside of this mindset is that when you view stress as a part of everyday life, it no longer becomes so debilitating. Instead, it gives us just enough of a buzz to become good stress – helping us into the Performance Zone instead of the Choking Zone.
Making stress work for you – whether that is workplace stress, or personal stress – requires that we have a system to control the effect that it has on us. By doing this, we don’t actually get rid of stress altogether, but we are able to dull it’s effect so that it is a stimulus that can make us perform a little better, instead of making us reactive and unproductive.