How to Manage Stress at Work
Whether we are trying to hit sales targets or complete the endless administration and paperwork , whatever work environment we are in, there will be times where we hit a peak of desperation and stress. At the end of it all, the sleepless nights and tiring days may have paid off financially. But has it cost you your mental health, wellbeing and perhaps even your relationships?
The wellbeing and mental health of employees are a crucial determinant in their engagement, retention and productivity. It is important to find ways to manage workplace stress in order to prevent burn-out amongst employees, especially during challenging and important times.
Below are a few tips that have been clinically proven to help workplace stress and anxiety. These are based on the revolutionary new therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
Defuse your negative thoughts
With mountains of work and no room for error, we can’t stop our stressful thoughts from entering our head. And it is only human nature to respond to this by trying to fight, block and avoid the negativity. But did you know it is often our effort to get rid of our stressful thoughts that fuels them further?
ACT helps you create greater mental flexibility around your thoughts by changing the way we relate to any negative thoughts as opposed to changing the thoughts themselves. With practice, ACT will allow you to loosen the powerful grip that negative thoughts have over you and your life.
Your ability to defuse thoughts is achieved by recognising your thoughts come and go in your mind. A simple way to do this is to give your thoughts shorthand labels or nicknames such as ‘year end’, ‘sales target’ or even the name of a troublesome colleague. When the thought arrives for the hundredth time, acknowledge it, but then get back to what you were doing just before that thought arrived, instead of wasting further mental energy getting caught up in it. Practising this ‘thought labelling’ skill will, overtime, allow you to view such thoughts without judgement or attachment, reducing your stress levels.
Defuse your negative emotions
Negative thoughts are often associated with the upsurge of strong emotions. During stressful periods, such as the end of the financial year, small actions and words which under normal circumstances would not be perceived negatively can easily trigger feelings of stress, frustration and anxiety. With the long working hours and immense pressure, these emotions can take a disruptive toll on the morale and performance of your work.
However, it is how you respond to these emotions that determines how much they affect you and your daily performance. Oftentimes such strong emotions can hijack our brain, making you lose focus, and placing a huge strain on your work-life balance, relationships, and wellbeing.
Like with your thoughts, ACT encourages you to experience and observe uncomfortable or even painful workplace emotions as this will, paradoxically, lessen their intensity. Research has shown that the act of defusing your emotions like this, shifts the activity in your brain away from the emotional distress centre (your amygdala) and towards the rational perspective-taking part of your brain, known as the right ventral lateral prefrontal cortex.
An easy way to do this is to get into the habit of listing and locating how you feel. Take a moment to describe exactly how you feel and where you feel it. The object is not to get rid of those feelings (like you’ve probably done in the past) but instead to own the experience. Saying something like ‘right now my body feels anxiety in my stomach’ paradoxically helps to distance you from the feelings, lessening the grip then have over you, and allowing you to get on with your life in that moment.
By noticing and acknowledging your emotions, your brain starts to recognise them as less threatening which in turn reduces the activity of the amygdala. This enables you to take a step back and reassert control over your reactions and allows your to handle stressful situations more effectively.
With so much to do before the financial year ends, it’s easy to have a mind full of racing thoughts, all of which are desperately attempting to manage several projects all at the same time. In such circumstances, it’s easy to feel out of control, frustrated and stressed, all of which make it harder to focus on what really needed to be done.
Thankfully, we can train our minds to think more clearly and calmly, even when under stress. One effective way involves focussing your attention inward onto the movement of your breath. Naturally, it won’t take long for your mind to become distracted by thoughts, because this is what it is designed to do. However, rather than viewing this as a problem, see each mental wandering as an opportunity for mental training and turn your attention back onto your breath. Neuroimaging research reports that it’s the ‘returning of attention’ that strengthens the so-called ‘letting go’ area of your brain, creating a calmer and more rational mind in the long term. The process could be likened to doing one repetition of a bicep curl; the more reps you do the stronger your bicep becomes. Your brain works much like your muscles: the more times you notice and let go of thoughts, the stronger your ‘letting go’ muscle becomes.
To summarise, whilst we would love to be able to make your work stress disappear, sadly, we can’t. Nevertheless, the three tools outlined above will help you change the way you mentally relate to the stressful period and therefore limit how much power it has over you and your life.
This will hopefully make this stressful period a little more manageable, and allow you to contribute more meaningfully in both your personal and professional life.
If you need help managing work stress, switching off from work at night and getting refreshing sleep, we recommend our Sleep School for Professionals App.