"People suffer stress when they believe they lack the resources to deal with difficult events, but that they do not suffer stress if they believe that they have such resources."
- Richard Lazarus, Author of Stress, Appraisal and Coping
From the earliest days of the cavemen, stress has been a part of our lives. However, rapid advances in technology and a wealth of information have produced extra stress levels for many of us. When computers were first introduced many predicted a 15-20 hour work week but the opposite has happened. Our ability to reach people quickly and respond instantaneously has created an environment where the emphasis is on delivering now. The pressure to meet expectations is overwhelming if people do not possess coping mechanisms to manage their stress.
Stress comes in two common forms, personal stress and work-related stress. In our personal lives we deal with issues related to personal relationships, family life, our health, our home maintenance, managing our time and our financial well-being. Any of these areas can create significant increases in your stress levels. Some examples you may experience include:
- Your neighbor's dog that barks all night outside your bedroom window
- Your daughter's bedroom that looks like Hurricane Katrina did the decorating
- Your list of 50 things to do around the house before next Monday
- Endless phone calls from relatives, friends and salespeople
In our work-related lives we deal with another range of concerns. Stress can become overwhelming at work because of issues related to our job responsibilities, benefits and salary, our schedule, our co-worker relationships, our supervisors or our productivity levels. All of us have a mental picture of what the workplace would look like in a perfect world. Employment rarely looks exactly like this and we're called upon to manage the stress that comes with the inconsistencies in this picture. For instance, productivity can cause stress if you lose too much time due to personal problems or commitments that interfere with your performance. The type of job alone might create these problems but we're still expected to cope and function at a high level. While stress certainly inhibits productivity, learning to cope has the opposite effect.
So how do we cope with our rising stress levels? There are four basic methods to cope with stress and they apply to both personal and work-related stress issues. The four methods are problem-solving, communication, closeness and flexibility.
We tend to put off solving problems that are difficult to deal with. Problem-solving skills help you handle difficult situations. When a situation presents itself do you come up with positive changes to resolve the problem at hand? Or do you ignore recurring problems and hope they will disappear? Developing new methods for dealing with difficult situations can lead to efficient problem solving and it is much less stressful than procrastination, which causes additional stress buildup.
Poor communication causes misunderstandings which are the root cause of a growing number of problems in the workplace. Improved communication is the second method for coping with stress. When conflict arises, search for common ground, share your ideas and your emotions. Communication problems are often caused because tone is non-existent in emails. We write with tone but often don't proofread emails to remove things that could be misinterpreted. Email tone is just one source of miscommunication. People often don't understand what other people's objectives are in a given situation. Taking time to understand what other people want to get out of a conversation can help you avoid the stress of communication problems.
How close are the people that work with you? How close are you and your family members? Closeness refers directly to the support you have within your household and with your co-workers. It includes how you interact with your supervisor, your spouse, and your neighbors. People that are close to people in their life tend to carry a lot less stress. Improving your communication and creating better solutions for problems affect your closeness. For instance, if you take the time to understand your friend's point of view in times of conflict you may recognize what is causing the conflict. This helps to solve the problem quickly and directly reduces your stress level. This is far from rocket science. If you can resolve conflicts or solve problems rather than carrying them with you stress levels should decrease.
The final method for coping with stress is your level of flexibility. Being too rigid or stubborn causes conflict, problems and ultimately stress. How flexible are you when it comes to reacting to difficult situations? We all need to stand our ground on certain issues but we also have areas of our life where we could be more flexible. It doesn't matter if you choose to do this through compromise or by choosing which battles are worth fighting. Recognize that your way is not always the right way and that other people may be just as effective doing things their way. Recognizing how you can be more flexible takes a conscious effort and lots of practice. Each of these stress reduction methods can work as stand alone solutions or they can be used in conjunction with the other three.
If you learn to use these coping mechanisms to manage your stress, your personal and work lives will benefit a great deal. Some people turn to therapists, some people just live with the stress and others choose to manage it. Exercise has been known to reduce stress but if you don't address the underlying problems, all of the exercise in the world won't make you happy. You'll be physically fit but mentally and emotionally drained.
Our personal and work lives often overlap. Events at work can impact home life and problems at home can certainly affect your performance at work. While employee perks such as massage therapy are helpful most organizations don't offer benefits like this. People need resources to help them identify the role of stress in their lives and develop coping mechanisms. Many companies use stress assessment tools to discover what types of issues their employees face and to create an action plan to develop coping mechanisms and reduce stress. Finding what causes stress is only half the battle. Learning how to cope is the key. Most people would like to eliminate stress completely. Without some amount of stress we would view our lives as unexciting. However, we do want stress levels to remain manageable.
About the author:
Don Bowlby is the Vice President, Operations at Corexcel, a company specializing in online continuing education and workforce training. For more information about Corexcel and the training materials they offer, visit www.corexcel.com.