Staying sane in high-stress workplaces

It seems that just about everyone I know is working extraordinarly hard with very high workloads. There are, of course, times to simply knuckle-down and work hard to get the job done.

But when this continues over time and difficult clients and constant change are added into the mix, I worry about the effects on people’s health, well-being and relationships.

So, what do you do to take good care of yourself while dealing with the challenges, both at work and  home? Here are some of the protective factors identified by the research on resilience over the past 30 years.

  1. Cardio-vascular exercise: No matter how stressed I might be feeling, just a minute or so cycling on my road bike causes any stress I am feeling to dissipate. Cycling not your thing? Fortunately, anything that gets your heart rate going is good for you, health conditions withstanding – walking, running, gardening, swimming being a few examples.

    The real challenge is making time for this and motivating yourself to take action. It is always easier to exercise when you find an activity you enjoy doing. Or it might be helpful to remind yourself of other benefits, such as becoming a less-stressed, nicer person for your loved ones and workmates. Many people find it helps to schedule time for exercise and organise their life around it. Others hold themselves accountable to others, perhaps exercising with a friend, or measuring progress over time. What is going to motivate you?

  2. Downtime: There are many people I know (school leaders and teachers, I am thinking of you) who are working very late most nights and also on the weekends. While it is admirable to want to stay on top of their work and do it well, the absence of down-time means that often these people are not working at their best.

    We need time to rest and recharge - times when we are not thinking about work, focusing on other things, and yes, finding time to sleep. When we sleep our body is resting, expelling toxins and stress hormones, and the brain is creating new synapses, making it easier for us to think clearly. We physically and emotionally feel much better placed to deal with the challenges.

  3. Supportive, positive relationships: My wife, Christy, who teaches young children, says she can deal with all sorts of challenges with students, their parents, and the system, if she has positive, supportive colleagues around her. This is true for all of us. But it is the opposite of what people tend to do when stressed about their workload – which is withdrawing into themselves, focusing just on their own work – also known as the Silo Effect.

    We need to remind ourselves of the importance of simply chatting with our colleagues, making them laugh or feel good about themselves. With colleagues who are new to the workplace or dealing with extraordinary challenges, we need to surround them with very good support, whether it be practical assistance or simply genuine empathy. Let’s not forget the importance of time spent with friends outside of work as well.

  4. Action to address the stressors: My eyes often roll when I hear people speak of resilience as simply feel good measures. It doesn’t matter how many team-building days or morning teas you organise if no-one is taking action to address ridiculously high workloads, unsupportive or controlling leaders, or individuals engaged in ongoing bullying behaviour.

    Action to address the stressors is essential, at least with those that are in your control. Otherwise, you are constantly trying to fill a bucket that has a huge hole in the bottom of it. Is it possible to stop doing some tasks or give some things at your work a lower priority? Are there work-it-out conversations you need to have with others? While I can't guarantee action from you will get the result you want, I can guarantee that no action from you will get more of the same.

  5. Good attitudes: As with so many things, our attitude or mindset determines how we feel about the challenges and the choices we make. Do we really have to aim for perfection? The issues we are stressing about, how important are they really? Is our work our life, or is our life much bigger than our work? Despite the challenges, are there things you can be grateful for?

    Is there really nothing you can do about the stressors? Or is it possible to ask for help, gain clarity about the priorities, or at least start up an exercise program? Has the stress reached a point where you need to have a medical checkup?

Remember that resilient individuals are affected by challenges and do get stressed. But they are prepared to take action to address the stressors in their control and contribute to their own and others’ well-being.

One action you could take immediately is to forward this article to your colleagues or put it on the agenda for discussion at your next staff meeting. There may well be actions you need to agree on together.

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