Stress can be an energizer. Imagine it's mid-afternoon. You've just found out that your boss needs to make a presentation to his boss the next day and wants the slides on his desk by morning. You and your colleagues put off plans for the evening. Someone goes to pick up dinner, and you gather in a team room. Everything is put aside except for this one task, and you drive hard — together — to the
Stress can also be toxic. And the longer stress lasts, the more damage it can cause. Too often in our work environments, we put out one fire and move on to the next. Our days are filled with meetings —
and then we still need to find time, often at the end of the day, to get work done. Each person has a different level of tolerance for stress. What paralyzes one person may kick another person into high gear. But one thing is certain: ongoing stress can harm work performance. You may think of yourself as a superman or -woman — but you are not immune to stress.
Ask your peers. You may not be handling stress as well as you think. And, as a manager, your own stress level is not your only concern. How much stress are the members of your group experiencing? Is that stress affecting their work performance? And what can you do to reduce it? You may say, "I can't do anything about it — for myself or my direct reports. That's just the way work
is, and anyone who wants to succeed has to put up with the stress. That's part of the bargain." True, there are few work environments without stress. But continual heavy-duty stress can lead to job burnout, irritability, isolation, and decline in productivity — problems that you, as a manager, must
You can begin by consciously recognizing the symptoms of stress. Look for changes in behavior. Has a member of your group begun having headaches, for example? Or has someone become restless and irritable in meetings? Consider whether the root problem might conceivably be related to stress. Stress can also be induced simply through ongoing worry and negative thinking. We talk to ourselves constantly. Listen to what you say to yourself. Anxious thoughts — such as, "How could I do such a
foolish thing?" or, "I'll get a lot of complaints about that decision" — can cause stress levels to rise,
even though the thoughts might represent imagined, rather than real, events.
You may observe anxiety and negativity in your group. It's easy for a group to fall into the mental traps of over generalizing, jumping to conclusions, and filtering out the positive side of a situation. To address any stress that threatens to impact work productivity, here are three simple yet powerful
First, evaluate the situation
Second, make a plan, and
Third, take direct action — or, if you cannot affect the situation, mentally let it go
If you practice these steps yourself — and incorporate them into your group culture — you can help
reduce stress levels in your group. Let's look at each step briefly.
First , evaluate the situation by naming the problem. Naming makes things more manageable.
Naming puts boundaries around a source of stress so you can focus on the problem without getting
distracted by related issues. Is there a stress-creating pattern that describes the situation well? Have you taken on too many responsibilities, for example? Or, in the case of a direct report, is a personal issue affecting work?
Once you have named the problem, continue your evaluation by thinking constructively about it. How big a problem is it — really? Ask yourself, "Do I have control over this situation?"
Then move on to step two — make a plan. Gather facts, ask others for opinions, and consider
alternative approaches. As you encourage members of your group to use these steps, ask them to talk openly with you. If you know when they are under stress, you may be able to do something about it that they cannot. Your group may fear that you will perceive any admission of stress as a weakness. Make it clear that this is not the case.
To help your direct reports come up with a sound plan, consider their career goals, personalities, and working styles. Solutions that may work for one person may not work for another. In addition, be sure everyone involved is looking at the root of the problem. If a group member is annoyed by the easy irritability of another, ask yourself, "Is this perhaps a workload problem rather than a personality issue?"
When your plan is complete, it's time to take action . Taking action gives you and your group a sense
of control. In addition, if it is effective, taking action can directly address the source of stress. Often, however, stress cannot be quickly eliminated. Stress, after all, typically builds over time. You may need to set short-term goals for yourself, such as to reduce your committee participation over the next four months. And you may need to enlist the support of others, such as colleagues or family members, to help you reduce the causes of stress that are affecting your work performance. In some cases, you will not be able to eliminate the source of stress. Perhaps you know your company is in negotiations to be acquired by another company. You cannot influence the negotiations, so there is no point in worrying about it. You need to let that go . But letting something go does not
necessarily need to be a passive response. If you think your job may be at stake because of the acquisition, you can still plan your next steps and actively network to find out about job openings. Remember, stress seldom goes away by itself. And it can worsen until work performance or work/life balance is affected. Get into the habit of recognizing that stress exists, evaluating the source, planning a solution, and executing that plan. And, when you cannot control the source of stress, let it go and focus on what you can control.