Stress is not only an inevitable part of business, it's also an important and beneficial one. Stress lets us know that a challenge is ahead, gets us moving and boosts our productivity. That being said, when work-related stress reaches a level that begins to interfere with normal functioning, it's time to step back and take action.
1. See the signs
Physical: Excessive stress can present itself in physical manifestations such as fatigue, headaches or heart palpitations. In some cases it can interfere with sleep patterns, contribute to digestive problems and even spark dermatological disorders. If you find yourself experiencing any of these symptoms, speak to your doctor to rule out any underlying medical concerns.
Thoughts/emotions: If you find yourself consumed by negative or worrying thoughts related to work, it can be a clear sign that stress has permeated your psychological state. Work-related stress can leave you feeling anxious or even depressed. It can extend into your personal life, detracting from pleasurable activities or personal relationships.
Actions: Our thoughts and our emotions work in tandem to dictate our behaviours. When work-related stress is handled effectively, we are able to control our behaviours with minimal effort. If, however, we are consumed with stress we may lash out at others, behave erratically or withdraw entirely in an effort to avoid the stressful situation. Ask yourself, "Do I act like my true self when I'm under stress?" and "Am I happy with my behaviours when I'm under stress?".
2. Face the problem
Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for handling stress. Like many psychological concerns, avoidance may give temporary relief, but it will only compound the problem in the long term. It is important you are able to face the problems that need addressing. It is also vital to understand that stress is a reaction to a situation rather than the situation itself. What one person finds stressful another person may not. If you aim to eradicate all stress-inducing situations (e.g. difficult clients, logistical problems, cash-flow issues) you will be fighting a losing battle, as it is impossible to consistently control external forces. Instead aim to change your reaction to these situations.
3. Practice makes perfect
The reactions you have in a stressful situation often take years to develop, so naturally they are going to take some time to change. An important part of making changes in behaviour is to acknowledge the successes so that you can recall them in future challenges. We often dwell on our shortcomings and forget those times we succeeded, so try to celebrate each victory and remind yourself that you can succeed.
4. Lean on a loved one
We tend to be much more critical of ourselves than others are of us, so using a partner or friend as a sounding board can give you a different perspective of a stressful situation. It can sometimes be difficult to express our emotions to those who are closest, so if you are finding it difficult you might want to consider external support, such as a psychologist who can also offer stress-management techniques.
5. Remember to recharge
While avoidance can be detrimental, recharging is a vital part of handling stress effectively, as it aims replenish the resources that work-related stress depletes. Whether it's improving your general health, taking part in social activities or simply relaxing with your family, it is important that you give yourself enough time to detach from work on a regular basis.
Remember, we cannot control the situations with which we are faced. We can, however, learn to change our reactions so that they are of greater benefit to us. Taking care of yourself and knowing when to ask for help will not only make work-related stress easier to handle, it will also make you a happier and more effective leader.
This article represents the views of the author only and not those of American Express.
Nick Petrovic is a registered psychologist and head of clinic at the Mind Profile Psychology Clinic and has more than 10 years' experience in the allied health and business. Nick has contributed to regular columns in more than a dozen business magazines and newspapers, advising on issues such as mental health, work related stress, strategic planning, business analysis and human resources.