Ten Top Tips For Managing Workplace Stress

Workplace stress

No self-respecting blog is complete without a Ten Top Tips list – and this is ours. Ten Top Tips for managing workplace stress.

1. Focus on the things you can change or influence
The only thing in life that you can directly control is yourself and your decisions. Focus your valuable energy on the things you can change. You might not be able to change the situation you are in, but you can change the way that you respond to it.

2. Learn to let go
We all hold onto things, whether it is possessions, bad habits, relationships or past mistakes. We revisit these things in our head again and again; we don’t need to. We can let go, allowing our feelings of frustration and regret to float away and acceptance and peace to take their place.

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Tried and Tested Breathing and Muscle Relaxation Techniques

There are numerous techniques that can help you to become better at relaxing. Let’s begin with 3 of the tried and tested breathing and muscle relaxation techniques. All these techniques will become easier the more you practice them.

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Deep Breathing
The first time you try this technique try it lying down. Find somewhere quiet and safe where you can lie down and relax. Close your eyes and place your hands on your belly and practice slowly breathing in through your nose and slowly breathing out through your mouth. You should feel your belly rise and fall as you breathe. Many of us breathe much more shallowly so the movement we feel is at the top of our chest. With this technique we are learning to slowly fill our whole lungs. When you are comfortable with this technique you can then practice it sitting down or standing up. Whichever is most comfortable for you.

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How To Manage Anxiety

All of us experience anxiety in our lives; sometimes we experience it more strongly than at other times. That feeling of dread that builds from your gut towards your throat, the sensation of nausea, and the sense of impending doom.

Below we have listed 5 techniques to help you cope with anxiety. If your anxiety is impacting on your life speak to your GP, they can help you to check out whether there are physical causes for your increased anxiety, prescribe medication and/or sign-post you to talking therapies.

laughing1. Learn to Relax
Learning to relax is an essential technique to help you to manage your anxiety. Our blog Tried and Tested Breathing and Muscle Relaxation Techniques describes in detail deep breathing, meditation and muscle relaxation exercises that you can complete to help you to relax. Remember to include every day something that gives you pleasure; whether it is meeting with friends, enjoying a warm bath, a lunchtime stroll in the park, or watching a funny film. Laughter continues to be one of life’s great medicines – choose to bring laughter and happiness into your life; our blog 10 Top Tips For Achieving Happiness will help you to discover how.

kidwithapple2. Eat Well
You are what you eat! Avoid stimulants such as alcohol, nicotine, caffeine and sugar. All these foods can raise your anxiety levels for the rest of the day, or stop you being able to sleep or relax at night. Our blog 10 Foods To Make You Happy will give you tips on food that will help boost your happiness – yes we all know we should be doing this, but often our good intentions go out of the window. This time give yourself a couple of weeks on a new improved healthy diet and see what changes it can make to your feelings of anxiety.

bodybuilder3. Exercise
Another thing that we all know we should be doing more of but often feel that we are just too busy to fit it in. Make time. Exercise is essential to your physical and mental health. It helps to lower stress hormones and increase feel good endorphins. Find a form of exercise that you enjoy, and that you can easily incorporate into your life. Create a routine around it; doing it at set times during the week. If you find it hard to motivate yourself join a group exercise or sign yourself up for a fun run or other organised event to give yourself something to aim for. Get yourself a pedometer to help you increase the amount you walk everyday. If monitoring your improvement motivates you then check out the numerous exercise apps that help you to monitor your fitness.

balloon4. Learn to Let Go
There are very strong links between a ruminating thinking style and depression and anxiety. Rumination describes a tendency to compulsively focus on things that are causing you anxiety and stress; to become fixated on problems. We describe the best ways to break the ruminating habit in our blog on rumination. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Mindfulness both teach us that our thoughts are just our thoughts. Just because we think them doesn’t make them true. We can learn to change or let go of our thoughts, seeing them float away on the wind like a balloon.

raining5. Set Yourself a Time to Worry
Some of our anxieties deserve our attention, and needs us to focus our energy to find a solution. Set yourself a worry-time: 10 or 20 minutes to focus on the things that are causing you anxiety and most importantly to plan a solution to the problem. If you find yourself focusing on your anxiety outside of your planned worry time, remind yourself that you have set yourself a time to focus on your worry and let go it until then. Confronting your worries head-on and planning a solution can help keep your anxieties in check and stop them spiralling out of control.

Self-Motivating – the art of getting things done

Many of us are lucky enough to be self-employed, in a creative role, or in a job that is self-determined. For us, the trick to being productive is self-motivation. Finding the enthusiasm, confidence, energy and creativity everyday to not only get our work done but to excel at what we do.

Here is our 10 Top Tips on self-motivation. All based on the WorkGuru team’s experience:

1. Create a great space to work in.
Wherever you work make sure it is a great space. Both practical and conducive to fabness. Research has shown the importance of views, windows and plants in the working environment. Natural light, views of nature and the presence of indoor plants are all shown to increase feelings of wellbeing and reduce stress.

Do you have the tools you need to do your job? Is your technology right? What about your physical space, does that work for you? Make sure that your workspace is ergonomic; that your chair supports you and that your computer screen is at the right height. If you use a laptop have you thought about plugging in a different keyboard and placing your laptop on a raised platform? Nothing can demotivate you faster then an uncomfortable working environment.

2. Create routines to allow the space to be productive.
We mentioned these next two in our last blog – they are so great we couldn’t miss them out. Don’t wait for inspiration to hit you, create a routine to help it happen. If you have a self-determined role and your daily hours and routine is not set for you, set it for yourself. Set the times for when you are going to be at your desk, or in your workshop etc., let people know you are available at those times. Work does not get done unless you create the space for it to happen.

3. Align your tasks to your energy.
Our energy changes during the day and the week. Learn to align your work tasks with your energy levels. So for me my energy is more focused and creative in the morning. This is the time I set aside for writing or tackling complex problems. It is also the time I use for tasks I have been putting off – I am more determined and focused in the morning. My energy begins to wane after lunch so I might switch to more routine tasks at this time, answering email, completing paperwork, engaging with social media. I know that my energy picks up again in the early evening so I might take some timeout in the late afternoon to walk the dogs or take some exercise, knowing that early evening is always a good time for me to get some more work done and begin to plan for the next day.

4. Create a to-do lists
Create a to-do list. I tend to have 2, one for the week and one for the day. At the end of each working week or at the beginning of a new one write down the things you want/need to achieve for the week ahead. Prioritise them (either in order of importance or underline the ones that are most important/urgent). At the end of each day use your weekly to-do list to help you to create your to-do list for the next day. Write your daily list on a post-it note to stop it being too long. Make sure it is realistic, there is nothing more deflating then setting yourself up to fail, and give yourself the pleasure of crossing off the tasks you have completed.

5. Just start
Sometimes you have to stop thinking and just start doing. Faced with an impossible report or a new project you are struggling with? Just begin – start somewhere, anywhere, just start. By making a start you will begin to build up momentum and become more focused. In the words of American Novelist Barbara Kingsolver “I have to write hundreds of pages before I get to page one.”

6. Keep positive
Lots and lots of research shows the links between positive thinking and people who have higher mental wellbeing, less negative stress, better immune systems and achieve better outcomes. In his book Authentic Happiness, one of the founders of positive psychology Dr Martin Seligman even argues the positive thinking can provide you with an intellectual boost.

Positive thinking begins with understanding your thought processes. In WorkGuru we talk about automatic thoughts; how thoughts can stream into your mind one after the other, often in a negative spiral, and often involving habitual unhelpful thinking styles that we are unaware of, such as a tendency to over generalise, jump to conclusions or catastrophise. Being aware of these thought processes helps us to form more realistic, positive thinking patterns.

7. Visualise success
There are good reasons for doing this one. The first one is that we can learn new skills through the power of imagination alone! Research by Alvaro Pascual-Leone has shown that mental practice (imagining a new skill or behaviour) creates the same physical changes to the brain as physical practice. So never underestimate the power of your imagination.

The other reasons are possibly more mundane but still important. Visualising success keeps you focused and motivated and it also helps you to know when you have got there.

Here is a bit of a sad example, but boringly it is true. I am trying to lose weight at the moment, the way I keep myself motivated it to visualise myself being able to comfortably fit into my jeans, and I hold onto that image. It does 2 things for me it reminds me of why I am trying to achieve the change (I hate not being able to fit into my clothes) and it tells me when I am going to be successful (when the jeans fit). You can easily change this example to a work focused one. Maybe success for you is going to be when you get 10 orders through for your product a day. Close your eyes and think about what that would look like, how it would feel and what it would mean for you. Hold on to that vision. What are the things that you need to be doing to get closer to that success? When you begin to feel despairing or lose your focus use this vision to remember what it is all about.

8. Minimise distractions
We can all find lots of reasons to not start work. I remember when I was studying. My house was always at its cleanest when deadlines were approaching. Now the distractions for me tend to be linked to technology. Becoming distracted when using the Internet – commonly known as cyberloafing. Did you know recent research has shown that 60 – 80% of our time on the Internet at work is not work related. Other distractions include checking email (listening out for the sound as emails come in and then checking them just in case it is urgent), checking facebook and twitter, and responding to text messages.

Technology can be both the distractor and the rescuer. “contemplative computing” is a move towards turning our information technology into agents of serenity. “Zenware” is designed to block distractions. Examples include www.ommwriter.com, www.justgetflux.com, www.macfreedom.com (works on Mac and PC) or for 2 minutes of total relaxation try www.donothingfor2minutes.com.

The simplest solution of all though is to turn things of, and limit your access to them. Try checking your email just 2 or 3 times a day. Limit your social networking and encourage friends to contact you when you aren’t working (whoops sorry, got distracted by an email coming in – it’s all easier said then done).

9. Don’t be too hard on yourself
Some days and weeks you will be flying. You will feel energised, motivated and enthusiastic; but other days and weeks you wont. Keep the faith; believe in yourself. Your mojo will return.

10. Do other things: learn to switch off
Have you noticed how solutions can often come to you when you are thinking about something else? I have some of my best ideas when I am walking the dog, driving my car or cooking. You might not always be able to think of a solution during work hours, but by just letting it, unconsciously tick over in your mind, a solution can appear when you least expect it. I once woke up with the whole outline of an essay in my head – I even remembered it. Take the time to do things that you enjoy, take your mind off your work and most importantly learn to SWITCH OFF. Keep yourself motivated by keeping your work and life in balance.

Staying Resilient and Keeping Well: A personal reflection.

If you were to ask me what one thing is essential to building mental resilience I would say self-awareness. There are lots of components to resilience – positive emotions, cognitive flexibility, life-meaning, social support, active coping styles (all of which I am sure we will look at in more detail in future blogs) – but underpinning it all is self-awareness. Knowing yourself, your energy patterns, the way you think, the things that drain you, the things that energise you, the things that sustain you, what your values are. Being your greatest supporter and your greatest friend.

I am a work psychologist and executive coach and I have been working in the work and wellbeing field for over 15 years. But it wasn’t until I was diagnosed with a chronic health condition that put me at a high risk of heart attack and stroke and led to me experiencing bouts of fatigue that I really began to understand the concepts of stress and resilience. If I wanted to move into a healthy old age then becoming more resilient was an imperative not an option; and I think that is true for everyone. Being resilient isn’t about ‘doing less work’ it is about maintaining a life style that you love alongside keeping yourself mentally well. The same as for our physical resilience, most of us have an awareness of what we eat and drink and our exercise levels because we know the benefits of good physical health. Being physically resilient doesn’t mean doing less it means doing the things that we know will help us to keep well.

One of the things I never knew until I experienced fatigue was that it has both a physical and an emotional component. Fatigue drains both my physical and my mental resources. It leaves me feeling exhausted and emotionally vulnerable. When I am fatigued I find it harder to manage conflict and complexity. I have to be very careful about what I focus my mental energy on – because it is finite.

There has been lots of learning for me. I love my job, I love working hard, working long hours and travelling the country. I didn’t want my health problems to stop me from doing something I loved. And it hasn’t – it just means that I have had to develop my self-awareness to help me take better care of myself. So here are some of the things that I have learnt:

Plan your week as a whole
This has been a big one for me. There are some things that I find more draining then others: physically long days outside of the office, networking, intense meetings, hospital visits. I don’t know what my energy levels are going to look like in a few weeks or months ahead. So I try and plan my diary so that each week I have at least 2 mornings working from home. I know that not everybody has this option – but this is about what works for me.

I like to work long hours – I run my own business so long hours are part of the job description – this isn’t about not working those hours it is about having a variety of activity during the week – because if I don’t pace myself my fatigue can take a hold.

Use your weekends
There is rarely a day that goes by that I don’t do some work (see the bit about running my own business) and for me that is fine. But one of the things that I have had to learn is that I can’t work a full working day 7 days a week. I need to spend my weekends with family and friends, taking the time to do the household chores and re-charging my batteries for the week ahead. This has been one of the hardest lessons for me, in order to increase my effectiveness I have to spend some time away from work. Time-out increases my energy, helps keep my thinking creative and agile, and gives me the time to do the pesky chores, which once out of the way will help me to keep focused during the week.

Align your head and your heart
Ok, this may sound like a bit of a poncy one, but I am a firm believer that if your work and your life reflect your core values then it is going to be more joyful and less draining. We all have values – they are the things that give our life meaning, a map that guides us through the world. Some of those values are more important to us than others (at WorkGuru we have 2 exercises to help you identify and priorities your values); these are the ones that we wouldn’t wish to compromise on. Sometimes in life we lose sight of what those values are.

My values are about creativity, honesty, respect, openness being genuine and really believing in what I am doing. When I work in a way that doesn’t reflect these values then I lose my energy and motivation, I become frustrated and risk feeling burnt out.

Listen to your body
It was whilst lecturing to postgraduate University students on workplace stress that I suddenly had the revelation that my head and my body didn’t always agree with each other. My head can tell me “I love all the challenges we are facing at the moment, I am feeling stimulated and energised, it is great to be so busy” but my body is saying, “I’m knackered”. I have a tendency to listen to my head and not notice what my body is trying to say.

Two things that have helped me to listen to my body are Mindfulness and yoga. In Mindfulness meditation you learn the use of the body scan (our module on Mindfulness includes 3 guided meditations one of which is a breath-body meditation that includes a body scan); this involves bringing your awareness to each part of your body and just checking on how it is. Doing this on a regular basis helps you to begin to see connections (maybe noticing how tense your shoulders become after certain meetings, or after long car journeys), and helps you to begin to recognise early warning signs of stress. Yoga works in the same way; through regular stretching and movement you become more attuned to your body, learning to recognise when it is out of kilter.

Physical exercise is important
Finding time for everything that you want to do in life is difficult if not impossible – but don’t neglect exercise. Try to build it into your everyday routine: walking or cycling to work, taking the stairs, walking at lunchtime, taking the dog for a walk – and if you don’t have a dog taking yourself for a walk. Ring-fence time for more vigorous exercise. The gym isn’t for everyone so find something that suits you and put it in your diary. The problem with exercise is that the less you do the more difficult it becomes – but keep going it will get easier and more enjoyable.

When my fatigue is bad getting out of bed in the morning is often a challenge – I don’t have the same surge of energy that propels me into the day – the idea of exercise feels like too much of a hurdle; and it often is. When I am fatigued my energy becomes a very very precious commodity and not one to be squandered lightly. If I were to exercise the way I normally do I would not have the energy to do any work. But I also know that not doing anything lowers my resilience. The answer for me has been short walks, and on days where my work tasks are routine and don’t require too much energy, or at the weekend – a short bike ride.

When my fatigue has lifted I increase my exercise thinking of it as making a deposit in a savings account – building up resilience for when I am going to need it again.

Make changes now
And finally, make changes now. Having a chronic health condition gave me an imperative to change the way I was living. Increasing resilience and managing stress wasn’t a ‘nice thing to do when I have some time’ thing any longer – it was something that I had to take seriously. And for that I am grateful. I now work in a much more effective way, I find time to do the things I love outside of work, I have got back in touch with the things that are important to me, I have learnt to prioritise and, I think I am a much nicer person to be with. Without my health problems I would have still known the theory on mental resilience, but I am not entirely sure I would have put it into practice.