Chillax: 15 Ways to Reduce (Workplace) Stress – Nov 2019

Quick trivia: from what movie does the line “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” come?  No Internet – no cheating!  Anyone??  It comes from the 1976 movie, The Network.  Winner of four Academy Awards and with an all-star cast, The Network is a satirical film about a struggling fictional TV network.  The movie climaxes with the anchor of the evening news, after learning he has two weeks before the program is cancelled and after threatening to commit suicide on the air, erupting in a 4-minute on-air rant that inspires the country to unify in his misery (if you’re curious, visit here).

But some 40 years later, most American workers still feel extremely high levels of stress in their jobs.  In fact, in a recent survey, 83% are stressed out by at least one thing at work (and 55% of Americans say they spend the majority of their days in stressful situations), costing US businesses at least $300 billion annually.  Gallup surveys still show that 70% of American workers are disengaged.  And it’s getting worse: the World Health Organization predicts that stress will be the leading cause of physical disability in the world within the next few years.

It’s no wonder: some would argue that it all started as a result of the Great Recession, as many workers were asked to do more with less – their days (and sometimes their nights and weekends) are filled with an ever-increasing workload.  Add to it increasing staffing pressures, as thousands of Baby Boomers retire every day as well as the social-political stresses we’re all currently facing (toxicity in Washington, increasing incidents of mass shootings, increasing rates of hate crimes, the inevitability of another economic slowdown) – and, oh by the way, the “normal” stresses of the upcoming year-end, holidays, and so forth, it’s a wonder that any of us can maintain our sanity.

Last week, PEN hosted our regular St. Paul breakfast forum, featuring wellness expert Brianna Harrington of Seek United on the topic of Stress Resilience.  It sold out (go figure – another datapoint!).  So I thought I’d share some of Bri’s tips for managing stress.  Some of these are hers; some of these are mine found from other sources.  But all of them are helpful in reducing stress on the job (and in your personal life)…

Find Your True Purpose.  It sounds corny, but research shows that those who have found their life’s passion are far more resilient in managing stress – it helps you re-center and stay focus on what’s important; it helps you reduce the “noise” of day-to-day stressors.  I wrote an article in August 2017 about a concept called Ikigai – the intersection of doing what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs, and what you can get paid for.  A life-long quest to find your personal Ikigai reduces stress and truly enhances your reason for being.

Exercise more.  I know, I know – easier said than done.  But we’re not talking an hour a day to train for ultra-marathons here: you can do as little as 10 minutes (and some research says 7 minutes) a day to achieve positive effects on your health and happiness.  It helps you relax, releases endorphins (those “happy hormones”), increases your brain power, improves your image and confidence, and also improves health (weight, muscle tone, cardiovascular, diabetes, etc. etc.).  My wife is a fitness and wellness coach, so I can’t escape it at home.  But I’ll tell you from personal experience: the more I exercise, the better I feel and the more resilient and capable I am at dealing with daily stress.  It simply works.

Sleep more.  Sleep helps our bodies recover and repair, but it also helps us focus, be more productive, and improve our disposition.  In fact, some research shows that sleep helps us better cope with negative emotions – in other words, helps us deal with stress and improve happiness.  Seven to eight hours of time well-invested for our health and well-being.

Eat right.  Stress sometimes leads people to make poor food choices, but poor diet can lead to additional stress (weight gain, increased blood pressure, diabetes, and other chronic health issues).  Generally, the healthier foods you eat, the healthier you’ll feel.  But there are actually a few super-foods that reduce stress.  Try these: turkey (tryptophan boosts serotonin, which helps alleviate stress); spinach (a rich source of magnesium, which helps promote a sense of calm; spinach also boasts energy); salmon (the Omega-3 boosts serotonin, nourishes the brain while mitigating stress hormones, and reduces inflammation and promotes healthy blood flow); nuts and seeds (rich in both Omega-3 and Omega-6); citrus fruit (the Vitamin C reduces stress and serves as an antioxidant that boosts your immune system); root vegetables like sweet potatoes and carrots (high fiber, good carbohydrates which boost serotonin and help control blood pressure).  Eat better and you’ll feel better.

Spend time with family and friends.  You’ve all heard the saying that you never claim on your deathbed: “I wish I had spent more time at work.”  Social time with those you love – or just love being around – is important to improving happiness (yes, even for introverts).  Humans in general are social creatures.  And there is a tremendous amount of research (such as “Blue Zones” studies) that indicates that happier, healthier cultures are predicated in part on the strength of their social networks.

Center yourself: practice breathing, meditate, or try yoga.  Meditation helps improve focus, clarity, attention span, and also helps keep you calm and composed.  You don’t need a dark, quiet room or some other tranquil environment (though that helps) – you can even take just 2-3 minutes in the office for deep breathing and focusing exercises to clear your head, slow your heart rate, and improve your mood.  Take just a couple of minutes for long, slow deep breaths.  Don’t do anything else, but focus your attention on your breathing and your whole body.  And repeat it two or three times a day.  It works: your stress will dissipate.  You can also try yoga, which combines a series of slow-moving and stationary poses with deep breathing.  Yoga improves flexibility, strength, balance, and stamina, and greatly reduces stress.

Take breaks.  Research shows that taking regular breaks during the workday can boost productivity and creativity. Dr. Danny Penman, author of Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World, says: “Breaks give your mind space to digest information.  It’s very important to daydream, to let your mind run free at the deepest level.  That’s the source of creativity – taking disparate ideas from different disciplines and putting them together.”  So take a lunch break, stare into space for a few minutes, or take a walk (see “exercise” above and “go outside” below for more on the benefits of a walk!).

Take a vacation.  “Vacations have been shown to increase your on-the-job performance as much as 40% when you return. So having rested employees is really critical for business,” says Joe Robinson, author of Don’t Miss Your Life.  But yet more than 25% of American workers don’t GET any vacation and an even larger number don’t TAKE vacation.  Vacations offer a physical, mental (and emotional) separation from work, recharging our psychological batteries and oftentimes curing work-related burnout.  Robinson: “vacations have been shown to re-gather crashed emotional resources.  Vacations heal us.”  Sometimes when you least think you can afford to take a vacation is exactly the time you need it the most. So as we approach the holidays, seriously consider “shutting it down” for just a bit.

Get outside!  In The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor claims that spending even 20 minutes outside improves your mood, broadens your thinking, and improves your memory.  So take a walk, go for a run, or just go sit by the lake or watch the sunset.  Reconnecting with nature has a rejuvenating effect on us all.

Unplug from technology.  We’re bombarded with data all day – emails, text messages, phone calls.  And studies have shown that technology is making us more distracted, impatient, and forgetful (it forces us to think in shorter time increments – to process information more quickly).  This causes stress and sometimes the loss of perspective of the bigger picture.  So give yourself permission to turn it off – shut down for the night (or weekend or at least during your vacation time!).  I personally know how tough this is, but I also know how necessary it is.

Make fewer decisions. Decision fatigue is real. Studies show that the more you choose, the less you are able to make decisions in a calm, clear-headed way.  So pare down your decisions: pare down your wardrobe, set your home menus in advance, stop micromanaging your people (or your family). Imagine that you have a limited number of choices to make every day.  They all take mental energy, so focus only on those that really matter.

Volunteer.  To make yourself feel better, make others feel better – volunteer.  In fact, research shows that the happiest individuals spend at least 100 hours per year volunteering (just two hours per week!).  It gives us purpose; it makes us feel productive and useful; and it improves our own self-worth and disposition.

Try acupuncture or message.  Both methods change energy flow and/or chemicals in the body – they reduce the stress-induced cortisol, they stimulate blood flow, they reduce blood pressure, and – at least with message – they relax muscles.

Smile.  Yes – real smiles (not fake, contrived smirks).  Even better, laugh.  There are many studies that show the positive impact of laughter – it releases endorphins and improves our moods.  It enlivens us, helping us to feel more optimistic and full of energy.  It’s chemical and psychological.  And it’s contagious.

Practice gratitude.  Sounds simple, but it really is effective.  Humans are wired to sometimes focus on the negative (the weather stinks, our favorite sports team is struggling, the economy is unstable, I’m tired, etc.).  Try focusing on the good things in your life – you may journal about it try or just try thinking of three things each night for which you are thankful.  Sounds corny, but it does refocus you on positive thoughts, reduces stress, and gives you a better outlook.  If you want some additional tips on practicing gratitude and on general improving your disposition and levels of happiness, read my March 2016 blog on the “Science of Happiness.”

As leaders, try to create an environment that reduces employee stress – it improves their satisfaction and well-being, it optimizes their productivity, and it maximizes their effectiveness.  But stress is inevitable: with today’s constantly changing world and ever-increasing demands, I’m afraid we can never fully eliminate stress from the workplace.  However, we can – as leaders and individual workers – deliberately manage stress, to become more resilient in how we work through it.  As Harrington shared: “it’s not the load of stress that weighs us down, but how we manage it.”

And we should: our professional performance depends on it.  Indeed, our health – both as individuals and as organizations – depends on it.  So enjoy the last six weeks of 2019, and all the hustle and bustle that comes from professional year-end and the energy of the holidays.  But do take some much-needed time for yourself, so that you can come back in January refreshed and rejuvenated to tackle the new year!

If you want to view the PEN talk that Brianna Harrington delivered last week, download and view the video here ($20 for members). And if you want to learn more about systematic ways to improve civility in the workplace, reducing toxic behaviors, consider attending one of PEN’s two December workshops facilitated by Dr. Mitch Kusy: December 10 in Bloomington or December 11 in St. Paul.  Both are nearly sold out.

What comments do you have regarding stress resilience?  Participate in a discussion on this topic: visit our LinkedIn group to post a comment.  And follow me on Twitter @LassiterBrian!

Yours in Performance Excellence,

Brian S. Lassiter

President, Performance Excellence Network

Catalyst for Success Since 1987!

[this article modified from an original post July 2016]