Stress Management 101

We’re living through tough times. Unemployment is rising worldwide, many companies are doing massive layoffs, some are being bought off and others are simply going out of business. Those who are still in business are struggling to ensure quarterly growth to stockholders. This situation creates an increasing pressure upon corporate employees, so being effective in managing stress is quickly becoming a fundamental trait – one that no one can afford to do without.

So, what do I mean by “managing stress” ?

First of all, I don’t think that all stress is bad. The right amount of stress can help us find the drive to address those big issues and achieve bold goals. However, when stress reaches toxic levels we might find ourselves utterly incapable of tackling even the simplest daily task. The thing about stress is that we usually tend to ignore it until it’s too late and our stress level is already toxic – damaging self-esteem, draining energy and eroding relationships. It’s fundamental to recognize signs of stress and actively engage them. The table below contains a few examples I’ve compiled from several sources.

Physical
Affecting your normal physical condition

Mental
Affecting your normal mental abilities

Social
Affecting your normal interactions with others

  • Anxiety (pounding heart, elevated blood pressure, sweating)
  • Muscle tension or headaches
  • Sleep disturbances (can’t sleep, sleep too much, unusual sleeping hours)
  • Skin rashes
  • Stomach problems
  • Forgetfulness
  • Trembling or other tics (i.e. muscular spasms, eye twitching)
  • Changes in eating patterns (eating too much or too little)
  • Drinking more alcohol
  • Pacing or restlessness
  • Increased smoking
  • Lack of concentration
  • Low productivity
  • Indecisiveness
  • Mind racing or going blank
  • Resistance to change
  • Depression
  • Low self-esteem
  • Irritability and impatience
  • Envy
  • Apathy or loss of interest in your work
  • Social withdrawal
  • Aggressive driving

Table 1: Signs of stress

Of course, different people worry about different things and deal with stress in different ways, but we usually become stressful due to a feeling of lack of control. To some people control comes in the form of meticulous planning. To others it’s just the opposite. Besides the feeling of lack of control, stress is also usually amplified by premature worrying, that is, worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet. Ever felt like this?

We all know that bad things really do happen (even to nice people). But we still have to make sure that, no matter what we’re worried about, we do so proportionately to the situation in question. If the situation warrants a high degree of concern then we can use this additional stress to tackle the issue at hand in a productive and effective manner.

Although stress is not exclusive to the workplace, it happens that most of our lives and, consequently, our human interactions happen in the workplace. As such, workplace stress has become a serious concern among several international health organizations.

Workplace stress is commonly defined as the harmful physical and emotional response that can erupt when there is a conflict between what is demanded of someone and the level of control that person has over when and how to meet those expectations.

Workplace stress often occurs when the demands of the job and the working environment on a person exceed their capacity to meet them.

There are many situations that factor into this, acting as stressors in the workplace. Typically, the “pressure to perform” means an increasing effort to meet rising expectations with no increase (or even a decrease) in job satisfaction.

This relentless requirement to work at optimum performance takes its toll in the organization producing low job satisfaction, reduced efficiency, among other consequences. At the individual employee level consequences include absenteeism, poor decision-making, indifference, lack of motivation and creativity and, in more extreme cases, illness, alcoholism or other addictions.

Impact of stress in job satisfaction

Figure 1: Effort to meet expectations vs job satisfaction over time

Additionally, stress that the person is experiencing at home (marital difficulties, financial problems) also adds to the equation and, as I’ve mentioned previously (see “Balancing Work and Personal Life”), we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of a stable personal life in our work performance.

So, understanding the nature of work related stress (particularly it’s symptoms) is a first step. This awareness can trigger the realization that we might be needing a break to step back, look at the big picture, assess and weigh our options and determine a course of action that steers us away from toxically stressful situations.

References

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The Leaders We Need…

Most books on leadership make it sound a lot like a gift or a personal trait one is borne with. I don’t particularly believe in this theory. I believe that Leadership comes from a collection of skills that one can learn to master. I admit some people might be more inclined to learn these skills. To some, they might even come naturally, but most of us can learn and use proficiently, if not all, at least some of these skills.

Leaders today face numerous challenges. One of the most fundamental challenges is how to inspire people. As a leader and an authority figure, it is easy to fall into the trap of using that authority to command and control others. This negative behavior can be avoided if the leader has the skills that enable him to influence and motivate others in achieving common (and clear) goals. Below are some of the core skills that leaders need to develop:

  • Communication skills – Speak and writing in a clear and persuasive tone is fundamental for inspiring others;
  • Interpersonal skills – Learn how to relate to others and listen to what they are really saying. People seldom come out and say exactly what they mean. Especially when communicating up;
  • Conflict-resolution skills – The ability to handle tension is paramount for a leader. A calm, collected, and rational leader, especially when there are high stakes and high emotions, inspires others;
  • Negotiation skills – Negotiation is about handling differences (different viewpoints, different goals) and looking for common ground and defining platforms for common understanding;
  • Motivational skills – Aligning all parties on a common goal is a fundamental trait for a leader;

The skills mentioned before are essentially soft skills. What so many managers fail to understand is that Management and Leadership are not the same thing. Being a manager doesn’t turn anyone into a leader. On the other hand people can be leaders and not be in any position of authority.

The table below shows the different set of skills required both in management and leadership positions. While the items on the left are key operational skills for managers, those who want to lead must also develop the the skills listed on the right.

While Managers… Leaders…
  • Plan
  • Budget
  • Envision
  • Organize
  • Manage Resources
  • Motivate
  • Inspire
  • Control
  • Solve problems
  • Negotiate
  • Resolve Conflicts

I’ve been inspired by similar comparisons, but the table above is my own (influenced and distilled) view on the major differences that I see in the behavior of managers and leaders.

Today, we are facing turbulent times, such as our generation has never seen. People with managerial skills are necessary, but those with leadership skills are fundamental.

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