Stress Busting

Stress Busting Tips for the Workplace

“It is not the stressor itself, but how we perceive it, and how we handle it that determines whether or not it leads to stress.” 

—Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program and Center for Mindfulness at UMass Memorial Health in Worcester, MA

Any workplace, whether on-site, hybrid, or remote, is rife with potential stress triggers. Leaders, managers, and individual contributors all play a role in both managing and regulating themselves, and in influencing the physical and virtual spaces they inhabit. Emotions are contagious, and the primary driver of behavior. By using our emotions effectively, we can manage stress better.
Types of Workstyles
In either a hybrid or total remote situation, an October 2023 Harvard Business Review article, Research: Flexible Work Is Having a Mixed Impact on Employee Well-Being and Productivity, cites that half the people prefer a “splitter” workday, where they work 9 – 5 and perform personal tasks outside that time, and the other half prefer a “blender” workday, where they alternate between personal and professional tasks throughout the entire day. With these two types of work styles in mind, one initial step to minimize stress for both managers and their direct reports is to have a conversation about their preferred work arrangement, and provide the support necessary to achieve job responsibilities and outcomes while granting as much autonomy as possible. In other words: ask – don’t assume – about your team members’ work preferences and the whys behind them.
Consider that there are two steps to managing stress: taking proactive action and choosing our response in the moment.
Taking Proactive Action as an Individual Contributor, Manager, or Leader

Start with identifying the types of situations that historically have caused you to feel stressed. Common causes may include the demands of work, uncertainty, boundaries (or lack thereof), and feeling isolated. Next, consider what stress looks and feels like for you. For example, does it manifest in your body, in the thoughts running through your head, in your behavior or temperament? Remember that our body is a wise organ and often feels our stress coming on before we can articulate what’s happening.

Before we’re provoked, we can be proactive and list out our triggers. For each one listed, ask ourselves can I…
  • Remove the stressor?
  • Reduce the stressor (or reduce my exposure to it)?
  • Respond to the stressor in a way that gives me more peace?
  • Reframe how I describe or relate to this stressor, toward decreasing its charge for me? (Put another way, what’s another perspective I could take on this stressor that calms my emotions about it?)
I call this the 4R Rescue, which you can apply to both stressors and energy drains; they are frequently synonymous. Granting ourselves the space to ponder these questions beforehand – when we’re not caught up in the throes of experiencing the stressor – gives us the distance and clarity to determine possible adjustments. It helps clarify where we have agency in coping effectively.
Lay a foundation of calm, carrying an undercurrent of peaceful energy with you. As you begin the day before work, what helps to ground you or reset? This can be anything from starting the day quietly and moving slowly (or performing invigorating movement), reading an inspiring book, listening to a motivating podcast, journaling, prayer, or meditation.
Visualizing the day ahead can help as well. Thinking through and imagining how you want to be and the energy or tone you want to bring to tasks, meetings, and conversations. Brainstorm what could go sideways during the day and select possible workarounds. Often our stress can be triggered by the unexpected and things not going as planned. Hiccups will occur; we can minimize stressors’ impacts on us by anticipating them and having a response ready, versus being totally caught by surprise.
At the end of our workday, before we transition to the rest of our day, finding a way to discharge the day and wind down helps too. If you commute, this could be listening to your resetting music of choice on the way home. Before you walk in the door of your home, mentally release the workday, and decide what energy you want to bring into your home. When working from home, leave your workspace behind: shut down your computer, turn off work related notifications. In either case, shake the day off (that might literally look like shaking yourself like a duck who just exited a pond), and you could also change your clothes, as a signal to your body that the workday is done, and you’re transitioning into personal time.
Taking Proactive Action for Managers and Leaders
As a manager or leader, additional proactive measures to minimize the root causes of common workplace stressors include:

1:1 communication with staff, with an agreed upon frequency and method

Demonstrate your genuine care and curiosity about them as a whole person and how that impacts their work.

Be discerning with meetings

Perform a meeting audit to curb meeting and Zoom fatigue. Ask yourself the following and consider possible adjustments.

  • For recurring meetings, do they need to occur at all or at the current frequency?
  • For meetings deemed necessary, must they be a synchronous meeting, or could the information be shared via email, Slack, messaging, or asynchronous video?
  • Does everyone need to be seated and on camera during virtual meetings, or are there options to stand, stretch, walk, and be off camera during all or part of some meetings?
  • Consider having company-wide meeting-free days.
  • Assess meeting length. If meetings tend to be 30 or 60 minutes, for example, challenge yourself to have 20- or 45-minute meetings instead to build in breaks and breathing room between back-to-back meetings.

Be a role model of boundary setting for focused work and well-being

Take your earned vacation time off, have a true lunch break, schedule thinking blocks into your week, take breaks throughout the day (whether you’re a “splitter” or “blender”), and leave/sign off at the end of the normal business day (e.g., no work messaging, calls, or emails between 6 pm and 8 am), and truly disconnect while away. Virtual company Acceleration Partners even pays their employees up to $750.00 to stay unplugged while on vacation!

Encourage taking regular breaks throughout the day

I typically recommend a brain break every 60-90 minutes. We’re not robots, and not meant to be heads-to-the-grindstone 24/7. When we’re tired, we have a shorter fuse, and decreased capacity for wisely responding to stressful occurrences. Further, our eyes, brains and bodies function better when we fuel ourselves and reset our pace with routine breaks. Such breaks could look like getting up from your workspace, doing some stretches, getting outdoors, and witnessing the space and expansive horizon around you, taking a lunch break, going for a walk or doing some other type of movement, refilling your water bottle, having quiet time, doing a meditation, or just taking several intentional in and out breaths.

Note that thinking time isn’t solely beneficial for managers and leaders. We all need uninterrupted space to mind-wander, reflect, innovate, and be creative. Where can you weave in at least 1-2 hours of dedicated thinking blocks each week?

Encourage social connections with coworkers and other important relationships outside of work

Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, Zen priest, and part-time professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, directs the Harvard Study of Adult Development. Through his work, he’s learned that “stress is one of the main causes of physical health breakdown that comes from loneliness.” Dr. Alisha Moreland-Capuia, leading expert on trauma-informed systems change, concurs, finding that “loneliness dysregulates our stress response.” To encourage social connections with workers around common interests, have both in-person and virtual spaces for human interaction. Create opportunities to learn about people’s joys, passions and what nourishes them outside of work.

In one of my part-time roles, we have a Slack channel for foodies to share recipes. Cited in the book, Out of Office by Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen, “GitLab employees are encouraged to create ‘README’ pages, which include a full description of what their job is and how they do it and a personal ‘About Me’ section … Darren Murph, GitLab’s head of remote, has README sections like ‘how you can help me,’ ‘my working style,’ ‘what I assume about others,’ and ‘communicating with me.’ … They aren’t demands or even instructions, but they offer a guide to collaboration.”

Here, I invite you to pause and bring to mind a person important to you: someone with whom you haven’t caught up in a while. What if you texted them, right now, and let them know you were thinking about them?
Choosing How We Respond to Stressors in the Moment
Now, how do we deal with those unanticipated stressors that catch us off guard?
At a high level, it’s deciding how you want to be in those situations. Laying the groundwork of taking proactive measures will help pave the way for bringing forth a calm, measured state. For the unexpected, I suggest using the phrase “Stop, Drop and Roll” as a mantra. Just like if our clothes were to catch on fire, firefighters instruct us to stop, drop to the ground, and roll to put the fire out, when unforeseen events amp up our stress, practice this mantra:
  1. stop: press pause and avoid a knee jerk reaction.
  2. drop: drop into the peace that is always within you and allow yourself to settle into what’s here now. Notice what’s coming up for emotions, thoughts, and sensations in your body.
  3. roll: make a conscious, aware, and wise choice of your next step. A good question to ask yourself here is “How can I respond in this moment, in a way that doesn’t destroy the next moment?” Or “What are my possible next steps here and what are their likely consequences?”
In fact, as I was writing this article, several unexpected incidents of Windows updates occurred on my computer, at some points rendering my computer unusable. Luckily, I had time ahead of me before my deadline, as I had planned several writing blocks to chip away. Rather than shake my fists or yell in frustration, I simply stopped, dropped, and surrendered to what is. In rolling, I looked at what I could do, which included printing my current draft and writing the next batch of content by hand. That kept forward momentum until my computer resumed functioning well again.
Making the space to look at the stress triggers in our lives can empower our well-being by helping us see the meaning we place on these events, the choices available to us, and adjustments we can make to maintain our sanity. In today’s world, it can feel like a lot is coming at us at once: we get to decide where we place our attention and how we show up for it. Use proactive measures to strengthen your stress response and let all that unfolds from life – both the expected and unexpected – be a constant arena for practice in enhancing your coping skills to be at your best.

About the Author

Chris Vasiliadis
Chris Vasiliadis inspires people to use their well-being as their secret weapon to successfully lead their life. As a Burnout-Buster in her coaching, consulting and training firm, Priority Wellness (www.prioritywellness.com), she specializes in helping overwhelmed and over-busy individuals, teams, and companies to enhance their focus and vitality with systems of sanity, so they can run their days without running themselves into the ground.

Chris is also the author of Ignition: A Professional Woman’s Guide to Energized, Burnout-Proof Living. Being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis indirectly led Chris to becoming trained and certified as a health coach and founding Priority Wellness in 2008. With a combination of luck, genes, and intentional action, she has been relapse-free for over 17 years. Chris describes herself as a “recovering Type-A personality.”

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