By Dan Gephart, November 14, 2018

Is everybody stressed out at work, or does it just seem that way? Why is everybody so stressed? What can we do about this stress? Why do I keep asking questions about stress? Are all of these questions STRESSING you out?

We actually know why people are stressed in the workplace thanks to the American Institute of Stress. Workload issues (45%), people issues (28%), juggling work and family life (20%), and lack of job security (6%) are the leading reasons.

And we know that stress leads to increased workplace accidents, absenteeism, reduced productivity and even workplace violence, as FELTG President Bill Wiley discussed in a recent FELTG News Flash.

And with the holiday season in full swing starting next week, we’re about to hit the most wonderfully stressful time of the year.  What can we do to tame all this workplace stress?

I reached out to the amazing Phillis Morgan, founder of Resilient at Work. I was fortunate enough to edit a book on labor relations that Phillis wrote a few years ago. Phillis is a former federal labor and employment lawyer who worked with the departments of Homeland Security, Justice, and Defense, and with conflict-riddled environments in Afghanistan, Uganda, and Nepal.  For her advisory work in Afghanistan, Phillis was awarded the NATO Service Medal, Secretary of Defense Medal for the Global War on Terrorism, and the Joint Civilian Service Achievement Award.

Earlier this year, she wrote an article on “Fierce Leadership” for a Federal Manager Association publication. I suggest you track it down.

DG: How does anxiety impact performance, particularly for federal managers?

PM: Anxiety and stress are of significant concern for American employees in general, and certainly for managers in the federal work space. Workplace stress and anxiety are related, multi-faceted issues that increasingly are of huge concern to employers and society at large. Anxiety has both a psychological and physical dimension. According to the American Psychological Association, anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.

Stress is the emotional and physiological response to a trigger. In both cases, our perceptions of the external event make a big difference in whether we regard the event as anxiety or stress-inducing. Not all stress is “bad,” and a healthy level of stress can contribute to optimum performance. For example, a manager can interpret a tight deadline as a positively motivating challenge, producing a healthy stress response. A new project where the learning curve is high can be interpreted as a positively stressful event or a negative one.  Unfortunately, what managers and other employees are experiencing today, and have for some time, are critical and escalating levels of workplace stress.

DG: What suggestions do you have for managers and supervisors who are feeling overwhelmed?

PM: The research is clear that the most stressful type of work is that which values excessive demands and pressures that are not matched to workers’ knowledge and abilities, where there is little opportunity to exercise any choice or control, and where there is little support from others. In fact, a gap between control versus demands is associated with increased rates of heart attack, hypertension and other disorders.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends that any serious stress reduction program include an effort to remove or reduce the sources of stress at work, such as job redesign or organizational changes, not just manage stress levels on an individual basis.

This view is consistent with the findings of Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer in his latest book titled, “Dying for a Paycheck.”  Pfeffer’s central argument in the book – like NIOSH’s – is that employers need to focus more on those management practices that are leading to substantial health issues in the first place, practices such as layoffs, job insecurity, toxic cultures and long hours.

So, that’s the place to start: Managers and supervisors should turn inward to examine the organizational and managerial policies and practices they have which may be contributing to the problem, and look for ways to redesign them. At the same time, managers and supervisors can take steps to manage their stress and improve their overall well-being.  Here are some strategies that the research demonstrates are the most effective in combating stress and a sense of overwhelm:

Awareness. This includes increasing awareness of your stressful triggers and your responses to them. This is also known as mindfulness.

Reframing the problem or situation. What is the story you are telling yourself about the situation? Is it really a problem? Is it really as disastrous as the story you are spinning?  Can you reframe it in a way that doesn’t seem so overwhelming or intractable?

Task management. Can you delegate any part of the task? Can you break it down into more management chunks?

Exercise. It increases the production of endorphins, (your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters), improves mood, is relaxing, reduces the symptoms associated with mild depression and anxiety, and can improve sleep.

Meditation. Calming meditation practices such as sitting meditation, moving meditation, (yoga), or breathing exercises promote the body’s relaxation response, groundedness, and resilience.

Get some support. Reach out to, and accept help from, trusted friends and family members. Contact the employee assistance program (EAP) for further guidance and counseling, and referral to mental health professionals, if needed.

DG: Mindfulness is not a widely accepted practice in the workplace. While that’s changing, there are still a lot of people, including supervisors, who don’t take the topic seriously. Do you still deal with negative bias about the term when doing training? And how do you deal with it?

 PM: Many years ago when I first tried introducing mindfulness to workplaces, employers thought it was too woo woo and there was significant reluctance. There’s been a sea change since then with mindfulness becoming much better accepted as a management and leadership strategy.  A client who is a manager at one of the larger agencies suggested I start with the science behind how mindfulness works and that’s what I do, and it really resonates with managers. I’ve been studying and working with these practices for 15 years so for me, personally, I like relating to the practices from a more intuitive or less heavily intellectual approach. Yet, I can understand that for someone who is unfamiliar with mindfulness, combined with perhaps the myths surrounding it, entering from a science gateway is more comfortable. It’s really not a problem because the science is there, supporting what people have been experiencing as the benefits of mindfulness for thousands of years. However a manager or supervisor wants to orient to the subject, there is room. [email protected]

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