What causes stress at work?

Stress impacts all of us. It causes health problems and accidents and affects the national economy. In my management career, I observed that incompetent managers cause stress their employees. These managers seem to always adopt a crisis mindset when managing. They rarely listen to others; they lack creativity and rely on old habits. Their approaches cause stress for people they manage. Incompetent managers give unclear directions, apply unrealistic expectations, and micro-manage their employees. All of this causes stress for people. People also bring stress from home. This mix of personal concerns, poor management, and constant pressure to perform to external expectations at work can cause much stress.

When stress is bad

Stress is bad when expectations are not clear at work and people are confused about what they are supposed to do. When people have challenging work and they don’t have the right skills, it leads to burn-out and stress. When one is not challenged at work and has skills, which are not being used, it can lead to boredom and then stress as a result. Stress is bad when a person has inadequate coping methods for dealing with the stress. Some people react to stress with increased anxiety and openly show their anger. Others resist things and get suppressed. Another group of people give in easily and finally give up. All these approaches are not healthy. People cause their own stress. Initially, generated thoughts of doubt and fears cause anxiety. Those who don’t know how to deal with it experience stress as a chronic state. Work related and personal events can raise the potential of stress that all people react differently.

What influences how we react to stress?

There are many factors which will determine how we react to stress. Most of our reactions are learned behavior. The ways we condition ourselves will have a big impact on the way we react to stress. For example, one person might notice that his or her manager didn’t smile or say hello in the morning. By the evening this person will cancel the family vacation, child’s dental braces, and a new coat as a result of being convinced to be fired soon. Another person in the same situation might think, “Oh, I guess the boss has something on the mind” spending less than a few seconds on this.

Money pressures, health pressures, lack of joy at work, relationship issues, all can lead to stress at work. Again, how we react is what is most important.

How to manage stress in the best way

Individuals can actually manage and even defeat stress through multiple strategies. For example, adopting an internal locus of control can defeat stress. Learning to control your own thoughts and behaviors from within can defeat the habit of always overreacting to external events, opinions, and behavior. Having great health resiliency can help to defeat stress too. This can include sleeping well, to eat healthy food, and to get lots of exercises. Being in a great shape can make a person feel so good, strong, and full of energy that even having the most negative person around can’t be a problem. Finally, having a strong social network can reduce the possibility of stress. Having close friends, peers, and the positive social network can help to reduce stress. You will often notice that The Best Manager usually has a strong social network.

It is also important just to measure and be aware of your own stress levels. Start to become aware when you are more tired, confused, upset, and distracted. This is the time when you will need to use your stress defeating strategies. The art of reframing can help one to reduce the stress. For example, when experiencing a stressful situation, you can ask yourself, “Do you realize that… (Think of a positive answer to the question which can reduce your stress)?” I like these sorts of questions, “Isn’t it great that…” and “I am grateful for….” This reframing causes your mind to refocus from the negative thoughts reducing the influence of the external event and instead focus on an internally generated question and event.

Much of the time these external events can trigger stress but remember it’s the meaning we place on the words or event which can cause the stress! Of course, many stressful events will not go away especially at work. A person of greater resiliency has a better position for defeating the negative effects of stress.The best managers take good care of themselves. They balance their life, build physical and psychological resiliency and learn to relax more. The best managers learn to trigger thoughts and behavior from the inside out while maintaining a strong social network. Stress will always be present, but how we deal with it will determine how we feel and react to it.

Learning summary and next steps

Identify the factors which cause you the most stress at work. Make a second list and identify what you can do to reduce and or defeat the stress. Think through how these factors might affect others who you lead as well. Identify specific internal things you can do to defeat the stress. Recognize your physical, emotional, and mental responses which would defeat and or reduce the most stressful elements you experience at work.

Craig Nathanson


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