Stress doesn’t feel good to have, nor does it feel good to be around. Eighty percent of Americans say they feel stress during their day. In many organizations, stress feels baked into the work culture, even as everyone wonders what to do about it.
Like a contagion, stress spreads. We literally catch the stress of others. Simply watching someone else tense up can trigger the release of the stress hormone cortisol in our own bodies. When I conduct interviews as part of my coaching work, I hear stressed-out colleagues described this way:
- When he gets stressed, I try to avoid him.
- Everyone knows when she’s having a bad day. It’s all over her face.
- When he gets spun up, he gets everyone else spun up. It’s exhausting.
- I’m seriously worried about her health.
Most of us think about the damage that stress causes us. Yet, few consider the negative impact of their stress on others. And it’s most certainly negatively affecting others, especially if you’re a manager. In fact, a leader’s stress is felt acutely as it impacts the emotion of an entire group.
People avoid stressed-out colleagues for their own psychic protection. If people don’t want to be around you, if they don’t find you energizing or rewarding to work with, you will be far less effective. After all, who wouldn’t prefer to collaborate with people who seem sturdy and resilient?
To stop your stress from impacting others (and wearing you down), consider these steps to better manage it.
Pinpoint your true stressors
When people talk about what stresses them, they tend to describe generalities like “my job” or “unrealistic deadlines” or “the new boss.” We don’t typically dive deeply into the triggers, because we’d rather not wallow there. However, we can’t solve what we don’t truly understand.
Try this: keep a stress journal for one month. At the end of each day, jot down when you felt stressed, including details about the specific situation and what was happening at the time. Reflect on these questions: What conditions caused me to feel stressed today? What about the situation felt important at the time? How was the situation meaningful to me?
One consulting client who tried this strategy learned that her hands-off management approach — which was meant to reduce her workload — was actually worsening her stress because she lost visibility into how projects were progressing. Worried that she’d end up in a fire drill at the last minute if the work wasn’t correct, she spent lots of time running through possible scenarios. She was still feeling the stress even if she wasn’t doing the work.
By uncovering what’s causing you stress, you can develop workable solutions to address the sources and not just the symptoms.
Change your reaction first and the workload second
Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson describe in their book It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work how excessive workloads are touted as badges of honor in many organizations, even as employees complain about how overwork is detrimental to their well-being.
In fact, the top goal of many of my stressed clients is to get a handle on their workload by finding strategies that reduce the amount of work, such as better delegation or expectation setting. It’s not that this isn’t helpful, it’s just rarely enough. You can make adjustments, but there will always be more work.
Instead, start by examining how you feel about the workload. Do you feel compelled to be perfect? Are you prone to second-guessing yourself? Is there a pattern in your career of not saying no to requests?
You’ve probably seen how the very same job, with the very same workload, will stress one person while not bothering another. A salesperson I worked with marveled at how her colleague, Raj, never took rejection from clients personally. Rather, he’d say it was “part of the game.” She ended up adopting Raj’s mantra when she found herself agonizing over what more she could have done. Her work didn’t change, but her attitude toward it did.
Create pockets of sanity
Every job has busy periods when the best strategy is to hunker down and look for the light at the end of the tunnel. But this becomes soul-crushing when your work never lets up.
If your job doesn’t have natural breaks, create recovery periods for yourself. These can be organized around common stressors like business travel or key meetings, or spaced at regular intervals. Be as vigilant (and guilt-free) at scheduling activities that relax you as those that are work-related.
One client who felt drained from excessive business travel restructured his time to build in rewards. He selected hotels with spa services and booked massages during his stay — something he never found time to do at home. When possible, he extended his trip an extra evening to visit friends in the area and committed to not working during the flight home. He also made sure to keep the first day back relatively free from meetings so he could catch up.
You don’t have to make big moves to create space for yourself. Setting aside one half-day a month for reflection time can help to redefine priorities and reduce stress. Even micro-moments of sanity, like taking a walk to lunch, can offer a needed break.
Don’t just say you’re stressed; share how you’re working to manage it
Because stress is so prevalent at work, we talk about it — a lot. While sharing our stress can make us feel better momentarily, we’re actually contributing to a stressful culture because emotion spreads. In short, saying “I’m so stressed” increases stress for other people. Plus, what we focus on gets stronger, so we can even increase our own stress by talking about it.
This doesn’t mean that you should be inauthentic. A more helpful approach is to share that, while work is stressful, you’re trying to manage yourself so it has less of an impact. By sharing strategies you’re employing, you model for others that it’s acceptable to push back against stress instead of accepting it. As a bonus, if you state what you’re doing out loud, you’re more likely to follow through on your commitments.
When Daphne, a leader of a lobbying group in a tumultuous industry, announced to her team that she was trying to stay off email over the weekend to get a break, she found that others were relieved of the pressure to respond. Her entire team exercised more caution about sending emails on the weekend, clearly marking what was truly urgent, and people started showing up to work more refreshed on Monday.
Plan for stress by planning around it
While most of us have accepted the idea of stress at work, we still feel surprisingly besieged by it. We can even have meta-stress — where we stress about having stress. Perhaps a better solution is to consider it the norm and plan for it. Jobs are stressful, industries are turbulent, and there are rarely enough resources or time. If that’s the case, how can you keep from adding to the churn and swirl? What are ways you can sustain your own energy and that of others?
We’re not as helpless as we might think. By exercising your own sense of agency, you can reduce your own stress and show others how to do the same. You might just shift the culture. Because while stress may be contagious, so is calm.
Kristi Hedges is a senior leadership coach who specializes in executive communications and the author of The Inspiration Code: How the Best Leaders Energize People Every Day and The Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others. She’s the president of The Hedges Company and a faculty member in Georgetown University’s Institute for Transformational Leadership.