In order to be happy, it’s essential to have a work life that allows us to relax and enjoy what we do
In a recent study of American work force, 77 per cent of the working individuals surveyed reported being unhappy because of work-related stress. Many of us could say the same about ourselves — the enormous stress that we feel because of our jobs. When we get stressed at work, it spills on to other aspects of our lives. Understanding how we behave, perform, respond and cope in our workplace is the key to dealing with stress in the long run.
What is stress?
Stress is our physiological and psychological preparation for a real or presumed challenging situation.
When we sense there’s a crisis coming up, we mentally switch to a crisis management state. We become alert, our blood pressure rises, the heart pounds, breathing becomes heavy, the muscles tighten. Our body gets ready for fight or flight. This priming response, which we recognise as the stress response of our body, is very important for our survival. When the crisis is over, our body is geared to go back to its normal state.
These physiological changes are not harmful to the body as long as the body returns to its resting or baseline equilibrium reasonably quickly, and what is causing the stress is there only for a limited time period.
We also experience these biological changes when we get excited, say, when watching the World Cup match between Argentina and France, or doing physical training, or even when we have a fanboy/fangirl moment with a celebrity. Many might actually enjoy the adrenaline rush and crave it, as it lets us experience a sense of excitement, thrill and aliveness. It is only when our body’s functions do not return to their baseline — either due to long-standing exposure to the stressor, or because we don’t know how to disengage from the crisis situation and give ourselves a break — that stress actually gets to us and becomes harmful.
We may not realise it, but an insecure work environment, even when it works in our favour, can actually build up constant anticipatory stress and hurt our productivity. A workplace that is friendly and cooperative will naturally make one secure, relaxed and at ease. So nurturing a supportive work environment goes a long way towards reducing stress. Here are things we can do to reduce work stress for ourselves and our colleagues.
Support your team
Listen to everyone in your team and respect them for their uniqueness. Avoid being a bully; instead, be there for the other person. Motivate, mentor and groom your juniors and help out your colleagues. This will help you when you need their support. Avoid powerplay and favouritism. Sometimes in the guise of being playful or pulling someone’s leg for fun, we end up ridiculing, isolating, hurting or breaking our co-worker’s morale. Watch out against that.
Avoid setting unrealistic targets and deadlines
Perhaps nothing stresses us out more than a feeling of helplessness when we deal with a situation that’s beyond our capacity. There is rarely anything more uncomfortable than the constant reminder of our inability to do something which can alter the outcome. What can one do in such a situation?
Do not overcommit: If you are in a position to make decisions, try not to commit more than you can realistically deliver. Have a discussion with other team members to realistically estimate the time needed to finish the work. Many a time, in our zeal to push ourselves or please others or because of our inability to say ‘no’, we bite off more than we can chew. It may sound dynamic, but in the long run it only takes away from the productivity of the team.
Communicate: If you don’t have a say in setting the deadline and it is imposed on you, try and communicate your concern and reservation to the team leader and the members objectively and gently. Make sure to do your best but also remember that you may not have any control over the outcome. Support other team members and work towards the goal, keeping in mind that your estimation might be wrong and you may actually be able to meet the deadline.
Plan and strategise: Break up your larger goal into bite-sized goals and spread them over a week, so that you have smaller daily targets. Prioritise the bigger picture, which is important, and focus and work towards it. A planned approach will put you at ease; it is the direct antidote to fight feelings of helplessness.
Fear of underperformance
It is important for us to be noticed, acknowledged and appreciated for our contribution. It is important for us to do well and live up to our own expectations. And in a situation where we are lagging behind, we may find ourselves unhappy and stressed. To deal with it, the following steps can be helpful.
Avoid comparisons with colleagues: Comparisons polarise us. Either we feel flawless and hence superior, or we feel deeply inadequate and hence inferior. Disengage when your colleagues play one-upmanship, driven by their insecurities. To be on top of your game, you need to choose your battles carefully.
Set goals for self-improvement and learning: Rather than trying to be better than your colleagues, try bettering your performance. Assess your skillset and aim at improving it. A self-focused growth plan can greatly help in reducing fear of underperforming.
Take unfair appraisal in your stride: Don’t be too harsh on yourself or hold on to grudges when you are given a poor appraisal. Sometimes you may not be given a justified appraisal even with your genuine effort and contribution; at other times, office politics or unconscious biases may affect you negatively. Try not to be bogged down and focus on what you can change. Communicate with your HR or manager. Discuss calmly why you have been scored so and what you can do to improve your performance.
Work can be hectic and because we spend more time at work (including travel time) than ever before. It is vital that we are in fine form, physically and mentally. These small steps will go a long way in preventing burnout.
Devise a switch-off switch-on office ritual: Try to switch off from work worries when you step out of the office. You can create a visual ritual to remind you of this. Imagine putting all the worries and issues in a backpack, zipping it and placing it under your office desk before leaving work.
Participate in activities: Spend time outside your work; pursue a hobby or some extra-curricular activity. This will help to disengage from the stress and allow your mind to unwind. You can use meditation apps daily or try some residential meditational courses once in a while. Prioritise family and social connection time when you are out of your office.
Get enough sleep: Having a good sleep cycle is important to rejuvenate your body and mind. To have sound sleep, avoid caffeine, watching television and using social media before going to bed.
Eat right: Are you going hungry for long hours and then end up binge eating? Eating right is not just about what you eat and how much you eat. It also matters when you eat. Eat at regular intervals and keep healthy snacks or fruits handy.
n Exercise: If you can’t manage 30 minutes of exercise during the day, break it down into 10-minute chunks thrice a day. At work, take regular breaks to stretch, especially if you have to sit for long hours.
Go on a holiday: It is needless to highlight the importance of a little time off once in a while. Plan and prioritise your vacations carefully. The idea is to give yourself an opportunity to recuperate and rest from the perceived crisis.
Dr Sangbarta Chattopadhyay and Dr Namita Bhuta are psychotherapists who conduct individual and group therapy sessions