This year has been an interesting one for me. In my workspace, I’ve been involved in a number of consulting assignments into organisation’s and workplaces whose people are showing signs of debilitating workplace stress. At home, my previously cool calm and collected 17 year old is under the pressure of VCE. It’s surprising, with hindsight, how similarly stressful behaviours manifest.

Over the next few blog entries, I thought I would share what I’ve learned and observed. I’ll begin this series by looking at two classic symptoms of stress:  Losing control and Busy-ness,  and suggest some useful strategies that I’ve engaged that help people deal with times of high stress.

  • A feeling of loss of control.How to identify this:
    One staff member expressed it this way “I feel like I’m juggling everything. If I lose control over one thing, the rest will come crashing down.”  (I sometimes refer to this as the ‘chicken little’ syndrome!). Others will say more obliquely “{This} always happens to me”.The antidote:
    What we focus on is what we see, to the exclusion of everything else. Avoid seeing ‘the sky falling’ by looking for and gathering evidence to prove that, in fact, the sky stays firmly in place. Some great questions to ask might be:
    • What’s the one thing you/I can let go of that will have the least impact overall? List the benefits you will get from doing this.
    • What’s one thing that needs to happen for you/me to feel that control has returned? How will you make this happen?
    • Tell me about a similar time when you felt in control. What are you doing that’s similar and different to what you are doing now?
    • Tell me about a similar time when {this} hasn’t happened to you.
  • Busy-ness or too much time spent doing a task, with little observable progress.

How to identify this:
You might hear “I’ve been doing this for hours and I’m not getting anywhere”. Or you might observe someone in a constant state of ‘busy-ness’, but never seeming to actually achieve or produce anything.

The antidote:
There are a couple! I’ve been reading a great book called “Brain Rules” by John Medina which essentially examines the optimal conditions under which our brain functions. One of the ‘rules’ explains how our brains need oxygen to function well. Medina suggests that when we are stuck on a problem a great solution is to take a walk while trying to solve it. This gets the blood – and oxygen – flowing to our brains to maximise our problem solving powers. It logically follows that regular exercise – at least 30 minutes per day, the research is telling us – ensures a constant maximum flow of oxygen to our brains and creates that optimum brain performance condition.

Exercise is not the only way to overcome the ‘overwork, under achieve’ issue. The psychological principle of ‘chunking’ teaches us that we can effectively deal with a discrete number (7 plus or minus 2!) of chunks of information at any one time. As a trainer I ensure that information I present is presented as 5 – 7 key points. I change what learners are doing every 7 – 10 minutes.  Someone stuck on a task might try to break it down into 5 – 7 smaller, more achievable jobs. Or change how they work or take a short break (even to switch tasks) every ten minutes or so.

Trust this helps if you are, or someone in your world is, experiencing stress. Next time we will look at changing body language and never doing ‘enough’!