No discussion on the topic of workplace cultures can be complete without some time devoted to how we deal with the occasional and inevitable periods of stress. While some stress is actually healthy, chronic stress is debilitating. It preoccupies the mind, clouds our judgment, dulls our creativity and makes us physically sick. In this article, we will examine the concept of emotional backpacks and develop strategies for keeping ours light and well-equipped, even in stressful situations.

Stress isn’t always bad. In fact, it has been a part of the survival response of most animal species on our planet ever since there was life. Most often associated with the release of cortisol and adrenaline molecules within the brain and body, stress singularly focuses our attention on immediate dangers to help us either fight or quickly flee to safety. When our prehistoric ancestors were faced with the many dangers in their world, this focused response allowed our species to survive.

The problem is that today’s world hardly looks like the one our ancestors evolved in and today’s “dangers” (for most people) are more subtle. They’re also more persistent. And that’s where stress becomes dangerous. The events that trigger stress in the modern age surround us constantly. And while they may not represent threats to our physical safety the way saber toothed tigers, hostile tribes or forest fires did, our bodies still respond the same way chemically. Bullying bosses, over-scheduled calendars and never-ending deadlines all collude to create a moderate level of persistent stress that actually attacks our own bodies.

Unfortunately, current studies demonstrate that chronic stress is even more dangerous than we thought. Research on both humans and other primates who live in communities (such as baboons) has uncovered a whole host of psychological and physical damage:

  • Arterial plaque build-up leading to cardiovascular disease
  • Sleep disorders and depression
  • High blood pressure & increased risk of diabetes
  • Compromised immune responses
  • Weakening of synaptic connections and destruction of neurons
  • DNA damage to our cells
  • Shortened life expectancy

Now imagine these physical symptoms impacting our performance at work. Under chronic stress, an organization can suffer from:

  • Decreased camaraderie and morale
  • Increased rates of absenteeism and illness
  • Higher healthcare expenses
  • Lower overall productivity
  • Lower levels of creativity and innovation
  • Poor communication patterns
  • Higher turnover of key employees

How Heavy is Your Emotional Backpack?

At its core, stress is an emotional feeling of powerlessness with respect to our environment. Whether it’s triggered by our interactions with certain people, our financial situation, unexpected or anticipated loss (relationships, death, job, health) or anything else, the conclusions our brains reach are the same: I am not (or only minimally) able to improve my situation. The cascade of negative emotions that this conclusion leads to can be debilitating: fear, anger, resentment, alienation, exclusion, embarrassment, hopelessness, aggression and/or confusion. These feelings create a heavy drain on our available mental energy and make our “backpacks” extraordinarily heavy. Our efforts at every activity we engage in then become less efficient and less productive.

Typical Sources of Stress

Stress is a predicable response that can be triggered my many factors. Here are just a few:

  • Rude, demeaning or embarrassing treatment by others (includes bullying)
  • Workloads that are difficult to manage
  • Insufficient resources (including time) to successfully complete tasks
  • Lack of direction or clear expectations
  • Alienation or isolation
  • Blame for matters not within our control
  • Loss or fear of loss
  • Relationship challenges
  • Health challenges, either personal, family or friends
  • Poor self image and/or esteem

Strategies for Managing Stress

It’s important to understand from the beginning that life’s stressors usually do not go away. But we can learn to better manage them or, more appropriately, manage ourselves around them. The first step in this process is always to take control of the things that we can. A few examples may be:

  • Minimizing our time spent with damaging people (including family members)
  • Proactively changing lifestyle habits that impact our physical health
  • Increased physical exercise and focus on proper nutrition
  • Intentional affiliation and friendships with like-minded and supportive people
  • Focus on the development of gratitude
  • Making career decisions that support long-term wellness and happiness
  • Get a pet (seriously!)
  • Better defining work-life boundaries
  • Becoming more conscientious of healthy self-talk habits
  • Minimize efforts to multi-task
  • Dark chocolate (2.2 oz/day)
  • Spend more time in natural settings

Creating Your Stress Management Plan

Now take a few moments to write down some ideas that you can start today in order to deal with the stress in your life. Divide a sheet of paper into 3 sections. In the first section, write down a list of ideas for actions or behaviors that you can start to do in order to combat stress. In the next section, write down ideas for actions or behaviors you can stop and in the third section, write down ideas for actions or behaviors you can continue.

Once we develop a list of strategies for dealing with stress, our conclusions about our situation change, as do our related emotions. Once we begin to take action, sometimes small at first, that demonstrates our power, our backpacks become lighter. This leaves us happier, healthier and more full of energy to be productive in our workplace.