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Stressed at work?

Many things can create disruptions to your routines. Some of these events you’ll only experience at work, others are more common at home, while some can be experienced at home or at work. We look at scientific research to see how we can handle workplace hassles.

6 minute read

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Stress comes in many forms at work. It can be that your colleague took her time to complete her tasks, leaving you to wait for her input. It can be deadlines or KPI’s that are seemingly unattainable, or a boss who is a jerk. I once witnessed an ongoing issue between colleagues: One felt that she was unfairly treated and given no support, while her colleague did less but got more attention from the leaders. It doesn’t matter what type of stress you experience at work, what is important is how you deal with it. Dealing with stress is mainly a cognitive activity. Cognitive activity are thoughts in your head, the little voice that keeps on talking to you. You can set yourself up for a vicious or virtuous cycle by the way you are processing stressful events.

 

Stressful events at work

Stressful events at work are workplace hassles. Workplace hassles are everyday disruption to your routine. These disruptions are perceived as a threat. This threat makes you feel annoyed, irritated, worried or frustrated as it leads you to realize that your goals or plans will be more difficult to achieve (Almeida et al., 2002). For example, if you planned to submit the report in two days, but your colleague, who has to complete a section, is suddenly sick or can’t manage his time properly, your ability to reach your goal is ‘under threat’. Workplace hassles are one type of stressful events you can experience. You shouldn’t just brush stressful events to the side, as the event, your perception of it, and how you dealt with it impacts your well-being (Cohen, Kessler and Gordon, 1997).

Almeida and colleagues (2002) did a large study on the different types of stress people experience during a day. This was broader than just workplace stress. Interesting in their study was that a stressful event could be scored along several threat dimensions. According to the authors a threat dimension “describes the implications of the event for the respondent” (p. 46). Stress is normally associated with negative implication, such as a loss, danger, disappointment or frustration. I think it is easy to imagine how the most recent stressful event (e.g., negative feedback from supervisor) created loss of self-confidence. Fortunately, stress does not have to always have negative effects (Almeida et al., 2002). Most events can be turned around, if you frame it properly. I don’t mean put a fake smile on your face and keep on going, but use stressful events as a catalyst for discovering meaning and values. If you received negative feedback from your supervisor, did you misunderstood the task? did your supervisor not clearly communicate the task and expectations? Are you lacking skills or time to do the task properly?

As a side note, stress from work can impact your family/social life, and vice-versa. Role conflict, role ambiguity and the time you spent at work, creates work-induced stress at home, while hours spent parenting and taking care of the house, creates family-induced stress at work.

Brain Work

Take a minute to think about the most common work experiences that stresses you? Do you notice any patterns? How do you cope ore react to it? Did it help you or did it make matters worse?

 

Self-talk as a way to deal with workplace stress

Self-talk is the little voice in your head. Self-talk is a way we process experiences. The idea is that the way we frame experiences in our heads impacts what we believe, how we feel, what we think and how we behave (Beck, 2011). It’s like a fitness coach giving you advice, motivating you (or talking you down) – but just in your head. Self-talk can bring up deeply held unconscious beliefs about the world, your place in it, and how you need to behave to achieve your goals. Self-talk impacts the way a person interprets stressful situations (Bourne, 2015). Self-talk that leads to a positive adaptation to workplace stress, for example, by demonstrating resilience, are normally free of over generalisation, catastrophising, filtering or blaming yourself or others for the situation. Another way to deal positively with stressful events is to engage in self-management by giving yourself instructions or directions for what to say or do (Brinthaupt et al., 2009)

If there’s a will then there’s a way
Another way to deal with workplace stress is to describe them and the way you coped with the event. The first thing is to categorise the event so that you know the source of it. Almeida and colleagues (2002) have a list of daily stressors. We have listed the two related to work—

Interpersonal tensions: value differences, miscommunication, difficult conversation with boss/colleague
Work/education: work overload, technical problems, mistakes, job (in)security…

Once you categorise the event, take some time to review how you perceive it.

Is it an opportunity for growth and personal development or a threat to who you are (at work)?
Does it create insecurity by making your job more ambiguous or complex?
Does it conflict with your personal values?
Does it conflict with your long-term goals or vision?

 

While these are difficult to define and describe trying to add and explain (to yourself) your emotional response to an event is an important step for dealing with it in a positive way. Important is to try to, over time, move away from predominantly negative emotions (Ullrich and Lutgendorf, 2002). Positive emotions are related to self-affirmation, cognitive processing, and discovery of meaning. Of course, be honest with yourself. The idea is that over time you attach fewer and fewer negative emotions to the stressful situation.

Finally, where possible, see how you are in control of the events that happen to you and create management strategies for future similar events. If you experience a stressful event and this event impacts you, but you think that you are in control of the event, you will feel less stressed. This perception of control acts as a buffer to stress (Diehl & Hay, 2010). That’s why blaming others doesn’t help. You make yourself dependent on them.

Tiny tips

1. Be aware about your chattering mind

The hardest part of dealing with stress is becoming aware of the voice in your head. Try to listen to the chatter in your mind and correct if you find yourself signs of overgeneralisation, catastrophising, filtering or blaming yourself or others.

2. Our memory is designed to be faulty

Harvard psychologist Daniel Schacter in his book The Seven Sins of Memory provides us strong cases of how our memories fail us in regular, repeated, and predictable ways. So don’t trust your memory. Try and record your self-talk in written or audio.

Bibliography:

Almeida, D. M., Wethington, E., & Kessler, R. C. (2002). The Daily Inventory of Stressful Events: An Interview-Based Approach for Measuring Daily Stressors. Assessment, 9(1), 41–55. https://doi.org/10.1177/1073191102091006

Beck, J. S. (2011). Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Basics and Beyond (2nd ed.). New York: The Guilford Press.

Bourne, E. (2015). The anxiety and phobia workbook (sixth). Oakland, California: New Harbinger Publications.

Brinthaupt, T. M., Hein, M. B., & Kramer, T. E. (2009). The Self-Talk Scale: Development, factor analysis, and validation. Journal of Personality Assessment, 91(1), 82–92. https://doi.org/10.1080/00223890802484498

Cohen, S., Kessler, R.C., & Gordon, L. (1997). Strategies for measuring stress in studies of psychiatric and physical disorders. In S. Cohen, R.C. Kessler, & L. Gordon (Eds.), Measuring stress: A guide for health and social scientists (pp. 3–26). New York: Oxford University Press.

Diehl, M., & Hay, E. L. (2010). Risk and resilience factors in coping with daily stress in adulthood: The role of age, self-concept incoherence, and personal control. Developmental Psychology, 46(5), 1132–1146. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0019937



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