How can we manage stress, whether our own or our staff members? We are all bound to experience stress at some point in time, particularly as teachers, trainers, managers or school staff. Gerhard Erasmus explores the effects of stress, as well as how we can manage our own stress and how we can support those around us experiencing stress.
Before we consider how to manage stress, it is important to choose a definition of stress that empowers us to deal with it. While a Learner’s Dictionary or Thesaurus is a good starting place for defining a word when teaching or writing, in the case of stress, it is better to look at a psychological definition. Dictionaries define stress as ‘pressure or worry cause by problems in someone’s life’ or ‘a state of mental or emotional strain resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.’ We all experience pressure or worry or strain due to adverse or demanding circumstances, but no two people experience these situations the same. What one person finds extremely stressful, another might not find stressful at all. It therefore makes this a very inefficient definition to help us come up with tools to deal with stress. Instead, the Mental Health Foundation defines stress as ‘the feeling of being overwhelmed or unable to cope with mental or emotional pressure.’ In that definition, it is much clearer that for us to deal better with stress, we need to develop the tools to ensure that we do not feel overwhelmed or unable to cope.
What does stress look like
Stress can manifest itself in many different ways. There are numerous symptoms, and one of the first steps to dealing with stress is realising when you are stressed and starting to show these symptoms. These include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Loss of appetite
- Inability to sleep
- Anxiety or anger
- Muscle stiffness (especially in the neck and back) or physical pain (like consistent headaches)
While these symptoms could also be an indication of something else, they do act as warning signs. Our bodies are telling us that while we might think we have all the tools to deal with a certain situation, we are in fact experiencing stress. And stress could have more serious consequences, such as:
- Substance abuse
- Low self-esteem
- Cardio-vascular problems
Dealing with our own stress
A simple acronym to think about dealing with stress is to get some AIR.
- A – Awareness – Recognise the symptoms and be aware when they are starting to impact how you feel, and how effectively you are dealing with a situation
- I – Identification – Identify what is causing the stress and evaluate how you are dealing with the situation. Do you need help at work with a project or student or co-worker you cannot cope with? Do you need to seek professional help?
- R – Review – Review your lifestyle and build a lifestyle where you are better able to cope with stress.
Consider if you are doing or should be doing the following things:
- Eat healthy food – But do so without putting yourself under immense pressure. This also includes getting enough liquids (especially water) into your system
- Exercise and stay active – Even if that means climbing the three flights of stairs to the office rather than taking the elevator
- Stay positive – But within reason. It is OK to not always be positive about situations, but define yourself by who and what you are, not what you oppose, and be generally positive
- Accept what you cannot change – But be brave enough to change what you can
- Be assertive not aggressive – And when you are starting to feel aggressive, work out ways to calm the aggression or seek help. Irritable depression could lead to aggressive behaviour, and it would not be your fault. See a psychiatrist and get treatment
- Sleep enough – Whether that be 8 hours or 6 hours a night, sleep so you feel rested. And think about your sleeping pattern. If eating a late-night snack or having a drink before bed means you cannot sleep properly, then cut that from your pre-sleep ritual
- Be mindful - And be aware of the power your mind has over how you perceive things
- Set boundaries – Say no when you need to say no
- Look at how you manage your time – Manage your time well, and if that means don’t multi-task, then don’t. I am personally not a very big fan of multi-tasking as it just means I do more than one thing poorly at the same time
- Find time for hobbies and interests – Life is about enjoyment as well. Find something you enjoy and do it
- Seek social support or professional help if needed – I’ve said this more than once already and will say it again later. There is no need for seeing a professional to be stigmatised
Helping your teams, colleagues, or family members deal with stress
We discussed helping yourself first, because you cannot help others if you are sinking under stress yourself. Be sure that you are OK before you attempt to help and support others. And always remember that you are there just to support them, not to take full responsibility for their lives or stress.
Talking about stress in families or in our work teams is much more important than I think people realise. In the UK, 70 million workdays are lost annually due to mental health issues, predominantly stress, depression, and anxiety. For organisations, it is extremely costly, and could impact staff performance. For both families and organisations, it could lead to poorer communication, an inability to see solutions beyond problems, and a reduction in many positive things that exist between people, such as, love, respect, acceptance, laughter, empathy, trust, patience, etc.
Control only what you can
- When setting a culture and environment for support to alleviate stress, you should:
- Be transparent with everyone
- Be fair, friendly, respectful and approachable
- Support development
- Have realistic expectations of individuals and the team
- Encourage two-way communication
- Encourage time away from work
- Enforce the view that failure is an event – not a person
This includes how you interact with people are work, but also at home, and how you treat your spouse, partner, children, parents, etc.
As a manager
Helping employees deal with stress in the workplace is twofold. On one hand, you need to model how to deal with stress and set an example. Actively teaching and modelling how you deal with your own stress levels sets a good example. In addition to that, you have to accept that employees often experience stress at work because of work. This means you need to provide resources for them to excel at their jobs, ensure that they are supported at all times, and make sure that they know that this support exists. In addition, be sure to include training on time management and prioritising, as this will lessen the effect of feeling unable to cope or overwhelmed with their workload.
Also consider the culture your organisation has inside and outside of the office. Is the office a pleasant place to be where employees get along, the environment is bright enough with access to resources, and employees genuinely care about each other? If not, how can you address this? Do employees have access to socialising activities through work? This could be a hiking club or a book club, or social events where everyone can get together, for example, a board game night or a picnic in the park.
A final note of caution. You are not the superhero who needs to take everyone’s stress on themselves. You are just part of the big machine that supply them with the tools they need to cope better with stress and deal with the areas of their lives that they are finding stressful. There are some situations, such as the loss of a family member or loved one, or for some people a pet, that could be immensely stressful but are totally out of anyone’s control. No experience in the world makes dealing with such stressful events any easier. At times, you just have to be the person that shows empathy and supports whoever needs it. But, always take care of yourself first.