“When we long for life without difficulties, remind us that oaks grow strong in contrary winds and diamonds are made under pressure.”
Avoiding stress in professional life is like achieving work-life balance or eliminating risk: it’s not possible. With the onslaught of media and advertising luring us with promises of “stress-free living” and the necessity to remove stress from the workplace, most are driven to the belief that stress can be entirely eliminated from life.
But like risk, taxes and yes, death, stress is a fact of life. It can’t be eliminated, only controlled, channeled and re-used to move you and your team towards project completion and growth.
Stress is necessary to grow and develop as a leader. Eliminating stress from one’s life is like eliminating an essential mineral from one’s diet. Go to long without an important component in our diet and we’ll develop problems. Stress-free means no challenge and without challenge there is no growth.
You’ve no doubt experienced the challenge-growth linkage when working out or preparing for some physically demanding feat. As the level of stress was increased, your ability to do more increased as well. The same occurs when we develop skills in other areas such as music, language learning and any other cognitive or physical skill. Stress is the means through which we forge skill and through which we generate increased ability.
As a leader, you can either view stress as a major detriment or accept it as fact and design a way to mitigate or absorb it. I suggest the later approach. Remove the negative connotations you’ve built up around stress and instead, develop a way to manage it effectively.
Professional Advancement Goes To The Stressed
Professionally, advancement goes to those who have the ability to manage increasing levels and complexity of responsibility. With responsibility comes stress: finding new business opportunities, making payroll, handling personnel problems, or fulfilling expectations of demanding clients or a demanding boss. If you do not have a means for effectively mitigating or absorbing stress, then the further you move along the professional advancement trajectory, the more likely it is that you’ll eventually hit a brick wall that will result in unintended consequences. What do these look like? Negative attitude; curt and unprofessional responses to colleagues and clients; and generally being cancerous in communicating and working with teams or your subordinates.
In life, stress saps the joys of your existence. If you’re constantly under stress, your life view can become very narrow, very quickly. You will lose the ability to enjoy the company of others, the fulfillment that comes from accomplishing work that matters or helps another person, and perhaps the will to move forward professionally.
This is a very gloomy existence, so let’s turn this around and look at designing a framework that can help one embrace stress. If you can’t eliminate it, you might as well figure out how to use it to your benefit.
4 Actions To Increase Your Ability to Embrace Stress
Our goal, and role as a leader, isn’t to eliminate stress from our life or the lives of our employees. It is, instead, to build the habits and means to control stress so we can grow and help those around us grow as well. To get to this point of stress-Nirvana doesn’t take years of meditation practice (although this will most definitely help), but it does take a conscious and concerted effort. Again, professional success goes to those people who have the ability to shoulder increased levels of responsibility and the accompanying stress.
If increased responsibility, and the rewards that go with it, are part of your goals, then try these actions to increase your ability to embrace stress:
Good Sleep, Diet and Physical Training. These are foundational actions practiced daily so that if everything else falls apart during the day, you’ve at least covered the fundamentals. As it turns out, I’ve found that I tend to mitigate things falling apart because I am practicing these basic actions daily. In the realm of stress mitigation, you can’t build more resilience than by getting adequate and effective sleep, eating a nutrient rich diet, and doing PT every day.
Focus Your Actions With a Vision and Simple Strategy. When you don’t know where you’re going professionally or personally, stress levels can peak. No doubt you’ve experienced the stress that comes from not having a clear path forward either in a previous job, or perhaps the one in which you work today. When the way forward is clouded and not clear, it’s very easy to conjure up all sorts of negative outcomes. One of the best ways to help increase your ability to embrace stress is to have a clear vision for your ideal future and a simple strategy of how you will achieve this.
Notice I didn’t link the vision or strategy to your current position or organization. These are important. But you’re personal vision and strategy is more important because it is the enduring vision and strategy that will carry you through any changes that might come from upheavals associated with that job or organization. A personal vision and strategy is your Polaris to be followed no matter the state of the seas around you.
Shift Your Mindset. Instead of thinking or verbally sharing with anyone who will listen how busy and stressed-out you are, start thinking and saying “how excited I am to have so many opportunities to grow and help others”. Sure, it sounds pollyanna, but does complaining about how busy and stressed-out you are help anyone? It certainly won’t help you and it won’t help your employees or colleagues.
Heidi Hanna, Ph.D., a fellow with the American Institute of Stress and author of the book Stressaholic: 5 Steps to Transform Your Relationship With Stress, explains that, “When we become aware of stress that others carry around us, it sends a very clear signal that we, too, should be worried.” This situation is amplified when we rush around our office or make statements about how busy we are. In the workplace, this behavior can generate increased stress in those around us, sapping everyone of productivity and the ability to work effectively in teams. The end result is reduced ability to address problems and work together.
To combat this, shift your mindset by looking at your present situation and asking these two questions:
How am I helping others here?
What is happening here?
Does this support me or anyone else in achieving their mission?
Conduct a Stress Audit. Spend some time brainstorming about all of the stressors in your personal and professional life. This includes stressors linked to such mundane things as having to rush through the airport to make a flight, or running out of a favorite beverage or food. Seriously, list them all. And most certainly hit the most likely stressors such as finances, job advancement, or specific issues that are prevalent in projects you work on.
Naming the sources of of our stress illuminates them and by doing this comes the ability to begin addressing them as a specific object against which we can act. For example, if you travel a lot for business and know that the check-in process is a major stressor for you, by identifying this you can begin to develop a means to mitigate it. Perhaps you arrive at the airport three hours in advance to ensure there is no rushing through the airport and use the extra time to catch up on reading reports, conducting phone calls, or other work-related activities that you plan to accomplish in advance.
Leaders establish the tone in every organization figuratively and literally. Your actions will be observed by everyone with whom you work and, the emotions you carry will be shared with them as well. Consider this fact as you rush around the office or feel your stress levels increasing because of too many emails, too many deadlines or too many personnel problems.
Stress cannot be eliminated and it must be embraced for the benefit of your professional advancement and that of the people who work for you and with you.
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