North Central Business Journal News
(December 2000 issue)
by Sandra Kay Neal, Ph.D.
Stress is a common experience in the workplace.
Executives often resort to temporary solutions to stress, such as back
rubs, rest breaks, breathing exercises or physical exertion. These
are all beneficial ways of addressing stress to provide short-term relief.
But executives often overlook tactics that would manage stress more effectively
for the long term.
The operative word here is manage.
Manage doesn’t imply elimination; rather it suggests that there are ways
to reduce the negative effects of stress. Frequently, stress occurs
because people’s thoughts are not working for them. When in a potentially
stressful situation, people often assume the situation is personally threatening
and begin trying to cope. A useful tactic whenever one begins to
feel the first signs of stress is to step out of the situation and look
at it rationally – is this situation really threatening to me personally?
Many times, when we ask this question
the answer is, “I don’t know yet.” Rather than starting the
process of “what if” and trying to figure out all possible options to dreaded,
but not known, conditions, it is more useful to check to see what dangers
are actually involved in the situation. For instance, most companies
are faced with uncertainty about markets for their products or services.
Faced with this uncertainty, they struggle with how much inventory to keep
on hand, how many employees to retain during a slow time, how much advertising
to do, how to handle a down-turn in the market, etc. If executives
focus on this uncertainty, they will find themselves experiencing long-term,
debilitating stress. If they can say to themselves, “I don’t know
yet whether this is a serious problem or merely a potential problem,” they
will be better poised to address the situation calmly. The first
thing to do then is to determine whether the situation is an immediate
problem or a potential problem. If it is not an immediate problem,
but they act as if it is an immediate problem, they lose their ability
to address the problem from all sides and often make inappropriate, disastrous
decisions. If it is not an immediate problem and they recognize this
lack of immediacy, they have the time to consider all potential ramifications
rationally and make rational decisions about how to proceed.
Many times, past history can provide
a useful counter to stress reactions. Most companies go through cycles
of boom and bust. When they are in a “bust” time, it is helpful to
look back and notice that they have been there before. They can then
use their history to predict when the “boom” will start again and begin
preparing for that time.
In spite of our best plans and careful
decision-making processes, snags will happen. A secret known by people
who manage stress effectively is accepting surprises as not surprising.
We know machines will break down. We know there will be mix-ups in
communication. We know employees will get sick. So when these
inevitable snags occur, being surprised and frustrated is unnecessary.
Instead, the trick is to treat these snags as new challenges that must
be addressed rather than threats to be feared. If we are focused
on addressing the expected snags that show up from time to time, we will
be more likely to notice solutions than if we are frazzled and irritated
by the unexpected rifts.
Until these thought patterns become normal,
executives faced with too much stress can intentionally talk themselves
into thinking this way. As soon as they begin to feel stress,
they can remind themselves that they are capable and can solve anything
as long as they don’t give in to stress. Taking control of the
situation, even if that only means taking control of one’s reactions,
takes the stress out of the situation. Check to see if the situation
is really an immediate problem, which it usually isn’t, and then devise
rational solutions to possible problems without being frazzled. Use
the company’s history to plan ahead for “bust” times. Treat snags
as challenges to be solved rather than threats to be avoided.
Sandra Kay Neal holds a Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational
Psychology and has 19 years experience helping organizations solve human
resource issues. Her company, Synergistic Organizational Solutions,
specializes in aiding small businesses. Dr. Neal can be reached at