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North Central Business Journal News

MANAGING STRESS
(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 sos_hr@localaccess.com.




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