Effective Stress Management

Here are some suggestions for reducing demands and honing coping skills.

By Paul B. Thornton, Professor, Business Administration, Springfield Technical Community College

“I’m overwhelmed.”

If you’re a manager, you’ve probably heard those words from your subordinates and your colleagues. In fact, you’ve probably thought or spoken them yourself.

And no wonder! In recent years, the pressures of a struggling economy have intensified the already considerable challenges of everyday life. Downsized staffs are causing many managers and employees to work longer hours to accomplish bigger tasks within tighter deadlines. A constant deluge of e-mails and cell phone calls accelerates the pace and exacerbates the pressures.  

Each of us deals differently with the demands we face. The coping skills we employ will vary according to the situation and our own personalities. Some people are more adept than others at coping with the demands that confront them. But at various times, even those of us with great coping skills are going to feel overwhelmed.

Stress Reactions

When the demands we face exceed our capacity to cope, we will suffer a stress reaction. This dynamic can be expressed as follows:

D > CS = SR (Demands > Coping Skills = Stress Reaction)

Stress affects the effectiveness and productivity of both managers and employees. “Stressed-out managers and employees are both inefficient and non-productive,” observed one of my colleagues. “High levels of stress can be debilitating.”

Excessive stress can lead to:

  • Behavioral reactions (yelling, screaming, backbiting, and even fighting)
  • Physical reactions (headaches, ulcers, stomach distress, muscle tension, problems with sexual performance, and sleeping)
  • Psychological reactions (anxiety, anger, mood swings, difficulty concentrating)

Demands vary in type and prevalence from day to day and from individual to individual. Demands in the workplace include the following:

  • Downsizings and high turnover
  • Radically increased workloads
  • Tight deadlines
  • Interpersonal conflicts
  • Difficult co-workers and customers
  • Changing priorities and unclear goals
  • Excessive travel
  • Micromanagement
  • Relocations
  • Worry about layoffs
  • Hurt feelings or anger due to the actions or inactions of others

Demands outside of work, which may come from family and friends, can include the following:

  • Interpersonal conflicts
  • Parenting responsibilities
  • Care-giving responsibilities for elderly parents or young children
  • Extra effort, expectations, and memories associated with holidays and special occasions
  • Time required for household chores
  • Struggle to spend quality time with spouse, children, and friends

Reducing Demands

As a manager, you should be aware of the demands that confront you and those who report to you. Periodically step back and ask yourself questions such as the following:

  • What can I stop doing? (What meetings, paperwork, and record-keeping can I eliminate? What reports do I write that no one reads?)
  • What can I do less of ? (How can I reduce the time I spend in meetings? Can I reduce the number of e-mails I receive? How can I decrease the interruptions from phone calls?)
  • What can I delegate? (Am I holding on to some tasks simply because I enjoy doing them, or perhaps because I don’t trust others to do them adequately?) 
  • What can I do differently? (Can I streamline some procedures? Should I increase my staff’s involvement in goal setting and planning?)

Coping Skills

Everyone employs coping skills to deal with demands. Unfortunately, the skills and strategies some people use are counterproductive—even destructive. Excessive drinking, smoking, taking drugs, denial of reality, playing victim, and blaming others may provide temporary escape from stressful demands, but over the long run they create new and bigger problems.

Managers constantly should strive to strengthen their personal coping skills and the skills of those reporting to them. Here are some helpful suggestions organized by four major categories:

  • Time Management: Improve your ability to set goals, prioritize tasks, and reduce distractions. Learn to say “no” to some requests.
  • Emotional Intelligence: Become aware of your feelings so you can channel them in positive directions.
  • Exercise: Join a health club; hire a personal trainer; walk or jog daily; ride a bike; swim; play an organized sport; take breaks during the day to walk or get fresh air; maintain a healthy balance between work and play.
  • Relaxation: Take yoga classes; treat yourself to a massage; practice meditation and deep breathing; watch high-quality TV programs, especially ones that make you feel good or laugh; listen to music; jump in a hot tub; take regular vacations and mini-vacations.

There are many good sources that managers and employees can use to improve their coping skills, including: seminars and workshops, books and magazines, Youtube videos, and advice from mentors and coaches.

When stress reactions are minimized, people are more physically, mentally, and emotionally refreshed. They work harder and enjoy their work more. Their efforts are more productive, their careers are more successful, and their lives are more fulfilling.

Paul B. Thornton is professor of business administration at Springfield Technical Community College, Springfield, MA, where he teaches principles of management, organizational behavior, and principles of leadership. Professor Thornton is the author of “Leadership—Off the Wall” and 12 other books on management and leadership, as well as numerous published articles. He may be contacted at PThornton@stcc.edu.

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