Many of us try to avoid stress in the workplace as much as possible. In fact, stress may actually be good for us. Here’s a bit of executive coaching on how to benefit from the stress of your role.
Stress in the Workplace
Now, if you are like most people, you pretty much try to avoid stress in the workplace as much as possible. Life in the corporate world, entrepreneurial world, and pretty much everywhere in the professional world is stressful.
It is a highly competitive, unforgiving world out there and that means there is constant pressure to perform. Not only that but there are outside stresses as well, like kids and car repairs and on and on an on…
Now there is tons of research on all the nasty things stress does to your mind and body. We all know about the fight or flight response, about cortisol and all the rest of it.
And on a more personal level, there is often so much stress in the workplace that a daily glass of wine (or something stronger) is not uncommon.
But stress in the workplace can actually be good for you.
In James Loehr’s 1997 book, “Stress for Success” Loehr argues that, contrary to popular belief, stress in the workplace is a good thing. He argues that developing the ability to perform at high levels requires stress, as without it we would not grow.
Drawing an analogy to physiology, if we want our muscles to grow, we need to stress them by using weights. When we lift weights, our muscle fibers tear ever so slightly, which enables them to grow back stronger.
The key is that after we have stressed a muscle, we must allow it to recover and grow. This is why anyone who exercises can tell you that you don’t exercise the same muscles day after day.
You usually take a day off in between exercising certain groups of muscles. The rest between workouts is what allows muscles to grow and recover.
Likewise, if we want to increase performance at work, we need to stress ourselves with ever more difficult tasks. This makes sense, the things you do later in your career are significantly more sophisticated than the things you handle earlier on.
Except we make a key mistake: we don’t allow ourselves to properly recover from the stress in the workplace.
Consider vacations: for many professionals, vacation truly doesn’t mean unplugging. In fact, during my executive career I used to joke that vacation meant working from the location of your choice.
Yes, I’ve been that guy with an iPad and an iPhone on the beach in Hawaii on a conference call. Literally, I have been that guy.
(…and on a side note, you can convince yourself for a long while that it is a signal of how important you are… before ultimately admitting to yourself that it just sucks.)
What this means is that stress in the workplace builds without proper recovery, and over time that lack of recovery leads to burnout. We simply never allow ourselves the time to relax.
This is increasingly true on vacations, but is also true on random days off (see Executive Coaching: Put down the iPhone).
What’s even worse is that many firms are slowly decreasing the amount of permitted vacation. How do they do it? By positioning it as a perk. Here’s how it goes:
When you hit a certain level of seniority, many firms start to offer “unlimited vacation.” Now on the face of it, this sounds great… simply take the next 6 months off to travel across Africa right? Wrong.
The caveat is that this is in the context of doing your job, keeping your team performing, etc. This means that vacations are generally limited to short periods of time and heavily influenced by the firm’s unspoken cultural norms.
In other words, unlimited vacation means the person who used to take 4 weeks is now taking 2 because she believes that is what is necessary to get promoted (see Executive coaching: Promotion, Power and Office Politics) as a good corporate citizen. Bye-bye vacation, hello calls from the beach in Hawaii.
So, let’s say you are looking for a bit of executive coaching on what to do about this. You can’t change the workplace environment; all you can change is yourself. What do you do?
First, adopt a “stress is enhancing” mindset. My friends Ali and Tom Crum did some great research around this which is featured in Harvard Business Review.
They recommend the following 3 steps:
- Label your stress – Say to yourself, “I am stressed about this project.” This labeling has been found to have positive effects.
- Own your stress – Acknowledge that we tend to stress about the things that matter to us, and that stress is to be expected in these challenging situations.
- Use that stress – Up to a point (i.e. before it becomes paralyzing), stress is designed to help us perform at higher levels. Use that energy and excitement to work towards your task.
Most importantly, take the time to truly recover from workplace stress. Whether taking an hour or a day or even a week, make the time to truly unplug from the rest of the world.
From an executive coaching perspective, you can (believe it or not) build time into your day to recover. It is simply a question of prioritizing that time.
To paraphrase my former colleagues at The Energy Project, we tend to assume that our energy is linear and that it will simply expand to meet the demand of the situation we are in. In fact, our energy works in pulses. We need to push hard and then rest, stress and recover…
It allows us to get more done and it allows us to grow our capacity to handle stress and to perform in the workplace.
If you are looking for executive coaching in San Diego or across the country to take your career to the next level, schedule a complimentary executive coaching conversation with me here.