Six Self-management Strategies for Stressful Times

by Jean Marie Jonnson

My attitude? Really? No, really?

Let's be completely honest. Many of us get in a huff when someone has the nerve to suggest that our attitude may be a bit of a problem. It feels so personal. It may even feel like a violation of trust, as in: "I count on you to understand me. Thanks for the show of support, dude." Go ahead and substitute "girlfriend" or "old buddy;" you get the idea. 

Attitude is a loaded word that often carries a negative connotation: What an attitude. Don't give me any attitude. He needs an Attitude Adjustment.

And yet … sometimes the people we work with are onto a shift in our attitude before we are aware of it ourselves. We may be inclined to immediately dismiss the unsolicited feedback. We shrug it off, become suspicious of their motives, or fizzle in a self-fulfilling funk. 

I say: resist the temptation to resist. Don't let yourself off the hook too quickly. Use that bit of information about your attitude to check in with yourself, to ask "what's bugging me?" Consider the possibility that new or increased stress at work may be affecting how you handle things, and showing up in what others refer to as your "attitude."

Stress at Work

Most of us can readily identify the causes of stress that we experience outside of work. Whether it's the strain of being a caregiver, the behavior of a child, a difficult relationship, the uncertainty of persistent health challenges, or a combination thereof, we can quickly put our finger on it. We take control as best we can, identify resources that will help and tap into our support networks along the way. We deal with it. And that allows us to lower our stress, to cope, to get on with what is going on in better ways.

But when it comes to identifying and dealing with workplace stress, we may not be as clear. We may shrug our shoulders and think, Well, it's work. I had a rough day. If you simply leave it at that, you can get stuck there, feeling more stressed, less in control and responding in ways that aren't effective.

That's why it's important to keep tabs on your workplace stress, which often increases in response to uncertainty and change. It may be triggered by decisions and circumstances that are, to some extent, outside of your control. Maybe you are:

  • Reporting to a brand new manager
  • Being asked to do more with less
  • Adapting to a role that is in flux
  • Facing new and different competition
  • Struggling to meet new targets and higher expectations
  • Working with new co-workers or are on a new team

Or simply

  • Worrying about changes that may be coming down the pike: the great unknown

Three Stress-based Responses

Stress triggered by uncertainty and change can get the better of your attitude and show up in a number of specific ways. You approach things differently or respond to people and situations in ways that aren't typical of you. It's this shift in your behavior that your co-workers notice when they refer to your "attitude." Take a look at the following list. Do any of the following sound true of you?

  1. Frazzled Focus
    You find it difficult to stay on task. Your mind wanders, you are easily distracted, or you try to tackle everything at once. You are making more mistakes because it's harder to concentrate and to stay focused. 
  2. Indifference or Negativity
    You fall into a "whatever" response when a change is announced. Or, instead of offering ideas and possible solutions to challenges, you find yourself zeroing in on what's wrong or why something won't work. The glass is half-empty, at best.
  3. Complaining
    You go on and on about little things that get under your skin. So, someone took the last "good" parking space; it happens. Or, you forgot to pack your energy drink. These are very small matters in the scheme of things, but you are more irritable and you overreact.
We all know that being able to focus, looking at the bright side of things and not sweating  the small stuff is a healthy way to approach our work. If you notice that you have adopted any of these behaviors, or see an increase in them, stress may be the culprit.

Six Self-management Strategies for Stressful Times

  1. Understand your experience
    Just identifying what is causing your stress can give you a greater sense of control. You have to know what "it" is before you can get your arms around it. Let's say that your unit has been merged with another unit and that you are in the process of becoming a new team. You don't feel like a team because you don't even know these people. They sit next to you now, but they do things differently and, what really bugs you is that they seem to have their own inside humor.
  2. Own your response
    We know that no matter what is happening, we can always choose to focus on the positive. That doesn't mean that you push things under the rug or try to convince yourself that everything is just fine. It means that you don't expect the worst, and that you consciously choose to look for what is or can be good about it. So, back to that "team." You feel that it just isn't working. You made an effort, in the beginning, but now you find yourself thinking negatively about "them" and complaining to your old teammates when you are on break. Here's the good news: you see it. You see the source of your stress and how you are responding to it.
  3. Take control of what you can
    Now do something. Put your good intentions into action. Talk through your perceptions and feelings with someone you trust. Maybe it's a co-worker who always brings a clear head to things. Or, it's a team leader whose strength is open-mindedness and collaboration. Taking control means not being willing to accept that only a negative outcome is possible. Brainstorm. Think about options. You've already identified that there are task and relationship opportunities here. Maybe you suggest a team meeting where people get to know each other's backgrounds and speak to the history of their unit. Start somewhere, take the first step, and see where it takes you.  
  4. Focus on progress not perfection
    It bears repeating: the only thing we can control is ourselves. So, focus on what you can do to improve a situation, and notice how that influences how others respond to you. In the case of your new co-workers, you are not likely to feel like a bonded team overnight. Stay with your good intentions, take the next positive step in that direction, and make progress. And if, for example, you regress by being aloof, take note, but move on.
  5. Celebrate the small things
    When you recap your day during that very slow "rush hour" commute home, make a point of  zeroing in on what went right, what went well. You may have used your well-honed MAGIC skills to turn around a dissatisfied customer in a big way. Or, you hit a target that has eluded you for a long time. Maybe you had a one-on-one with your manager where you felt especially appreciated and valued. These things matter! Also pay particular attention to that source of stress: maybe the new guy sitting next to you let you in on a funny story, for the first time. Perhaps you let him in on something. You get the idea. Feel good about what's working.
  6. Take good care of yourself
    And speaking of good, the best antidote to stress is consistently good self-care. That means different things to different people. The morning latte that is on the no-no list for someone else, makes you feel good, and helps you get your day off to the right start. Or maybe it's that Saturday running club that keeps you grounded and feeling great. It could be a special scented candle that you burn in the evening, a hilarious text exchange with your old college roommate, or rough and tumble play time with your dog. It doesn't matter what it is as long as it translates into healthy and positive self-care for you.
Feedback about our attitude may be difficult to hear. And yet, it can be the key to understanding and responding more effectively to the specific sources of workplace stress that we experience. Listen up!

Jean Marie Johnson is a Communico facilitator and has helped clients with their MAGIC initiatives. And for 20 years she has specialized in cultivating the customer experience as a key competitive advantage.


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