Workplace stress can be severe due to workplace changes, mergers and acquisitions, organizational changes, a missed promotion, an unforeseen demotion, bullying, conflicts with colleagues or broken employee-employer relationships. In Australia alone, stress related presenteeism and absenteeism are directly costing employers employers AU$10 billion a year, and 3.2 days per worker are lost each year through workplace stress.
At one point in my career, I was in disagreement with the business I worked for. The business wanted me to leave and so did I. During the negotiation of leaving terms, we couldn’t come to an agreement. Worse, I felt my integrity was attacked and I felt threatened. From then on it got nasty pretty quickly. I started to be excluded from meetings and did not get invited to a team training. In some meetings I wasn’t acknowledged at all. Holiday requests became tough negotiations. And of course, for the first time in my life, a business started to performance manage me.
What followed were the 10 toughest months in my career, maybe even in my life. The following are some of the coping techniques I used during those dark 10 months:
1. Find a higher Purpose
One of the first things I did was promise myself not to give up, to fight this game. I convinced myself that there was a higher goal and made myself promise that; ‘I will get a good outcome for my kids and family’. You might find higher purpose at home or in a community like in sports, church or charities. My higher purpose were my kids.
2. Connect an anchor to your purpose
You can change your state of mind or mood using the techniques of anchoring. Usually I kept work and life separated. My office desk is clean, without any photos. I changed this and put a photo on my desk from my two daughters and I wore a wristband my daughter gave me. In tough moments I would look at the photo and smile to my daughters or kiss the wristband as a reminder to keep a positive mindset.
3. Keep perspective
You might be in a terrible situation. First of all, be aware of that, acknowledge it and then try to keep it in perspective. You will get out of this one day and your life will go on. Your self-worth is made up from more than just work. You are a friend, a wife, husband, maybe a parent. Your friends and family will still love you. You have hobbies and stuff you are good at. There might be worse things in the world. I kept remembering myself that there are bigger problems in the world than work related problems.
4. Don’t make it personal
The people you are having a disagreement with represent a business. In your view, they might be incredibly incapable, dishonest and unfair. But they might not even personally dislike you. Think of them as people with family and friends too. Try and feel empathy for them. In this way, the ‘bad guy’ is the business and you can easier deal with the people that represent that business. Although it was hard not to take things personal, I genuinely felt for some of the people I had to deal with, which helped me control my emotions.
5. Activate your social environment
When the ranks are closing and works get taken away from you, things get a bit quiet, maybe even boring. Find colleagues who understand your situation so you get some support and ideas to deal with the situation, or just to take your mind of the situation. I started to go out of the office for lunch with some younger colleagues I didn’t previous go out with. Go out for a drink more often or meet up with some old friends.
6. Nurture Yourself
The situation might take a while, so take care of yourself, even more so in this period. I took the bicycle to work whenever I could and I made sure that I got enough exercise outside the office hours. If I didn’t go out for lunch, I went for a 30 minute walk. Make sure you keep a healthy diet and go to bed in time.
7. Practice Mindfulness
Although I didn’t meditate and practice mindfulness during this period, I would recommend it now. Before you go to bed, try and clear your head with some form of meditation. It releases stress that’s stored during the day in your body and it can empty your mind before you go to sleep. I now use the app Smiling Mind to practice Mindfulness and I’m sure it would have helped me deal with the situation.
8. Controlled Distraction
By concentrating on something else you can you can distract your thoughts from negative situations. I used to play very loud music from Muse in my car when driving to and from work. I would sing out loud and try to hit those ridiculous high notes from singer Matthew Bellamy. And yes, I might have screamed out loud; ‘you mother@$*#^&% are not going to get me’. You can also do puzzles, exercise, watch a movie, practice mindfulness, or visualize yourself on your last holiday.
9. Keep your sense of humour
If you don’t have a great sense of humour, don’t worry about it. But take the point that you have to keep on laughing regularly. This is also a form of controlled distraction. You use your face and stomach muscles, enhance intake of oxygen, stimulate circulation and release some feel- good chemicals. I used to stand next to somebody’s desk and just started laughing for the sake of it. First you get a weird look, then a hesitant smile, but if you keep going most people will join you in laughter. Yep, it’s a true story!
10. Build your mastery
You are good at something, everybody is. Keep doing it and start doing more of it. Or start to learn something new, something you always wanted to do. Building mastery gives you fulfilment and if you’re lucky gets you in a state of ‘Flow’, a period where time seem to have disappeared. I picked up my guitar a bit more often and kept writing blogs and articles. I started to build an App, something which opened up a whole new world for me that I still benefit from years later.
11. Make affirmations
Affirmations are short statements that mean something to you and can build your self-worth and confidence to deal with things. Think about what is important to you, what you’re good and what you have achieved. Some of mine; ‘I’m good in what I’m doing’, ‘I worked for the world’s largest companies that appreciated my skills’, ‘I’ve hundreds of people following my blogs’, ‘I can make a difference’.
Although affirmation are more used to increase your self-worth, self-talk can be used at the moment of performance under stress. Self-talk is widely and successfully used in sport and there is growing evidence that his has a major impact on how we approach tasks and challenges. Whatever the pressure is, try to talk yourself through it. ‘I’m going to stay calm, even when they attack me in this meeting’, or ‘I just have to get through this now, but it will be over soon’ is some of the self-talk I used.
13. Work on plan B (and C)
Ask yourself; ‘what I’m I going to do after this?’ and ‘what can I do about that now?’ Start working on your future, as you know your future is not in this business. If possible combine your purpose and mastery with your next step. Activate your business network. I started to meet entrepreneurs, which gave me a lot of energy and ideas. I talked to recruiters for new jobs, which made me realize I didn’t want to work in corporate for a while. I went to Meetup’s for start-ups, social networking and other of my interests and met lots of new people that are still active in my network today. I read ‘The start-up of You’ to get some inspiration. In short, I started to shape my plan B.
14. Ask for help
Maybe most important, when you feel you can’t cope anymore, ask for help. If there is an employee help line, call them, or use another professional to have a chat with. I didn’t do it, as I’m too proud and stubborn and it indeed pushed me to the edge of my coping limits. But please do so if everything else isn’t working and your situation is going on for too long. It is not a sign of weakness. You can get good advice and tips on how to deal with your situation.
So what happened to me?
After 10 months we finally came to a commercial agreement which was very satisfying for me. I left the business with a big smile. But for tor three days I was tired and had an enormous physical reaction. I felt the stress literally leave my body. A reminder that mind and body are connected.
Soon after, I learned that these 14 coping mechanisms are interventions to improve your Mental Toughness. I became an accredited Mental Toughness coach and a Stress Master associate and founded MentalToughness.online to bring Mental Toughness and Stress Mastery to the world. Based on this blog, I wrote the e-book Building Mental Toughness: practical help to be yourself at your best. I now run workshops for teams and leaders to increase awareness and measure and improve Mental Toughness in themselves and in others.
I now help others with some of the coping skills that came natural to me . I’m blessed that I can help people improve their awareness, coping skills, well being and performance. My plan ‘B’ is working. I hope yours soon will be too.
Niels is an AQR accredited master trainer in Mental Toughness and founding coach at MentalToughness.online. If you want to participate with your team in a Mental Toughness workshop, measure your Mental Toughness or your Stress Risk, you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org