How to deal with stress at work

Excessive stress is not a good thing. As the Leader of the Free World might say; “It’s bad, a very bad thing.”

Philippa Perry is a psychotherapist and broadcaster and she offers advice on how to deal with problematic times in the workplace.  

Somewhat counterintuitively, your strength is not in your resilience, it is in recognising and owning your vulnerability. We need to be ourselves with other people for most of the time, not just the person we feel we ought to be. If you are in a business environment where everyone seems to be wearing a “game-face” and, therefore, you feel you must wear yours too, you run the risk of becoming unsupported, isolated and disconnected.

It is stressful doing something that stretches you, maybe something you have not done before, that might not work, but not all stress is bad. Stressing yourself is a way of keeping your brain fit. No stress at all means you are not getting a mental workout. You can, though, have too much of a good thing.

Ongoing, continuous high levels of stress lead to panic and dissociation. Dissociation is a disconnection between our thoughts, sensations, feelings and actions and is experienced as a sort of blanking out. Panic and dissociation can lead to burnout, so what can you do to avoid them?

One thing is to develop and maintain your inner observer. Noticing what you are feeling when you are super-busy may not be your top priority, but it does need to be up there because our feelings are the lights on the dashboard. Taking out a car’s fuel-warning bulb is not the best driving strategy and, in the same way, we need to observe our feelings rather than repress them.

They are there to tell us when we need to rest, to play, or to connect with others. When we ignore feelings, they need to shout louder, in other words, make us feel worse.

When we are in the habit of observing our emotions, we can use them rather than be used by them. This means noticing a feeling when it begins to emerge, listening to it and taking any action that needs to be taken. When we observe a feeling, we run less chance of becoming that feeling.

There is a difference between “I feel angry” and “I am angry”. The latter is a whole person definition whereas with the former, there is a part that is sitting back, observing and still available to make a decision, taking the feeling into account, without merely being a reaction to that feeling.

To ignore feelings, to not take them into account, means risking a mutiny of emotion. Feelings are like employees: ignore them or repress them and they will rebel; listen to them, take their reports into account, and you can harness them to help.

To pull an all-nighter, obsess about work, neglect your bodily needs, have no personal or social life is fine as an emergency stop gap, so long as the part of you that knows how to observe and manage your inner resources remains in charge and comes up with strategies, so that emergency mode does not become the norm.

What we can do to look after ourselves at work as an individual can only go so far, but the culture is culpable too. If we contribute to a culture where it is only okay to show strength but not vulnerability, we are part of the problem. If we value profits above the people who create them, we are part of the problem.

The immorality of getting as much as we can from employees and contractors for as little as we can get away with should not be hidden behind offers of counselling sessions and mindfulness workshops. Disregarding our workers is as dangerous as ignoring our feelings. We need working environments where we listen to each other, consider each other and work with, and not against each other.

Our success or otherwise has as much to do with how we talk to ourselves as it does with external factors. If we listen to our internal monologue, is it stuck in a familiar pattern? Ask how you talk to yourself in the face of rejection. Do you think:

a) Those people lacked vision. I’ll change nothing and keep going.

b) They were right, I will give up.

c) That feedback was hard to take on board. However, some of it was useful and I will make some changes and keep trying.

Whether we are mostly A, B or C is likely to have more to do with all our past cumulative experiences than what is the most productive way forward in the present.

Are we projecting our inner world on to the external world and connecting more to our old beliefs, than to the world and to other people as they really are in the present?

The great thing about the stories we tell ourselves is that we can take charge of them and do a re-edit until we find a narrative that works.


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