8 ways to avert stress at work

Tam Johnston

It’s easy for stress to start taking over at work. If we’re not careful and aware of the potential for healthy pressure to slip into overwhelm, it can creap up on us. It’s so much easier to prevent and be on control of our pressures than it is to try and manage them when they’ve already got under our skin. Get ahead of the game with these pointers.




  1. Early birds really can catch worms

For some, the golden hours before 9 am give them a ‘head start’ on the world and there are many successful people who believe this is key. This can be a time of great productivity when you’re fresh and alert with no distractions.

For others, this may seem counterproductive as the need to sleep and replenish outweighs the idea of doing even more work, especially those who need that precious sleep! So get to know your own natural body cycle of alertness and low energy (known as ultradian rhythms) that are waves of energy that we all have across a 24hr period. You’ll recognise the dips as the time you zone out, can’t concentrate fully or feel sleepy during the day. Try to use the peak times when you’re ‘on it’ to its best effect and save your less focused work and tasks for the dips or do more physical tasks in this period. Doing the ‘worst first’ while you’re fresher and more resourceful is a great way to work productively and reduce the burden.


  1. Plan your day and set realistic goals

To fail to plan is to plan to fail might be an old adage but it’s true! Map out your week and then each day and set realistic goals. This creates a feeling of control and can focus your mind on the tasks you want to complete in that day.

If you need to prioritise as unexpected tasks or problems come up, quickly categorise each task/job by difficulty (e.g. easy, medium, hard) and then by potential impact (e.g. large, medium, small).  Select the jobs that are both easy and having the largest impact and prioritise these first. This will give you measurable feedback of what you are achieving, which can otherwise get lost in amongst the snowball effect of never-ending work, leading to feeling demoralised and as though all you are doing is ‘firefighting’.


  1. Scale your projects in a way that works for you

Don’t succumb to the overwhelming feeling of a big project or get so lost in the detail you lose sight of what it is all about. We all have a preference for our level of thinking, be it the ‘big vision’, the details that make the difference or somewhere in between. Understand where you are most comfortable and ensure you check in with the other end of the spectrum to keep the project on track and prevent overwhelm.  Know the purpose of your project and what you are trying to achieve, then break it down into bite-size chunks and deal with them one at a time and schedule them over a period of time in your calendar so you are tackling the big projects bit by bit every day. Regularly check back in with the ultimate purpose of the project to ensure the details don’t take you off on unnecessary tangents.


  1. Know what causes you to feel under pressure

We all handle pressures and change differently. Some of us thrive on uncertainty and spontaneity, others need structure and a degree of certainty to work at our best, and find sudden changes in routine or work demands stressful. The more you can understand how you work best and what your triggers are, the easier it is to plan for and manage them.  Think about doing an informal stress assessment of your work and its known triggers and plan in advance how you are going to respond and find strategies to deal with them.


  1. It’s all in a name (well, at least some of it)

Work can be extremely high pressured and often demands way exceed our capacity. Accepted. Yet interestingly, those that thrive and excel often don’t have much of an understanding of the word ‘stress’.

Our brain makes connections with the words we use to describe things and what they mean. It has a readily stored response to each ‘label’.  So how we perceive pressures and what we label it as can influence how we respond to it. Consider it a useful mind hack. For example, an executive may perceive a huge workload as healthy pressure, challenges to be overcome or opportunities, and therefore their response to it is to become drive motivated, focused and productive.  Compare that with if we call it ‘stressful’. We are likely to respond, feel and behave very differently. So if you are calling something ‘stressful’, just because you are used to using that word, your brain will respond accordingly and perceive it in that way. So be careful what you label as stress. Start thinking of words you can call it that your brain has a more helpful meaning and response for, like stretching yourself. It’s not going to reduce your in-tray or to do list, but it will help to change how you feel towards it.


  1. It’s good to talk

Speaking to your colleagues face to face solves problems quicker than an ongoing email chain. Sometimes you need to professionally raise issues or let others know the effect they or the workload are having on you; failure to do so is damaging and creates a spiral of stress.  It also undermines your value as a work colleague and a person, as failure to address these things implies you, your needs and wellbeing are less important than the needs and goals of the business or your boss. Everyone wants to be listened to and understood,  so discuss expectations and your realistic capacity to achieve what they are asking of you, as well as check in with how realistic and healthy your expectations are of yourself.


  1. You don’t always have to say yes

Leading on from above, whilst we all want to please our employers we can negotiate workloads. By saying I won’t have the capacity to do it today but I can do it for you by the end of the week isn’t being obstructive. If pushed it’s fair to ask, would you like me to do it instead of one of my existing projects? It shows you’re assertive and you want to do it but just not immediately. If you agree to more than you can handle and your stress levels increase not only will it take you longer to do any given task both your concentration levels and the quality of your work will suffer.


  1. Friends at work

Creating a support network at your place of work can create be a crucial lifeline when you experience stress and anxiety. Go for lunch and arrange social activities together (or even sports or exercise classes) is a good way to bond more with colleagues and enjoy shared interests. Avoid the office stress virus by being selective. Indulging in office gossip or getting sucked down by others negativity or stress is catching. Surround yourself with opportunistic people who handle things well and can provide perspective. Those are infectious traits that are useful to all of us.

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