Four ways to handle workplace stress

Amanda Allee is the Director of Institutional Equity and Title IX Coordinator for UCCS.

No matter your role, December is usually a stressful time of year in higher education.

While we are looking forward to time off at the end of the month, our workloads seem to increase as we prepare for it. This year is no exception, and our normal December stress is being compounded by the effects of the pandemic.

I am hearing from many of my friends and colleagues that their normal ways of dealing with stress – their go-to coping strategies – simply are not working right now. This sentiment reminded me of my past research on professional resilience, and how understanding stress and coping can support healthier work environments and better personal wellness choices during the tough seasons of our lives.

With that in mind, I thought I would share some information and tips that can help us cope a little better.

Four ways to cope with workplace stress

1. Distinguish between stress and stressors. 

Stress is our body’s response to environmental and personal demands, and it occurs when we perceive our wellbeing as being endangered or when a situation requires more resources than available. Stressors are the life hassles, situations or events that lead to the physiological response of stress.

We can manage the effects of stress, even when we cannot control the stressor. Here are a few ways to handle stress:

  • Move your body as you are able. While you may be tired of hearing it, physical movement is the best way to release physical stress. Do your favorite workout, go for a walk or engage in gentle stretching.
  • Exhale deeply. Breathe out as much air as possible from your lungs, drop your shoulders, let your tongue fall from the roof of your mouth and unclench your jaw. Then, take a deep breath and exhale completely again. After this you can engage in a 4-count (or square) breathing technique for a few breaths or try a breathing app on your watch or phone.
  • Laugh, cry or do both. A good deep belly laugh relieves our physical stress and lightens our mood. Crying is our bodies way of releasing stress. It is nothing to be embarrassed about, and it is not a sign of weakness. Sometimes we just need a good cry, and after that we are often in a place to enjoy a little laughter.

2. Explore the underlying cause of the stressor.

Assessing why a situation or event is causing us stress is a critical part of the coping process, but it is often skipped. We identify the stressor, such as a big work project or conflict with a co-worker, and we move immediately into problem solving mode. Unfortunately, not every problem can be solved immediately, and not assessing why the situation is causing us stress can lead to unhelpful responses to the stress.

The same circumstances may cause individuals’ stress for different reasons. So, if we just focus on removing stressor, we may not feel much relief and we are not supporting improvements to our work environment long-term.

The stressors in our lives, particularly at work in helping professions, usually have one of four underlying causes:

  • Excessive workload. We’ve got more to do than time to do it, or we have been doing too much for too long.
  • Lack of control. It could be lack of control over work assignments, relationships or the future. Experiencing change when we don’t have an opportunity to give input is particularly taxing.
  • Unrealistic expectations. This may show up as feeling that we can’t meet our own or others’ expectations.
  • Values incongruence. We may feel like the work that we’re doing doesn’t align with our core values, or we’re not finding it meaningful.

When we take the time to consider the underlying cause of our stress, we can choose a more informed response. This approach also supports long-term improvements in our work environment versus short-term fixes.

Our supervisors tend to know what is stressing us out, but do not know the why. Sharing the why can help us all improve our work environment.

3. Develop workplace coping strategies – or switch up your existing ones.

The word coping sometimes has a negative connotation, but it’s how we get through hard things. There is always going to be stress in the workplace, so developing helpful workplace coping strategies is critical to our workplace wellness. It supports our success and our colleague’s success.

Coping activities tend to fall into two categories: either problem-focused coping or emotion-focused coping. While our coping strategies are not fixed, we develop patterns based on what worked for us in the past. Chronic workplace stress can stem from not addressing the underlying cause of our stress and not adjusting our coping strategies when we first notice they are no longer working for us. 

In those instances, it is important that we take the time to reconsider our approach to coping with stress. Maybe it is time to switch styles.

  • If you tend to focus on regulating your emotions, try engaging in some form of direct action or a little planful problem solving. Have a conversation with your supervisor about the cause of your stress. Ask for help on a project. Triage your projects and communicate your timeline with your team. These purposeful actions may help you feel calmer and more prepared.
  • If you are go-go-go kind of person, it might be time to slow down and engage in some attention control. Have a 10-minute call with a colleague you haven’t seen since the pandemic started, or watch a two-minute video involving your favorite cute animal. These intentionally restful actions may give you the break you need to reset.

The most important thing is to remember is that if your go-to strategy is not working, try something else.

4. Get familiar with campus resources.

Finally, if what you are facing is more than workplace stress, please use the resources provided by campus:

Amanda Allee is the Director of Institutional Equity and Title IX Coordinator for UCCS. She also lectures on student affairs in higher education for the College of Education at UCCS. Her Ph.D. is in Educational Leadership, Research and Policy, and her research passion area is professional resilience in higher education.

This article is the first in a series on practicing healthful habits in the workplace.