Practical ways to manage your work stressors

Amanda Allee is the incoming Dean of Students at UCCS.

In the first article of this series on coping with workplace stress, we reviewed underlying causes of workplace stress and coping with them. Our ultimate goal is to improve workplace wellness for our whole community – but as the saying goes, you must put on your own oxygen mask first.

Some of the underlying causes of workplace stress (or stressors) that we explored in the previous article include excessive workloads, lack of control, unrealistic expectations and values incongruence.

It can be hard to make decisions when we are operating in chronic stress, so below are some practical coping strategies that could help improve your work environment.

If one of your stressors is an excessive workload: 

  • Triage projects and consider what can be cut. Triaging is the practice of assigning levels of urgency to projects in order to prioritize what is most and least important. We must be honest with ourselves. Not every project is critical right now. With your supervisor, develop a plan for when your most important tasks should be completed and when your less critical tasks should be resumed.
  • Set objective milestones. Together with your supervisor, set milestones on big projects and develop short-term indicators of success. This can help you to feel successful and productive throughout large or long-term projects and not only upon their completion.
  • Engage in some planful problem-solving. Create calendar blocks for projects that need uninterrupted attention or plan out blocks of time you will use to complete tasks.
  • Ask for help. If nothing can be cut from your workload, ask for help. You don’t have to do it all alone.

If one of your stressors is lack of control: 

  • First, look for what you can control. During change or turbulent times when we have little control or input, look for what you can control – usually how you spend your time and attention. Consider if what you are spending your time and attention on at work is supporting a positive work culture. Also, consider what you are doing outside of work. When we experience a temporary lack of control at work, engaging in hobbies or other meaningful activities helps us balance the stress of change at work.
  • Seek opportunities for input. If you have an idea or solution, share it. Maybe it will be used, or maybe it will not, but you took the action that was within your control by putting your idea out there.
  • Take time to develop your competence in a new area. Learning a new skill helps us regain our sense of personal control.
  • If you can’t stop thinking about it, try worst-case scenario planning. For some of us, having a plan for how we might respond to the worst-case scenario helps to alleviate the anxiety of the unknown. A word of caution: don’t go too far down the rabbit-hole. Set a timer for no more than 30 minutes to complete your if-then scenarios. After that, put it away and shift your attention elsewhere.

If one of your stressors is facing unrealistic expectations:

  • Seek clarity and ask questions. Often, we assume we are being held to expectations that may not be real. Seek environmental or role clarity and ask your supervisor about the expectations they have for you and your role.
  • Seek counsel. Use your support network or professional associations to assess what is reasonable. Ask peers in similar positions or mentors about what can realistically be accomplished in your role.
  • Communicate your concern. If you feel you are being held to unrealistic expectations, talk about them with your supervisor. Consider practicing with a trusted source in advance if this makes you nervous.

If one of your stressors is a values incongruence:

  • Find meaning in the work that you are doing. Reconsider how the tasks you are doing contribute to the success of your department and campus as a whole. Pitch a project or task that might help you regain that alignment (for me, it was writing this series) or volunteer to lead a discussion on personal and team values during an upcoming team meeting. 
  • Communicate the conflict between your personal values and professional practice. When you recognize that your work is not reflecting your personal values, be open about your concerns with your supervisor and your team. Our colleagues can usually tell when something is wrong; knowing the concern can actually reduce team stress.
  • Report behavior that does not align with policy.

There are plenty of other ways to manage workplace stressors. Here are a few other tips:

  • Plan some time off. Then, a few days before you are out of the office, include your anticipated time off in your email signature. This sets response expectations early for your colleagues and removes the expectation that you will be available during your time away.
  • Seek social connection. We cannot do this alone. Take time to talk to a colleague. Join a campus committee of interest to you. Find a cohort of peers. Practice gratitude by recognizing and thanking a peer for a job well done.

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 second in a series on practicing healthful habits in the workplace. Learn more: