“Sometimes we can focus so much on nothing that we make it a big something of nothing.” ― Ricky Maye

It’s a safe bet that most people reading this article will have experienced work-related stress in one form or another. As industries expand globally and competitive demands increase, people are now expected to go far beyond the call of duty.

We are asked to give more of our time, develop new skills and increase our levels of knowledge – all at the same as we continue to juggle the significant workloads already stacked in front of us. As the pressure rises, we often find ourselves in the unfortunate position of having less time for ourselves, let alone our families and loved ones, making our burden feel all the more Sisyphean. It seems that our cognitive and emotional resources are spent in the service of our organisation’s bottom line, at the expense of our own happiness and well-being.

It would be great if there were a magic remedy that gives us some kind of secret mental passageway allowing us to bypass the stress and demands that seem determined to stretch us beyond our human capabilities. Indeed, we see no shortage of quick-fix, pop-psych remedies that promise such instant relief. Just “think positive”, for example – it will turn out alright in the end. Such unfounded optimism at worst ignores the root of our stressors and, at best, provides superficial and temporary relief from the demands of our professional lives.

Unfortunately, work-related stress is here to stay, for the foreseeable future at least (we’re holding out hope for that magic remedy to appear someday). The bad news is that stress appears to be a chronic problem throughout the world, affecting not just those who suffer from it, but also impacting national economies. There is enough evidence to implicate work stress with a host of physical and psychological ailments. Working in today’s fast-paced environments ‘wears and tears’ our bodies and minds, and also negatively impacts organisations in the form of lost productivity and increased employee absenteeism and turnover.

Each year, almost 14 million working days are lost in the UK due to work-related illness. The total cost of this loss is around £30 billion per year, according to the Global Organisation for Stress. In Japan, employees literally work themselves to death. This phenomenon is known as ‘karoshi’, which translates to ‘death by overworking’. It’s a serious enough concern to prompt the Japanese government to introduce ceiling to work hours – this being part of a nation-wide attempt to reform work policies for the health and well-being of its citizens.

The good news is that, while work-related stress remains a significant problem, organisations are investing in employee engagement and wellness programmes in an effort to help ease the pressure people are facing. To help speed that progress along, there are steps that individuals can take themselves to help reduce the strain of stressful situations and growing demands at work.

Before we go into discussing those steps, however, it’s a good idea to get an understanding of what is meant by the term ‘work-related stress’. The World Health Organisation offers three points for us to consider:

  • Work-related stress is the response people may have when presented with work demands and pressures that are not matched to their knowledge and abilities, thereby challenging their ability to cope.
  • Stress occurs in a wide range of work circumstances but is often made worse when employees feel they have little support from supervisors and colleagues, as well as little control over work processes.
  • There is often confusion between pressure or challenge and stress and sometimes it is used to excuse bad management practice.

It’s interesting to note that the pressure of a job role or the challenges that arise within the role are distinct from the stress experience itself. Pressure can be motivating and challenges can push us to get creative in our problem solving. The manageable level of stress that pushes you to action, amid a buzz of enthusiasm and excitement is termed ‘eustress.’ When we experience too much stress, however, we find ourselves out of our depth and may perceive that there’s not enough support or guidance to help us navigate work challenges and difficulties. Excessive stress is referred to as ‘distress’. Feelings of uncertainty and helplessness might then add to our stress, which can lead to mental and even physical health problems if we are continually distressed.

If you’ve ever found yourself under constant stress at work, you might notice that during stressful periods, you feel more run down than usual. You might also find that you crave high calorie foods (particularly sugary foods), and that you feel emotionally uptight and on edge. This is the hormone cortisol at work in the body. It’s a useful hormone to have in our system, as it helps us stay alert and focused. Cortisol is part of our stress response system, triggered upon activation of our primitive fight-or-flight mechanism. Usually, it’s at its most potent early in the day, and returns to normal levels around early evening time. However, if we are continually stressed at work, the usual cycle of the hormone is extended, meaning that our bodies effectively remain in fight-or-flight mode. Because of this, our systems are unable to function normally, which can eventually result in burnout or illness and, in some cases, induce panic attacks.

Thankfully, there are some steps we can take to manage our stress levels, including re-evaluating how we tend to view stress and approach unexpected or difficult situations. A key factor to any physiological response is how we react to any given situation on a psychological level. In other words, our thoughts, feelings and anticipations have a direct and significant impact on how we are physically affected. The experience of stress is subjective. While some stressful situations are undoubtedly more stressful than others (losing your job is more stressful than getting a parking fine), their relative impact on the individual’s well-being varies. Ultimately, how much we allow the stress to impact us, depends on how we perceive and interpret that stressful situation.

Here is where psychology can help. It isn’t quite the magic remedy we alluded to earlier, but rather, it’s an approach to coping with stressful situations that simply requires us to shift our perceptions. Psychologists refer to this shift as reappraising. Stressful situations elicit a host of unpleasant, distressing emotions – frustration, guilt, disappointment and fear. Fortunately, we can reappraise our challenging situations, consequently softening the blow of such unpleasant emotions. By reappraising stressful situations, we are not ‘lying’ to ourselves about how difficult the situation is. Neither are we sweeping our problems under a rug and hoping it will all take care of itself, nor simply giving excuses for our behaviours. Rather, we view our stressful situations in a more holistic, objective and balanced manner.

Reappraise potentially stressful situations

Consider a situation in which you have been summoned to your manager’s office. You find it rather unusual and unexpected that your manager has called for you. You easily recall the last time she did – and it certainly did not turn out well. In that instance, your boss demanded that you work overtime on a project that was beset by budgeting and staffing difficulties. Your emotional alarm bells go off; you experience a flood of unpleasant emotions that accompanies the memory of that distressing meeting. It needn’t be so. We can pause for a moment and reappraise the situation. For instance, ask yourself: “Is there a project going on that requires my assistance?” Think: “Does this meeting have something to do with providing feedback on that new executive we just hired?”

Try reappraising a potentially demanding situation so that it has less to do with you. It may not even be about you in the first place. What unpleasant situations do is trigger a set of emotions that prompt us to be cautious and defensive, readying us to go on the offensive. Even if the situation turns out to be stressful, we can appraise such situations as being challenges rather than threats. Reappraising the situation as threats elicits more reactive, fight-or-flight responses, elevating your stress levels even before you understand the situation fully. In this instance, seeing the situation as a threat causes you to visualize the possibility of a heated argument with your boss, and that your boss is really just out to get you – all before you even step into her office.

Reappraise failures and mistakes

Say your manager has called you to discuss the unsatisfactory progress on one of your projects. The boss is visibly upset, and lets you know very clearly that she is disappointed in your performance. You apologise for the project’s delays, but experience a mix of unpleasant emotions – sadness, tinged with shame and guilt. Your emotions compel you to quit altogether – leave the project, leave the job; you’re no good.

Reappraisal helps us cope with our mistakes and failures too. Are you solely to be blamed for the project’s poor progress? Wait a minute – this isn’t a project I am doing all by myself. Perhaps the delay is due to individuals or other parties also part of this project. Perhaps there was an oversight by some members of the project team. As disappointed as you may be, reappraising the situation to consider these factors helps you buffer the effects of stress caused by failures and mistakes.

It may even help you see the situation more clearly, and identify the actual causes of the failure. You don’t have to be the scapegoat. When we reappraising our failures and mistakes, we are just being a bit kinder to ourselves – a little bit more self-compassionate.

Reappraising is an effective way to both cope with, and buffer the potentially negative effects of stress. Rather than let our stressful emotions override our impulses, reappraising can help us view our stressful situations more objectively, and provide clarity that is essential for helping us through stressful situations. That deliberate, quiet voice of reason usually has something valuable to tell you amid the cacophony of emotion.

5 tips for reappraising stressful situations

  1. Control your catastrophising

We face stressful situations regularly and can often catastrophise situations even before understanding them fully. Gather as much information about a potentially stressful situation before letting the situation overwhelm you. The molehill needn’t become a mountain.

  1. Reappraise the situation

Think of new projects, assignments, duties and tasks as challenges, not threats. This simple, but effective approach to reappraisal diminishes the threat and danger that we immediately perceive when faced with something new. See novelty and opportunity in work tasks as a chance for growth, not as risks for failures and punishments.

  1. Learn from failures and mistakes

Everyone fails one time or another. Learn to see failures and mistakes as minor steps toward eventual success. We learn more from failing and making mistakes than we do from successes. Failure is the condiment that makes our eventual successes sweeter. See failures as learning opportunities instead.

  1. Don’t play the blame game

This isn’t a fun game (trust us, we’ve tried), whether you play it on your own, or with others. No-one wins, and ultimately, everyone goes home to their families with more cortisol than necessary and ends up treating their children or pet cat poorly. Reappraise stressful situations so you can fully understand how everyone contributed to the situation. If a reprimand is necessary, do so in private with sufficient evidence. A cool head always helps.

  1. Deep breaths help

Stress triggers impulsivity, thanks to our fight-or-flight response. You don’t have to act immediately when you are feeling stressed. Deep breaths help. Breathe in for a count of 4; hold the breath for a count of 7; and release slowly for a count of 8. Perform this 3 or 4 times. This will help you to de-stress and step away from pulling the emotional trigger.