Dr. Nicole Tschierske

How To Fight Stress At Work The Right Way

What’s beyond resilience training? We’re all stressed out at work. And it’s no surprise because the last two years we had extra demands put on ourselves in our private life. New responsibilities that we had to take on like working from home, caring for others, financial worries, many people have been furloughed and so on. That adds extra stress. 

But even if we just look at the workplace and how work is organized and done, we can easily spot so many things that we could do differently and where even minor tweaks would help people cope better with the workload.

Because sometimes projects just are busy or you have seasonal fluctuations in your business. Let’s say you’re in a consumer goods company, and you make chocolate then Easter and Christmas time will be very busy. So there are those elements but there are other things that drain our energy or could give us energy and motivation back and this is often overlooked.

Where organizations can look for energy drainers and energy givers?

Let’s look at what drains our energy.

The theory behind this idea is called the Job-Demands-Resources model. There’s research from around the globe that backs it up and has refined it over the past 20 years. This is not a fad. This is real science and so fascinating.

What this model describes that in any job, we have aspects of our work life that take our sustained efforts to cope with them. Those are the job demands. The things that drain our energy, for example, workload, how work is organized, or bureaucratic hurdles.

We can also look at what the work environment looks like. Do we have proper light, air, chair and big enough screen? Or do we have to squint our eyes to see those little lines of code or numbers on a spreadsheet?

Or let’s think about emotional demands. Those employees who are more customer-facing or who have to do a lot of stakeholder management: It costs us a lot to maintain a professional demeanour when everybody else is just behaving nuts.

It’s things like that, even though we don’t notice them right away they cost us extra effort.

Some questions you can ask yourself:

  • How can we organize work differently?
  • How can we reduce those demands?
  • How can we mitigate them?

But we also have energy-giving job resources available to us at work.

Job resources help us cope better with the job demands. But they’re also motivating and energizing in their own right so they’re, good to have whether demands are high or not.

These job resources are everything that helps us do our job better, accomplish our goals and complete our tasks. For example:

  • Can I use my strengths more often at work?
  • Do I have autonomy in how I go about my work (or is every minute dictated like in Charlie Chaplin’s „Modern Times“)?
  • Do I have social support?
  • Do I have the feeling I belong here and I’m part of the team?

Having those positive connections with others, even if we’re just talking about silly things during the break, helps us to feel better.

  • Do I receive valuable feedback?
  • Am I given opportunities to continue to develop further and build new skills and capabilities?

Those fulfil our basic psychological need for competence which is intrinsically motivating.

I could go on, but you get the gist. 

Stay curious and keep asking: How can we mitigate or manage the job demands in our organisation? How can we pay attention to in increase those resources? It’s important to ask these questions because we tend to overlook the root causes of stress and burnout. Stress and burnout are the results, the symptoms.

Common mistakes and myths that keep leaders and teams from actually solving the root cause of stress

People react very differently when they’re under constant stress. Take high workload and time pressure at work plus the additional demands the pandemic has put on us. Some people in your team might become silent. They’re not as active anymore. They don’t reach out for help or ask to cut them some slack and in the end, they’re suddenly on sick leave.

That’s disheartening also for people managers because they care about their team members.

And then there are the other ones that try to overcompensate and to „white knuckle it“ through the workload. They lean in more and more and more, but the work doesn’t get less because people who do more get to do. And so it never feels like you accomplish anything or you cross something off your list or that the mountain of work gets smaller. 

The high workload isn’t the only thing that causes us stress though.

There are a number of root causes: the job demands. They can be emotional, cognitive, and physical in nature and take our sustained energy to cope with them. Additionally, we often don’t even have enough time to recreate and replenish that lost energy outside of work: Other tasks waiting for us at home and we have personal worries.

And so doing work in a way where we have to use extra energy and effort to meet job demands and to cope with unfavourable situations over time leads to exhaustion, sleeping problems, and impaired health. Now take those physical, bodily effects of the job demands and a lack of job resources which reduces motivation and engagement, then you have exhaustion paired with cynicism, and that gives you burnout.

If not resilience training, what then is the right way to reduce stress at work?

Think of it this way: Offering resilience training or yoga courses for your employees is like pulling people out of the river. It seems very noble like you’re saving them from drowning. 

And it is helpful.

But, as a company, you’re even more powerful. You can make conscious choices every day to organise work in a way so that you’re not throwing people into the river in the first place. That’s what it means to build antifragile teams: Equipping your people to grow and to change the way work is done.

Start here:

  1. Identify job demands that lead to exhaustion.
  2. Explore how you can reduce them – sustainably.
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