Much of our work-related stress stems from difficult interactions with coworkers and clients. A colleague of mine recently told me a story about how she had been asked by the head of her department to prepare a presentation for the administrative team meeting. She got about two minutes into her talk when the department head interrupted her, changed the topic, and moved on to the other agenda items. She never got to finish her presentation, and felt dismissed and disrespected in front of her peers.
How do we recover from this type of work-related social stress? We cannot control other people or their behaviors. And as much as we would sometimes love to put a big “Do Not Disturb” sign on our office door, avoiding everyone is not a long-term solution.
When your workplace social threat level rises, the best strategies for recovering are self-management habits that decrease the impact of the event on your mood, motivation and productivity. Healthy habits for managing your stress will strengthen your resilience so you are less disturbed by bad interpersonal interactions going forward. Try these three proven strategies:
Emotional labeling. When social stress happens, our body’s natural survival mechanisms kick in and we start to feel emotions such as anger, hurt, and frustration. Rather than ignoring your emotions or snapping at your coworker, close your eyes for a couple few seconds and acknowledge that you are having a natural response to a stressful situation. Non-judgmentally label the emotion as specifically as possible. Then, give yourself permission to move on. You will find that you recover more quickly from the stressful event.
Laugh about it. After a stressful event happens, we have the option of interpreting it in a variety of ways. Do you retell it in your mind – and to others – as a horror story or a comedy? You might find that work-related interactions that were incredibly stressful at the moment can become hilarious stories to tell at dinner parties. You will feel better about yourself and the other person when you can laugh at what happened.
Get some (mental) space. One of the keys to reducing work-related stress is to mentally detach when you are not at the office. Studies show that people who spend their evenings and weekends engaged in hobbies, exercise, and social activities have lower job-related stress. The more you spend time doing activities you find pleasurable and rewarding, the more resilient you will be during times of stress.
Do you feel safe at work? When asked that question, you might think of physical safety. But as our jobs have switched from physical labor and manufacturing to office and customer-service oriented jobs that require a high level of inter-personal interactions, workplace safety has become more about social and emotional safety.
Social stress is the brain and body’s natural response to threatening behavior by other people or undesired interpersonal interactions. Examples of social threats in the workplace include: getting unsolicited feedback, a micromanaging boss, peer bullying, hostile tone e-mails, and being excluded from decision-making that affects your job.
The body’s responses to social threats are biochemically the same as its responses to physical threats. The same parts of the brain activate and the same “fight, flight or freeze” responses trigger hormonal and physical changes in our body. However, when we are in a threatening work environment, we often don’t have the option to escape the threat. We might want to run away from an angry customer, but we can’t. So, the unprocessed stress builds up in our bodies and becomes anxiety, the chronic expectation that something awful will soon occur. Anxiety is the largest growing mental health diagnosis in the U.S., and the Centers for Disease Control estimates that 80% of our medical expenditures are stress-related.
Work-related stresses cause not only physical and emotional harm, but can also lead to disengagement and decreased productivity. A Gallop poll from this summer showed that 70% of currently employed adults are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” at their job. Similarly, a recent monster.com survey says that 60 percent of workers experience stress in the workplace on a daily basis. In the same survey, 81% of working adults want to find a new job, and they say respect and appreciation are the things they want the most in a new job (more than better salary or benefits!).
At our workshop during the OD Network conference last weekend, Dr. Sharon Liu and I unveiled our Social Threat Advisory System, a visual modeled after one developed by the Department of Homeland Security. We asked participants to rate their current level of workplace threat. Take a look at the graphic associated with this blog and place yourself on the social threat scale.
In the coming weeks, the Foresight Blog will provide a series of brain-based techniques for overcoming social stress and revitalizing at work. Help is on the way!