Individual Approaches to Stress Management

Learning Outcomes

  • Discuss individual approaches to stress management

It would seem as though successful people have somehow learned how to beat stress and win at the game of life. While some crumble and fall under the demands and conditions of the workplace, others seem to thrive and make those pressures work for them. How do they do it?

The internet is primed and ready with hundreds of articles that advise today’s worker on how to find success with work-life balance. “Write a personal mission statement to clarify priorities,” one article preached. Another said, “Look for progress instead of perfection.” All of them are easier said than done.

Managerial studies have found that individuals who manage their time wisely, engage in physical activities and protect down/family time are the most successful at managing stress and creating an optimal work-life balance. Let’s take a look at each of these suggestions.

Time Management

“If I had four hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first two hours sharpening the axe.” This quote is often attributed to Abraham Lincoln and, whether he said it or not, it speaks to the essence of time management. Time management is the ability to use your time effectively and productively at work, the ability to create a schedule and plan your time to accomplish goals. Sharpen your metaphorical axe by setting aside uninterrupted time and make sure the tools to do the job are at your fingertips, and you’ll be working smarter, not harder.

decorative imageThere’s no shortage of time management training out there, and the basic principles of most of them include

  • Creating daily list of tasks to be accomplished
  • Prioritizing those tasks
  • Schedule time to complete those tasks based on the priority assigned, and
  • Tackle the most difficult tasks during the time of day when you’re most alert

Creating lists, prioritizing and scheduling are like sharpening that axe, and tackling them is akin to chopping down the tree.

Time management experts suggest learning to say no to tasks, and finding ways to eliminate low-priority trivial tasks from your to-dos. Flexibility is also a fairly common suggestion in modern time management training, given that so much of an employee’s work day is unpredictable. Time management experts suggest planning fifty percent of your day carefully, and leaving the other half open for unplanned “emergencies” as they come up.

Finally, time management experts suggest that workers reward themselves for completing the tasks on their list. Rewards are a great motivator (as we learned in Module 6: Motivation in the Workplace!).

Physical Activity

Virtually any form of exercise can act as a stress reliever, even if you’re not an athlete, even if you’re not really in good athletic shape. Yoga, aerobics, a game of tennis, or even a simple walk with friends or family can provide stress release and should be a part of an individual’s stress management plan.

father and daughter walking on the beachExercise of any kind releases endorphins, which are the feel-good transmitters in your brain that make you happy. If you’ve heard of a “runner’s high,” that’s exactly the endorphin release to which we’re referring. Individuals responding to stressors aren’t experiencing too many endorphins, and exercise can help put them back into action.

Exercise can also provide an opportunity to refocus. An individual engaging in a game of racquetball, or running to beat a personal best time, becomes focused on the goal of the athletic effort, on the movements of his body and his athletic performance. This redirection of focus from stressors is a benefit.

Sleep is often disrupted by anxiety and stress, and regular exercise will improve an individual’s ability to get a good night’s sleep. It also improves an individual’s mood. Any individual looking to add exercise to his or her daily regimen should consult with a physician first, and, once given the green light, should make it a part of a weekly routine.

Relaxation Techniques

three lit candlesIndividuals can often get a little closer to work-life balance by practicing any of a variety of relaxation techniques. Some relaxation techniques are practiced forms of meditation, and others are simply diversions that take the mind off stress. Consider the following practices:

  • Autogenic relaxation. In this technique, one uses visual imagery and body awareness to relax, often by imagining yourself in a peaceful setting and then consciously relaxing your breathing, your limbs, and your body, a little at a time.
  • Visualization. Individuals exercising this technique use as many of their senses as they can in order to put themselves in a relaxing scene. For instance, if one is imagining the beach, the smell of salt water and the sound of crashing waves help create the visualization.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation. An individual will slowly tense and then relax each muscle group in this relaxation technique, starting with the toes and working upward throughout the body.
  • Tai chi. Tai chi is a self-defense technique that’s developed into a gentle exercise that promotes good mental health and stress release using the concept of yin and yang. It’s often described as “meditation in motion.”
  • Meditation. Individuals use this practice to achieve mental calmness and clarity by focusing their mind on a particular thought, object, or activity.

The list goes on, and you get the general idea: relaxation techniques support a level of calmness by changing focus to something other than the stressor. But one doesn’t need to zone out in a dark room in order to achieve that change of focus on those relaxation techniques. A good laugh courtesy of your favorite sit-com, playing a musical instrument, dancing to loud music, or knitting might be closer to your idea of stress release.

Protecting Down Time/Time with Family

two young families Here are some statistics you might find all too familiar: According to a 2016 study by the Academy of Management, employees bring home an average of eight hours of work a week. The American Psychological Association discovered that 30% of men and 23% of women regularly bring work home, and similar numbers of people admitted to working on vacation and bringing work on social outings.

Technology seems to demand that individuals be “on” 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but an employee can’t protect work-life balance when that’s a looming expectation. The good news is that employees can leverage technology in their favor as well. Google Calendar now features a function that automatically rejects requests for meeting and calls outside of the user’s established work hours. Apple has created a VIP inbox that alerts you when messages from prioritized sources—your spouse, your kids, the CEO—have arrived, and lets Bob in the mailroom wait until you’re available.

Similarly, mobile carriers now have programs where you can designate blackout times, allowing you to completely shut off at dinner time, on weekends, or whenever you choose. And individuals should remember that they can just choose to turn off their mobile devices. The email messages will be waiting when they return.

Practice Question

Managers should be aware of individual stress relief practices, not only for their own well being, but for the well being of their staff. Allowing or encouraging individuals (or groups) to practice a small amount of stress relief during working hours, maybe in the form of lunchtime yoga or a financial management class, can save countless dollars and improve engagement and activity.


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