Whether you’re overloaded with assignments, or you’re not getting along with your teammates, stress at work is a fact of life. According to a survey by the American Psychological Association (APA), in 2012, 65% of Americans said that work was a top stressor. In the APA’s most recent stress report based on 2015 data, work continues to be a primary source of stress.
At Asana, we’re consciously committed to reducing stress at work by creating a balanced company culture where employees are able to work hard and live well. We’re very fortunate that leaders, managers, and team members across the company take collective responsibility for building and maintaining such a culture through mindfulness, transparency, and flexibility.
And yet, it’s not always easy to stem the tide of stress at a macro or companywide level—particularly if you’re not in a position to do so. It’s even harder to do that when you’re simply trying to keep your head above water in the midst of looming deadlines, a backlog of messages competing for your attention, or working relationships that are starting to become strained.
If this sounds like you or your teammates, take a breath. While you may not be ready or able to address company policies that impact work-life balance, the good news is that you already have everything you need to cope with day-to-day stress from where you sit.
The importance of resilience
Going with the flow. Rolling with the punches. Relaxing into the groundlessness. Whatever you want to call it, resilience is one of the most powerful tools for managing stress at work. But when we’re faced with workplace adversity, it’s easy to feel incapable of scaling the summit of stress before us.
The truth is we’re more resilient than we think. Resilience is, in fact, a set of skills that can be developed. Perception is everything. When we automatically think about external circumstances—whether it’s a project that’s going off the rails or a crushing workload—in a negative light, it hampers our ability to respond effectively. Worse, it can trigger further stress.
Perceiving stressful situations through a positive or neutral lens, on the other hand, enables us to control our emotions and respond to stressors more effectively. As Kevin Ocshner, a neuroscientist at Columbia University, writes, “the ability to cognitively change how we think about the meaning of events—an ability known as cognitive reappraisal—is one of our most powerful means of regulating emotional responses.”
So how does cognitive reappraisal work at work? Here are two potentially stressful scenarios—both related to workload—and the strategies we’ve found for casting them in a different light.
Too much on your plate
We’ve all been there before: Despite logging long hours at the office, your task list doesn’t seem to be getting any shorter. And whether you’re a manager or an individual contributor, being good at your job often means being rewarded with more work.
A simple way to start clearing off too-full plate is to remember the 4 D’s. They stand for delete, defer, delegate, and diminish. Using this framework to triage your daily to-do’s helps you focus on your most valuable work instead of getting sidetracked by things that don’t need your attention right now or by responsibilities that can be handed off to a teammate.
What if you’ve managed to trim down your to-do list, and you still feel overwhelmed by all the stuff you have to get done? The secret to staying cool is to not think about it. (Yes, you read that right.)
Shifting perspective from “I’m falling behind” to “I’ve already accomplished a lot” puts you in a more positive mindset.
That’s the counterintuitive insight that Alexander Kjerulf gained while working with a Danish company struggling to keep up with its growing number of IT tickets. Kjerulf, an expert on happiness at work, found that when team members focused on the number of tickets (90,000) they had closed in the past year rather than the 3,000 tickets that were still open, they felt more competent and hopeful about their workload—and were able to catch up on the open tickets within a few months.
You can similarly train your brain to focus on your strengths and capabilities by taking a few minutes each morning to look back at all the work you completed the previous day. You can also do this as a team by celebrating weekly wins. Shifting perspective from “I’m falling behind” to “I’ve already accomplished a lot” puts you in a more positive mindset and can give you the momentum you need to clear your plate more quickly.
Too little on your plate
While huge workloads are an oft-cited source of stress, not having enough to do can also create unease at work. It’s not simply the amount of work you have on the plate, though. The crucial factor is whether you have enough engaging work. This can be different depending on individual working styles. For instance, some people thrive in roles involving tons of social interaction while others are much happier writing or coding alone for hours.
When there isn’t enough engaging work to sustain your attention, boredom and dissatisfaction creep in and most days feel like they’re filled wheel spinning. As Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and independent research Steven Kramer found in their research, feeling a sense of progress is key to staying happy and motivated at work. And the longer you’re disengaged from work, the harder it is to fall back in love with your job.
To stave off a disengagement stress spiral, start by reconnecting with your goals and values.
To stave off a disengagement stress spiral, start by reconnecting with your goals and values. Make a list of all the things you enjoy most about your job and as well as the things that are least interesting to you. Becoming more aware of your natural strengths and talents makes it easier to seek out opportunities that let you spend more time doing work that truly engages you.
And if you’ve ever felt disengaged from work in previous roles, think about how you responded back then. Did you take on a stretch assignment at work, or land a new job that you felt really excited about? Recalling past instances where you bounced back from a rough patch are helpful reminders that the stress and dissatisfaction you feel now is temporary. More importantly, they provide a sense of possibility for how to move forward.
Keeping the balance
In small amounts, stress can be a good thing. It makes us more alert and gives us the energy to respond to the daily pressures of work. It’s when we start to perceive every aspect of our workplace circumstances as threatening or harmful that stress levels become unmanageable. By staying mindful of how your thoughts impact your emotions and behavior—and looking at things from a more positive angle—it becomes much easier to keep stress in check.