Stressed? Listen to The Beatles, and Let It Be.
“And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.”
When Paul McCartney sang Let It Be, he gave us all a mantra to cope with stress.
Paul explained that he wrote this song during the period when The Beatles were going through a tough time in their relationships with each other. He said the lyrics came to him after waking up from a dream in which his mother, Mary, appeared and told him everything would be alright and let it be.
It works for me, and I am sure it will work for you, too.
In a Harris Poll survey on behalf of the American Psychological Association in 2020, seven out of 10 employees (70%) said work is a significant source of stress in their lives.
The origins of stress are different at different levels of organizations. At the lowest level, individual employees are concerned about meeting management expectations and keeping their jobs. The newly promoted managers worry about satisfying their immediate manager while learning how to lead their teams and keep them happy. Middle-level managers are squeezed from the top to deliver more with less, and from the bottom, by team members unhappy about how they are treated and compensated. At the top level, the CEOs are concerned about keeping the board and the shareholders happy while growing the company year after year.
Stress and the Goldilocks Principle
“Stress is like a spice – in the right proportion, it enhances the flavor of a dish. Too little produces a bland, dull meal; too much may choke you.” – Attributed to Donald Tubesing.
Psychologists have been studying stress and its effects for a long time. A study on mice in 1908 resulted in the Yerkes-Dodson Law that defines the relationship between peak performance and optimal stress. Stress creates a force to perform to achieve goals. But as stress increase, we see a reduction in performance, with too much pressure becoming unhealthy.
There are ways to manage stress and control its effect on our productivity.
Sustainable Stress Management
Resilience, Flexibility, and optimism are three fundamental characteristics of leadership that help reduce the effects of stress.
Many of us are good at dealing with stress. Some of us use the stress response system more effectively than others. According to psychologists, it comes down to how we view the events that create stress. When a stress-inducing event is perceived as an opportunity to learn, we respond differently than if we perceive it as a catastrophe. The belief that setbacks teach us valuable lessons builds our resiliency and gives us the ability to handle stressful situations better.
Flexibility helps you adapt to situations that are not under your control. It begins with being self-aware. Knowing your strengths, weaknesses, values, and emotions lets you assess the situation and respond appropriately. It helps you adapt to the changes that could cause stress if you are unwilling to change your behavior. Flexible people ask themselves what they can do differently to remove the cause of stress instead of being rigid and suffering the consequences of the stressful situation.
Studies have shown that optimists are likelier to tolerate stress than those who are not. They can look past the stress-inducing event or obstacle and feel hopeful and minimize the effect of the setback. Many of us are somewhere in the spectrum of pessimism and optimism. You can learn to move from extreme pessimism, which creates stress, to being optimistic by thinking about how you respond to situations. For example, if your first reaction to a new idea is “that won’t work,” pause and ask yourself how the idea might work, perhaps with some modification. Responding positively in interactions with others can help you become optimistic, resulting in reduced stress.
- Support Network
If your stress is severe, getting help from a trained psychologist is your best avenue to deal with it. If you can identify your stress trigger and you are confident you can manage it, you should be able to find healthy ways to cope with stress. You may have a friend you can talk things over. You may find activities such as sports or volunteering in community activities beneficial. A support network is an invaluable resource that can help. Build such a network long before you need one. Start by being a supporter to others who may be experiencing difficult situations. Given that the work environment could be a significant stressor, set some boundaries for when you work. Take those vacations that can help you relax and rebuild yourself. When you encounter an impossible leadership challenge, reach out to a mentor or advisor who can help you walk through it. You don’t have to deal with it alone. They say it is lonely at the top, but it doesn’t have to be.
Taking time to care for yourself can help reduce the effects of stress. The 2016 Harvard Business Review article, “There’s a Proven Link Between Effective Leadership and Getting Enough Sleep,” by Nick van Dam and Els van der Helm, documents the importance of sleep to a leader’s effectiveness. When you sleep well, your body rests, and your mind is refreshed, ready to take on challenges. The impact of any setback is reduced. Like the connection between sleep and stress, healthy eating positively affects how we cope with stress. Eating nutritiously and avoiding junk food is good for your body and mind. Regular exercise is another tool in your self-care regimen. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted several surveys over the years with results that suggest that those who exercised three to five times a week for 45 minutes felt physically and mentally healthier than those who didn’t. Deep breathing exercises, yoga, and meditation are all considered to help manage stress. A paper called “Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing,” in Scientific Reports, published by Springer Nature, reported that people who spent two hours per week in nature claimed to be in good health with higher psychological wellbeing than those who didn’t. Spending time in nature has a calming effort and is an excellent way to cope with stress.
Minimizing Workplace Stress
As a leader, you can help reduce the impact of workplace stress on yourself and your teams. Adam Grant, The Saul P. Steinberg Professor of Management and Professor of Psychology at Wharton, recommends a “Nano-Tool” for leaders called “Preventing Burnout: The Demand-Control-Support Model,” to reduce workplace stress and avoid burnout even in high-pressure job situations.
Demand: Make structural changes that lighten the load on the person doing the job or redistribute tasks.
Control: When you can’t eliminate demands, you can at least give people the autonomy and skills they need to handle them.
Support: Create cultures that make it easy to request and receive help.
In optimal doses, stress it is beneficial in achieving peak performance. Outstanding leaders know how to use pressure advantageously and have an arsenal of tools to help them cope with and manage stress for themselves and their teams. Stress is inevitable. Let it be.
Written by Shantha Mohan Ph.D.
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