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Is it possible to ‘manage’ stress?

Working in healthcare can be stressful. Ever felt like this person in the picture to the right?

I’m frequently coaching healthcare leaders on how to best manage their stress levels. Yet is it even possible to ‘manage’ stress? Can we actually exert any control over this aspect of our lives?

There are 2 pieces of good news about this. Yes we can influence our stress levels, and weirdly, not all stress is ‘bad’!

Wait, what?

Yes, not all stress is ‘bad’! Let’s deal with that one first.

Below is a graph (an adaptation from the source) that helps illustrate the point.

What we see, is that when there is little stress, our productivity is low. If there are no deadlines, no expectations, no measurement, no manager checking-in, no other tasks to do, then really, what is there to cause us to take action? Because that’s what stress is – “the body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response”(https://my.clevlandclinic.org/health/articles/11874-stress)

So if there is nothing causing us to respond, we don’t! This space is sometimes called boredom.

As our stress levels increase, so too does our productivity. The stress might be caused by deadlines, expectations, other work, a challenge, a need for a result. Something is driving increasing productivity. Think about those days at work when everything seems to be in flow – you are getting things done, feeling inspired, thinking clearly, taking action. What spurs you to positive action? Is it having 3 projects (vs 1 – yes some people like diversity and the challenge of 3!)? Is it setting yourself a goal , time limit or deadline? Is it knowing that you have a meeting tomorrow with your boss to update them? Are you learning something new, stretching your knowledge?

Knowing what stressors you need to be productive are useful in helping to motivate yourself to take action.

 

Now, obviously we all know that ‘too much’ stress can be bad for us. We all have a tipping point, when we slide down the right side of this graph into panic or overwhelm. Our tipping point might be that one extra task, an unrealistic deadline, insufficient resources, an over-bearing boss, or even what’s going on for us that day!

And when we stretch over this tipping point, our productivity reduces. It’s important to know as a leader because this happens not only to us, also our teams! Too much stress is not helpful.

So once we ‘tip over’ into unhelpful stress levels?

Well, I can hear some of you thinking that maybe building resilience in our teams will help. Yes, that’s so true. How do you do that though?

This is a big topic, so there are lots of aspects we will not cover in one blog post! Here are some thoughts thought on developing resilience or managing stress. This is looking at topics that are dealing with stress more longer term, than in the moment. I’m choosing 3 areas to discuss here – there is a long list beyond these 3! I’ve chosen these particular items, as they are not often referred to when we talk about stress management. And I believe they are important elements to consider, as part of a broader plan for dealing with stress.

  1. Connections
  2. Skills
  3. Clarity

Connections

Having a good network is helpful with managing stress, because it enables us to call on others for advice, support and the opportunity to share and celebrate success. Humans are designed to interact with other humans, and positive connections are so important! They can help us see solutions, understand a different perspective, or brain-storm resolutions. Now I am talking here about positive influences on your life. Having a network that euqlly supports, encourages and uplifts each other. Rather than one that helps you wallow in your stress or misery, or who overwhelm you with their own problems!

Mentors and coaches are another source of positive connections that help us work through stressful situations. These people don’t necessarily give you all the answers, yet will help you think through the best solutions for yourself. Yes, approaching stress management like you’d approach solving a problem is very useful. It helps us pull out of that ‘threat-state’ where we can spiral on negativity, fear and anxiety. Looking at the things you can influence, rather than the aspects beyond your control.

Skills

Sometimes a tipping point of stress comes from a lack of skills, knowledge or experience. We may be conscious of a gap, or perhaps not. If you feel high stress about a particular task, situation or project, ask yourself if it could be due to a lack of skills. Be honest, and if it is, then seek out ways to build that skill – whether asking for help or feedback, investing in your own training, or some other method depending on the skill.

Keeping a focus on learning and skill development is absolutely one way to help build resilience to stress.

Clarity

As a gap in skills can increase stress levels, so too can a lack of clarity on expectations, role responsibilities or direction. When people aren’t clear on these things, this can increase stress levels. It’s like we are wandering around a forest without a map or landmark to find our way clear.

When we manage others, it’s so important that we provide them with clarity on a role or team’s purpose, vision, goals and priorities. People need to be clear on what our expectations are, or they may take no action, take incorrect action, or waste time trying to figure it out. People like direction and guidance so they can focus, feel they are making progress and have a sense of achievement. And of course if they are clear on what they are meant to be doing and how, it helps our own stress levels, because we are not constantly correcting people!

 

If you would like to manage your stress through building great connections, developing your skills and seeking clarity on managing teams, then check out our Members Community! This is a wonderful place to connect with other healthcare managers, take online courses, and seek advice from the experts!

 

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