Work stress! (Picture courtesy – www.pexels.com)

“How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 6:30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so?”

This famous quote is by one of the most cynical authors of all times, Charles Bukowski. Does it resonate with you? It does with a lot of people, and you are not alone. Many people start feeling the blues on Sunday evenings (Saturday evenings if you are in the Middle East), and struggle to get themselves out of bed the following morning. The mere thought of facing the first workday of the week elicits a groan in most people. It reminds them of endless meetings, reviews, targets, and the dressings-down, and it causes them stress. Imagine beginning the week with a stressed-out state of mind. And the stress does not even seem to let up as the week progresses. So, every week, many people are just a whisker short of killing themselves at work. In Japan, overworking is such an integral part of work life that the Japanese even have a word for people dying because of excessive work load – karoshi. Imagine work stress killing people! (Actually, not figuratively).

Although all stress is not bad, and some of it is even needed for efficient functioning, when stress starts affecting functionality, alarm bells should ring. Instead of fight or flight when stress causes freeze, we’re in trouble. Excessive stress weakens the immune system, and causes anxiety, which may lead to an anxiety disorder, apart from other illnesses.

What could be done then? Is there even a way to manage stress? The short answer is, yes. There is a way. But, a more accurate response is – the targets will not reduce, the deadlines will not get more flexible, the bosses will not become more understanding – only your response to these occurrences will change. So, what can you really do? Here are some tips that may help.

1.     Identify locus of control: This means knowing what is in your control and what isn’t. Work on things that are in your control. If you don’t, and merely worry about them, it won’t help. Secondly, accept that certain things are just not in your control. No matter how bad these things are worrying about them won’t help, because won’t be solving the problem anyway. A simple flow chart explains this:

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Karmanyevadhikaraste, mafaleshukadachana, Krishna says in the Bhagvad Geeta, meaning you have control only over your actions and not over the outcome of your actions. So, do what you can to the best of your ability, without worrying about things you can’t change. 

2.     Practice mindfulness: Despite knowing that you should not worry about it, you can’t help it. If only it were so easy, huh? That is where mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness can very simply be stated as uni-tasking. Thich Nhat Hanh, the famous Buddhist mindfulness expert, in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness, states that you must do an activity for the sake of the activity, and for no other reason. Which means, if you are eating an ice cream, you must eat it with full attention, and do nothing else – not in body, nor in mind. If you are discussing plans of the future while eating the ice cream, you are not being mindful. To translate this to your work stress, you are stressed not because you focus on the current moment, but for fear of what will happen in future. That stops you from doing justice to what you are doing currently, without solving the problem of the future. Mindfulness asks of you to bring your attention back to the task on hand and do that without contaminating the effort with thoughts of other things.

3.     Practice acceptance: What about the things that you cannot change? Like being given the pink slip? Or being passed up for promotion? What do you do then? You teach yourself to accept the situation. You can fight for being reinstated or for that promotion that eludes you – that is a must. Or else, you would not be doing what is in your control. But despite your best efforts, if you do not win this round, accept it. Because worrying about it is futile. It takes up mind space and impedes clear thinking. Acceptance, however, does not mean tolerating injustice. It means not having an internal battle with yourself over something that you cannot change. For example, if it rains, you accept that it is raining. You do not fight with yourself about why it is raining, and that it shouldn’t rain, and go in denial about the rain. (If you do all this, you shouldn’t, you know?)

4.     Use the ABC model to rationalise your thoughts: Albert Ellis, who conceptualised Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy (REBT) devised the ABC model. The A stands for Activating Event, the B stands for Belief Systems, and the C stands for Consequences. What it posits is that we do not react to an event, but to the meaning we attach to it. Thus, if the boss does not smile at me in the morning (Activating Event), I may believe that he is upset with me for some reason (Belief), and I might start worrying (Consequence). The boss may not have smiled at me because he may have been preoccupied with some other problem, but I made it about me. When we are able to objectively dissociate between the Activating Event and the Belief, our resultant behaviour may become more rational.

5.     Practice self-care: When we are stressed, it is common to neglect what is good for us, like eating well, and sleeping well. Additionally, activities that are detrimental like consuming alcohol, smoking, etc seem attractive. Eating and sleeping well will act as rejuvenators of lost energy, and hence these are essential. Smoking and alcohol will only numb and suppress the problem for a little while, but the problem will not be solved. Despite being one of the simplest rules to follow, numerous people become physically sick for not having taken care of themselves, when they could have. Guard against falling a prey to this.

6.     Seek help: Sometimes despite all of this, it may not be possible to manage stress. If stress is likely to cause dysfunctionality in life, seek help. Talk to family, bosses, colleagues, or friends. Or reach out to a professional. A professional counsellor will be able to offer tools that will make managing stress easier.

7.     TAKE ACTION: These tips only skim the surface and if managing stress were so easy as reading an article, no one would be stressed at all. And putting these tips into practice may not be easy, and may also make you feel that they won’t work. But they do. If you take action. So, TAKE ACTION. Take small steps, if needed. As Martin Luther King, Jr. has famously said,

“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

Learning how to manage stress is a process and you will not succeed in one day. But with understanding, repetition and persistence, you can. And will.