Coping with Stress

It’s a quiet afternoon at Wonder Widget.  Business owner Bruce Banner is reviewing the first quarter profit and loss statement when Joe Schmertz, the IT manager, bursts through the door. “We’ve got big trouble, Boss,” he says nervously. “The changes we made to the computer software to increase productivity caused the entire system to crash. That big order for Great Gizmo that was supposed to ship today won’t go out. The vendor who did the software upgrade can’t send anyone until Monday. No one told Bingle in sales, and he just informed Great Gizmo their widgets are on the way.”


The veins in Banner’s forehead begin to bulge and pulsate. “Do you have any idea how upsetting this is?” he growls at his cowering manager “I’m mad, Schmertz, really mad.”

Suddenly, Banner’s eyes turn an eerie green. His face contorts as his body begins to grow larger, ripping his shirt to shreds. He’s no longer Bruce Banner, the owner of Wonder Widgets. He’s the Incredible Hulk — and he’s about to kick somebody’s butt.

Stress can do strange things to people. It can mutate them into raging monsters, melt them into squishy Casper Milquetoasts or paralyze them like Bambi caught in the headlights. Sure, some folks manage stress like Wonder Woman or Batman clobbering a bad guy. But most of us act toward stress as Superman treats kryptonite—we stay as far away from it as possible.

Unfortunately, no matter how hard you may try to prevent it or avoid it, stress in the workplace is inevitable. Simply interacting with other people whose working styles are different from yours is enough to create tension. Then there’s the office manager who didn’t remind you about an important meeting, the employee who ticked off a major customer, the vendor who sent your shipment of parts to Peoria. Add to your everyday workplace challenges the stress you bring with you from home, and you’ve got the ingredients for a multitude of Maalox moments.

The symptoms of stress are varied. They include: hostility, anxiety, depression, defensiveness, nervousness, mood swings, indigestion, headaches, high blood pressure, ulcers, sleep disorders and memory loss. If you are experiencing more than a couple of these symptoms, you should take action to manage the stress before it disables you.

Seminars on stress management are as plentiful as picnics on the Fourth of July. Unfortunately, most of them deal more with the symptoms of stress rather than its sources. They teach relaxation techniques, breath control, positive affirmations, time management and other methods for relieving tension that are helpful but fail to address stress generators such as poor planning, inefficient systems and muddled decisions.

Now for some good news: effective stress management is really just a matter of changing the things you can change and accepting the things you can’t change. Here are some choices you can make to change your personal habits and work environment that will decrease your stress levels.

•     Improve your health – Exercise is a great stress reliever. If you aren’t giving your body a regular, vigorous workout, you’re robbing it of the calming effects of the endorphins and muscle relaxation produced by exercise. Eat the way you know you should. A diet lacking fruits and veggies can’t deliver the vitamins and minerals your body needs to fight off stress. Conversely, sugar, caffeine, fast food and other staples of our fast-paced work world pack on the pounds, which only leads to more anxiety about your weight.

•     Learn how to say no – Face it, there is no way you can make everyone happy all of the time. Trying to do so is sure to make one person very unhappy—you. There is an art to saying no in a way that doesn’t offend. Offer an alternative. Ask for another opportunity when you are less busy. Explain your priorities. People tend to respect someone who doesn’t always try to accommodate everybody and carefully decides what can and can’t be done.

•     Relax – Work is work, but it doesn’t have to be a constant grind. Create opportunities in your day to put your brain in neutral and take a walk away from your desk. Just a 10-minute stroll around your building can calm frazzled nerves and lift your spirits. If you have to stay in one place, take a 10-minute mental vacation. Close your eyes and visit a favorite place. Deep breathing helps. Just don’t forget to come back.

•     Simplify processes and systems – Look for ways to streamline your business procedures. The fewer steps involved in completing a task, the fewer opportunities there are for something to go wrong. Simplify, shorten and condense the policies and processes in your business and you’re employees will love you for it, because you’ll be reducing their stress levels as well.

If you recognized yourself as an adherent of the Incredible Hulk’s stress management method, it’s time to realize the destructive effect that behavior can have on you and those around you. Make the changes you can make, so that the next time you’re tempted to turn into an imposing green behemoth, it will be the Jolly Green Giant.