Stress at work: the problem may actually be the solution

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Surely the most stressful aspect of work is people. Because deadlines come from people and bosses. Distractions and more work come from colleagues. More people, more problems, right?

Maybe. But more so, it’s the promises we make to people, that put us in stressful situations in the first place.

The deadlines we say yes to. Things we commit to either because we miscalculated the time needed, or because we felt compelled to commit. Because there was no way out, no choice (when in fact there is always a choice.)

Stress happens when:

You are faced with a task you think you can’t handle (lack of resources, lack of experience)

You have too much too do and too little time

Much is expected of you but you don’t feel prepared

All of these are due to commitments we make, and we’re stuck in a situation with no clear solution in sight. Lack of control and ability causes stress.

The same people you think are causing you stress — the account manager who’s always throwing deadlines at you, for example — can also be the solution. Perhaps a conversation with her to re-design a working process. We can plan with them, ask for advice, negotiate on timelines. Sometimes we don’t want to accept it; we’d rather look for an escape, but it’s amazing what an honest conversation with a boss or colleague can do to help you in stressful situations.

One thing is certain in your work: unexpected things happen. The reason we should undercommit is not laziness, but rather to make sure we can overdeliver and provide our boss and clients our best work. Also, when we are prepared for the unexpected, we are not too busy to come to the aid of those who need us.

I’ve seen leaders at the workplace overcommit with the best intentions, but in the end it just stressed out the whole team, and the deadlines had to be moved back anyway because they were just impossible.

Another example is just last week I had a ton of things to do. I perfectly planned my schedule, and was highly optimistic. But I made a mistake: I miscalculated the time I would need for each task and so I missed some deadlines. I was terribly stressed, and I was reminded for the 500th time that I am not a lean, mean content creation machine.

Sounds simple but it’s hard, I know. Asking for help and admitting your weaknesses can be humbling but it creates better bonds among the people you work with. You can also ask for more time if the time alotted for you is too little.

There will be big challenges, and they can be scary but they don’t have to be stressful. Stress can be replaced by excitement as long as we plan ahead and prepare. Anticipate what might go wrong and prepare for it with the diligence of a military leader.

When a big task is on your shoulders, think about whether it’s time to mobilize a team, or hire an assistant. You don’t have to prove you can do it on your own. What you need to be concerned with is getting the task done — and you have access to more resources than you think, through people, ideas, and collaboration. It is more impressive to a supervisor to see work done through mobilizing others and managing resources rather than drowning yourself in it and doing a solo all-nighter.

Counselor Dave Willis describes stress as:


Trying to





Sometimes stress is caused by too much focus on the problem. Breaks are not a waste of time — rather they are a way to clear your head and see things with a better perspective.

Sometimes we have to fight for what we need in order to do our work well. You don’t have to keep accepting orders like a vending machine. If you find yourself reacting to emails, getting bombarded by follow-ups, and your heart rate goes up and you start sweating in your cold office cubicle, you know something has to change. You are no longer able to intiate plans, schedule things well and deliver on them. Maybe it’s time for a new system or process. No one knows what you are going through but you. And you have to take action.

Ok, this should be the last resort. When you’ve done all you can and nothing is working, maybe that workplace isn’t the right one for you. Changing jobs can be refreshing — the clean slate, nobody coming up to you to look for files from 10 years ago. But beware of taking old bad habits with you. A new job won’t be new forever, and old habits can creep back into our lives if we’re not careful.

Not all hardship is stress

In the end, what makes work worthwhile is people. So instead of trying to escape people to escape stress, get together with people to face the challenge.

To end, here are some inspiring words from author and leadership speaker Simon Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last on how hardship can lead to our best days at work:

It is not the work we remember with fondness, but the camaraderie, how the group came together to get things done.

When asked, “What was your best day at work?” very few of us recount the time everything went smoothly and the big project we were working on came on time and under budget. Considering how we work so hard to make things go well, that example should count as a pretty good day at work. But strangely, the days everything goes smoothly and planned are not the ones we remember with fondness.

For most of us, we have warmer feelings for the projects we worked on where everything seemed to go wrong. We remember who the group stayed at work until 3AM, ate cold pizza and barely made the deadline. Those are the experiences we remember as some of our best days at work. It was not because of the hardship, per se, but because the hardship was shared. It is not the work we remember with fondness, but the camaraderie, how the group came together to get things done.

Writing about design, while sipping coffee.