When I was commissioned to write this column, the brief was to look at how to cope with work stress, whether freelance or office-based, both inside and outside of work. Since then, the world has changed. Coronavirus has made us all re-evaluate everything and we find ourselves facing work stresses (and world stresses) that we could never have imagined back in those innocent, pre-pandemic days.
As I write, we’re a week into lockdown, with a quarter of the planet directly affected. Whether it’s losing your job, trying to keep a business afloat, working overtime (and then some) as key workers and frontline teams, missing face-to-face contact with colleagues, adjusting to a home office (or kitchen table/cramped conditions), and the sheer mayhem of home-schooling while trying to hold down a job, none of us has it easy right now. And that’s aside from health concerns we may have for ourselves and our fellow humans.
We are, however, all in a similar boat. And while we cannot adjust the wind, we can adjust the sails. According to mental health charity, Mind, stress is caused by two factors: Situations that put pressure on us – for example, times where we have lots to do and think about, or don’t have control over what happens (pretty sure a global health pandemic fits this category), and our reaction to being placed under pressure – the feelings we get when we find it difficult to cope with the demands upon us.
And this is where we can make some choices. I’m not going to extol the virtues of physical activity, moderating your alcohol intake or any of the other usual recommendations made by people like me. You’ve read them before, I’m sure. But what I am going to do is to share the two pieces of advice that have made the most difference to me in managing stressful situations, in all areas of my life. The first is something my therapist shared with me: “The refuge is in the awareness”. Becoming aware of our thoughts and feelings during stressful situations is hands-down the most helpful thing any of us can do. Because if we’re not in awareness, we have no choice in how we respond.
One of the best ways to move into awareness is to get mindful. You don’t have to meditate to do this, but you do have to be able to stop and observe what’s happening in the moment. A quick and easy shortcut is the 5-4-3-2-1 method. Take a deep belly breath, and then notice five things you can see around you. List them out in your mind, or out loud. Then, notice four things you can feel – the chair beneath you, the keys on your laptop, the label in the back of your shirt. Three things you can hear. Two things you can smell. One thing you can taste. Another deep breath. Once you’ve done this, your nervous system should be calmed and you can begin to notice your thoughts and feelings. Naming feelings reduces their intensity, so say them out loud, write them down, give them an airing in whatever way works for you.
The second is a Brené Brown line: “People do the best they can with the tools they have.” This is a reminder to be compassionate, both to others and to yourself, and allows you to stay out of judgment. Right now, we might (understandably) be trying to control what we can in a world that feels out of control, and when other people mess up our plans we get resentful and angry – generating more stress for everyone. Let go of your need for control. Notice it and choose to let it go.
Learning to sail through choppy waters is a surefire way to grow your resilience, too. So, while you’re at it, add a line or two to your CV to that effect. The classic interview question about how you handled a difficult situation? You’ll never be stuck for an example again.
More tips to help you cope with uncertainty at work
Learn how to cope with stress at work with these tips from author, podcaster and GP Dr Rangan Chatterjee, find out how to practise self-care when working from home and find out how to be mindful at work. You might also find it useful to explore our tips for coping with depressing news or coping with change.
If you like listening to podcasts, check out this episode we recorded with Natalie Lue on how to set boundaries in your life, which includes information about how to set healthy boundaries at work.
This article was first published in In The Moment issue 38 in May 2020.