Office politics #5: MANAGING YOUR STRESS LEVELS

It's been the same all month. You've got so much on that you can't even work out where to start. As for finishing anything off - chance would be a fine thing! There's that lump in your chest - you can't decide whether it's panic or anxiety. And there seems to be no escape. You think about work when you're at home. To top it all, you've been dreaming about your problems. If this goes on for much longer, you're going to have to find another job. You're under pressure - stressed. How can you make life easier for yourself, and get more done into the bargain?

Spotting it

Doctors say anything that forces you to adapt or change is a cause of stress. So, medically speaking, it could range from a variation in the temperature at one end of the scale, to a death in the family at the other. Since the world of work is changing at such an alarming rate, it's no wonder we're surrounded by the symptoms of stress. We can see it in other people, and the assumption is we're the experts when it comes to spotting it in ourselves. But people under acute stress are often the last to recognise the symptoms.

Don't allow yourself to fall into this trap. Conduct a stress audit. Think about your behaviour of late. Have you been more than usually irritable? Have you had minor illnesses? Have you been feeling oppressed by life - at home as well as at work? Are you generally tense? If the answers to one or more of these questions is yes, the chances are you could be displaying the symptoms of stress. Ask someone you trust what they think, and make sure they're honest with you.

Having the right mental attitude is essential. The first step is to decide to get a grip on the situation, instead of allowing problems to control you. Think about it as an opportunity to increase the amount of control you have over your life. We hear a lot about empowerment these days. Most people think it's something a boss does for an individual. But an essential part of the equation is what the individual does for him or herself. Once you've decided it's in your power to do something - and you feel good about it - you're halfway there.

Doing something about it

Planning is one of the most important tools available to you when "de- stressing" a work-related problem. Don't be daunted by the apparent size of the problem. When you're stressed, everything can seem one great tangle of worries. Create a list of all the things on your mind. How many items do you feel on top of? Which are making you anxious?

Then work out what to do. Not always easy, and you may need some help. If it's a troublesome relationship, you'll need to take the matter up with the individual, thinking through quite carefully what you want to achieve. If it's something to do with your general approach, you'll need to make a conscious decision to change. Come up with one or two key things you can do, and then measure your success. If it's merely a question of getting through your workload, you're back to planning again. Think about how you structure and manage your work. Line up reliable allies. Understand precisely what needs to be done and who you can depend on to help you do it.

Finally, it's essential to have hobbies outside work to take your mind off the day-to-day problems. Fight stress by taking exercise, relaxing, laughing - in fact, doing anything you actively enjoy which isn't work!

John Nicholson and Jane Clarke are directors of Nicholson McBride, the business psychology consultancy.

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