Stressed? 3 Ways to Stay Focused at Work

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Feeling the pressure? It's completely normal to feel that way when faced with a tight timeline, or when we think that our available resources may not be enough to create a strong result. Our stress response acts much like the gas and brake pedals on a car. When something in our environment triggers our stress response, our internal body chemistry reacts with a rush of powerful chemicals (the gas pedal to the floor). These chemicals (including cortisol and adrenaline) prompt us to take action, and in doing so we return to our normal state as these stress chemicals dissipate (the brakes are applied). It's a great system that is designed to keep us moving away from perceived physical danger. These days though, our perception of danger at work expands far beyond the physical. In our minds, we experience 'social dangers' in the same way as physical dangers, although our reactions often differ.

Having a sense of urgency around completing an important task on time, on budget, and to spec is a good thing, and some would refer to this type of stress as 'eustress', a helpful, energy-building motivator. Successful organizations are filled with eustress in fact! Most often though when we talk about being 'stressed' we are referring to feeling overwhelmed by the situation at hand. For some of us, working conditions like poor ventilation, lighting, or sanitation can cause stress. For others, the stress response kicks in when we are faced with matters such as lacking role clarity, heavy workload, or interpersonal relations challenges, to name a few. A given situation evokes a different stress response across individuals. What typically causes me stress may not bother you. A stressful situation for me may actually be thrilling for someone else.

No matter the source, employees experiencing high levels of stress (especially chronic stress) often experience a reduction in attentional focus on work tasks, and rather move their attention to what's causing stress. The old saying, 'Leave your problems at the gate' is a nice idea, but does not fit with what we know about how our attention works. We tend to think about the most stressful items impacting us first, and so our routine work tasks may not get the attention they require for safe, quality performance.

So what can we do to take better control of our stress response to ensure we remain focused on our work in the moment?

Let's count down a few must do's to reduce stress and maintain a strong focus at work:

3). Talk with a trusted colleague to gain support in finding a solution, or best path forward regarding the stressful situation. Creating a social support system is important to keep stress at bay and your attention focused. Reaching out to others via social media groups can help in this regard as well. Don't sit and ruminate on the situation; do collaboratively look for solutions! And remember that 'venting' (reviewing the details of the stressful situation over and over with colleagues) is neither solution focused nor helpful and may actually make the stress worse.

2). Get moving. Those natural stress chemicals that prompt us to fight or run from the stressful situation actually dissipate when we spring into action. It's no secret that exercise is helpful in reducing our experience of stress. We need to clear our head and reset our system by going for a walk or run. High levels of stress hormones are not good for our attention, or our long-term health. We must manage stress responses accordingly.

1). Take constructive actions against the stress-inducing situation. Our body chemistry prompts us to react, but often we do not. We might simply sit and worry about the situation, and hope it fixes itself. Instead, take action by making a plan to address the situation and follow through with that plan in specific behavioral ways (e.g. 'This afternoon I will set up a meeting with my manager to ask for help with prioritizing my workload so I am confident that I am tackling the right tasks in the right order.')

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