The three big sources of recurrent stress at work, and how to solve them - Spill

This post was written by Spill, a startup providing mental health support to organisations

Short-term vs. recurrent stress

Stress was originally meant to be helpful: it's the body's way of reacting to a perceived demand or threat to give you the short-term superpowers you need.

A few thousand years ago, the most common demands and threats facing humans were things like needing to immediately forage for food or needing to run away from a woolly mammoth. Demands and threats tended to be (a) genuinely life-affecting, and (b) incredibly short term (i.e. within the coming minutes or hours).

So what happens when your body realised you urgently needed to go out foraging for food or urgently needed to run away from a woolly mammoth? The adrenal gland releases certain hormones — like adrenaline and cortisol — that let you run faster, jump higher and focus more intently. These temporary physiological and psychological superpowers increase your chances of achieving the demand (finding the food) or avoiding the threat (dodging the mammoth).

What's the problem with stress, then? In a nutshell, the modern world has changed the kind of demands and threats we face, which means the stress response system is being used in a way it wasn't intended to be.

We're no longer desperately foraging for food or running away from woolly mammoths; instead, we're spending most of our waking hours at work. We're trying to find a sense of self-identity, trying to justify our position in workplace hierarchies, trying to feel a sense of fulfilment. These are all non-life-threatening and long-term demands and threats. The issue is that the body can't discern that difference, and so it responds in exactly the same way as if there still was a woolly mammoth around: by releasing short-term bursts of cortisol and adrenaline. While this can be useful in specific situations — giving you more focus in the final hour of a deadline or before a big presentation — it isn't good for us on a consistent basis. Recurrent work stress ****can lead to other types of poor mental health (like burnout or anxiety) as well as poorer sleep, disrupted digestion and even lower memory retention. That's the kind we want to look out for and try to overcome.

Three common types of recurrent stress at work

At Spill, our therapists have spoken to thousands of people about recurrent stress at work. Here are three common contexts that come up regularly.

  1. interpersonal issues: this includes feeling undervalued, feeling a lack of career progression, feeling frustrated or disappointed towards others, micromanaging, any kind of office politics, feeling concerned for others, feeling judged or fearful when talking to colleagues or superiors, and other such feelings-in-relation-to-others-and-self type things.
  2. too much on and not enough time: this includes stuff like working on specs that are too big or too unclear, overpromising and underdelivering because of poor boundaries, people-pleasing that means we say yes when we should say no, impostor syndrome making us pretend that we can do more than we can do, unrealistic expectations from stakeholders because we didn’t do proper stakeholder management.
  3. no clear action plan for solving a problem: this includes any time when we know there’s a general source of discontent (from client, manager, customer, investor, team, other stakeholder) but either don’t know enough about the problem to be able to estimate to ourselves how far we are from a solution, or the problem is hard and we can’t think of a solution.

How to solve the three types of recurrent stress at work

There are many ways to help reduce the symptoms of stress — meditation and good sleep being two examples — but solving the underlying problem is the best way to create lasting change in terms of how you feel about and at work more generally.

  1. interpersonal issues: everyone involved should have a one-off therapy or coaching session, or speak with a trusted external mentor if they have one, to clarify their thoughts and feelings about the situation for themselves. The pair or group should they come together to discuss and resolve the issue through basic negotiating skills such as saying what’s needed, what’s ideal, what’s a red line, what they're willing to change, etc. Our favourite book on how to approach successful negotiation is 'Never Split the Difference' by Chris Voss; try reading it. If there’s bad faith from anyone involved (i.e. the person is denying or diminishing the problem, doesn't want to resolve the problem, or is trying to undermine the resolution process), then involve an external third party for mediation (this includes cases when the people involved can’t agree on basic facts) — the third party could be a therapist, coach or mentor. (Multiverse Community members can read or listen for free to high-powered insights from Never Split the Difference' by Chris Voss via our exclusive partnership with Blinkist, check it out on the Member Benefits Page)
  2. too much on and not enough time: brutal prioritisation and clear boundary-setting. This involves thinking hard and making tough decisions; when this seems too difficult, it’s often because the brain is fatigued and not operating at normal level, so what’s needed is sleep, and if too tired for even that to help, then holiday. If there's not enough information for you to properly prioritise, then you’re dealing with problem 3 below).
  3. no clear action plan for solving a problem: this can't be tackled alone. Rope in a trusted colleague to help pair with you and play the role of product manager. The aim is to get to a clear plan for how the problem can be solved, rather than actually solve it. There are four stages. First, investigate by talking to all relevant people about what is needed. Second, go through all the notes and discuss what is a requirement and what is unnecessary. Third, be brutal and decide what the MVP could be — in other words, how few requirements the first version of the solution could have. And finally, cost up the MVP in terms of time and resource needed to get it done, as well as potential blockers or bottlenecks.

So if you’re ever feeling recurrent stress at work that doesn't seem to go away: pause, get curious, identify your problem from the list of three above, and apply the solution.

Want to help others switch off and de-stress in your organisation, too? Have a look at Spill's open-source 'Right to Disconnect' policy, which outlines how we make work-life boundaries super clear and non-negotiable for the Spill HQ team.

Watch our exclusive event with Spill - How to (actually) switch off from work below:

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