Friday 25 April 2014

There's always something you can do about stress (1) Stress Prevention

The most depressing thought or assumption you can have is: "Nothing I can do will make any difference". It's often associated with a lack of a sense of control and a feeling of hopelessness.

But with stress management, there's always something you can do (certainly if you include thinking in doing). There are three broad kinds of approach you could try and in this post I'll focus on number 1, prevention.

Before I get onto that though, there's a kind of pre- (stress management) stage that's often missed.

You need first to be clear exactly what it is that's causing the stress (and when it occurs). I recommend writing this down in some structured way. (I've developed a tool for this called the Pressurised Situation Profiling Tool.)  This writing it down is helpful in itself. It clarifies what you're dealing with. Dealing with what you can see is always less stressful than the vague dread of what's lurking in the shadows.

Once you're clear about what's causing the stress, the first thing to try or think about is prevention. This is about being proactive and dealing with what's causing the stress, the 'source', directly. This source might for example be a stressful situation at work.

I've found over the years, especially with work-related stress, that much more can be done around prevention than first appears to be the case. It does require however that you take some time for this and it usually involves talking face-to-face with colleagues to explore issues and generate solutions (team meetings and one-to-ones are great for this). That's because most work scenarios are inter-dependent. The level of your stress may well be partly dependent on what other people do and when they do it, and vice versa. Often then, some planning and communication 'now' can save a lot of grief and stress later on.

I want to be crystal clear about this. To prevent stress, you have to stop what you're doing, think, plan and communicate. If you're always reacting to things, it's far more likely that you'll become stressed! And because of the lack of control, the stress is also far more likely to affect your health.

I've found a preventive approach works particularly well with teams. Given the chance, teams will come up with genuinely innovative and pragmatic solutions to what seem, at first glance, to be intractable problems. Teams of people doing a job are the internal experts on what happens in their area. They quickly therefore get to the nub of the problem and identify solutions that often cost nothing to implement.

If you're a leader or manager, this requires that you acknowledge the specialist expertise within your teams. You're in the perfect position to facilitate discussions and actively engage your teams in generating solutions to prevent stress. I've found the return-on-investment (or savings) from this type of  team working to be enormous!

PS 1: Don't forget to implement any action plans and solutions generated (it's no good just talking about it) and make sure you take a bit of time later on to evaluate and review what you've done.

PS 2: One thing you need to be careful about if you're facilitating discussions is not to allow them to get too bogged down around the problems. Yes, you do need to identify what they are and when they occur, and it's also helpful to prioritize them in order of importance (which issues are having the greatest impact on people?). But you need fairly quickly to get onto discussing solutions and developing plans. This makes sure the focus is mainly positive, on 'what we can do' rather than descending into a moaning shop. It's worth considering therefore whether it could help to have someone with independent expertise facilitate such discussions.