Stress in the workplace has been receiving much attention in recent years. The growing interest in workplace stress has typically been spurred by the increase in absence rates at work and also with the many employees that continue to stay in work but do so feeling under-par. In both these cases it is likely that productivity in the workplace is negatively affected when employees are experiencing stress-related symptoms.
While helping individuals who are experiencing stress is important, it has become a key priority to offer preventative strategies. Common strategies that have become increasingly popular tend to fall under the larger umbrella of stress management – and therefore address the cognitive (thought) and somatic (physiological/bodily manifestations) symptoms that can occur when individuals experience the most common unwanted response to stress – known as anxiety.
My approach as a sport and exercise psychologist, is underpinned by principles of elite sport and my support services to athletes and coaches. In my experience, I have seen that businesses are typically being pushed to achieve success while working under pressure, reducing stress in the workplace, build strong cohesive teams, bounce back from setbacks, and generally develop a tougher mindset. All of these factors are also typically inherent within the unique context of competitive sport.
Despite extensive demands and stressors, whether organisational, competitive or personal, placed on sporting performers, many of them do achieve consistency and medal winning performances – in essence, they perform under pressure.
The question that remains then is how do we help individuals perform under pressure? When individuals are faced with pressure (such as increased demands of a task) they can experience both cognitive (negative thoughts, defeating thoughts, self-doubts, worries) and physiological (body tension, butterflies in the stomach) symptoms.
Two key strategies that can be targeted are: training to be more resilient and being able to regain control of your body through cycles of deep breathing.
In sport, resilience is a term that is usually used to describe bouncing back from adversity or stressful situations. Resilience involves remaining unaffected by adversity or an increase in the demands we face on a day-to-day basis. Resilience is not just about overcoming adversity it is being able to see opportunity and growth resulting from such adversity.
Controlling one’s thoughts play a big part of resilience training. Many negative or unproductive thoughts are generated by focusing on the things we have no control over (such as others’ behaviour, expectations or imposed deadlines) so it is important to place your energy into the things you can do something about such as your own behavior, completing the little tasks that help you work towards completing a bigger task.
Think about opportunities and growth after making a mistake or underperforming in a particular task. Individuals who are more resilient tend to focus on how they can improve on a particular performance and view under-performance as part of their learning journey rather than dwelling on it. Further, to maintain your confidence, recall previous accomplishments, and leave the office reminding yourself of the tasks you have accomplished rather than some of the tasks you didn’t quite get to.
Breathing is also an important tool we can use to stay calm in the heat of the moment. Practice some cycles of deep breathing (belly breathing is best in these situations) to reduce tension and as a sign of regaining control of your mind and body.
Joanne is a Sport and Exercise Psychologist at Sheffield Hallam University and provides sport psychology consultancy to various sporting teams and individual athletes. Joanne publishes research across a variety of sport psychology and performance topics including mental toughness, competitive anxiety and stress, talent development in sport. Joanne is the current co-editor of the International Journal of Sport Psychology. She is the current course leader for the master’s degree in Sport and Exercise Psychology.