What to do when you’re under stress

This advice from me comes from someone who has been in the trenches in management. It is not medical advice and please don’t regard it as that.

There is really only one reason in my layman’s opinion that you could come to be under a lot of stress. It happens when there is something you badly need to do and something is preventing you from doing it.

Now some will dispute this view and say that stress can come when you have a huge load, a lot of work, many things to worry about etc. I tend to call that being under “pressure” but not necessarily “stress”. Let me explain.

If there is something you need to do and it has a tight timeline, there is a lot of work to do, many people to handle, lots of money to take care of and so forth.  If you know what needs to be done, you have the resources, the time, the people and it is just a matter of getting on with it, then you may feel pressured to push on and get it done. But I don’t see that as stress. Pressure of this type may even be good. It keeps you motivated and keeps you going.

However if you have a task that needs to be delivered by Friday this week and it’s already Thursday and what remains will require another week to finish, then you can be put under a lot of stress. This is a task that could be impossible to complete. You don’t have the time to do. It is out of your control. And that is the key difference. If you don’t know what to do or you cannot control the parameters, the process or other elements that are necessary for you to complete the task, then you will be under stress. Let’s have more examples.

If you must finish a task within the $100,000 budget and have already eaten up $80,000 of it and still need another $40,000 to complete what’s left. If you have been asked to complete a task to be delivered in two days and it really needs five days to complete. If you have been asked by two managers simultaneously to do a task for each of them over the next two days and there is no way you have enough time to complete both even if you decided not to sleep for the next the two days.

This is very similar to personal situations. What if you lost your job, don’t have any money in the bank and the rent has to be paid within the next week otherwise you and your family will forced out of your home?

Contrast that with: the rent has just been doubled on your home and will take another huge chunk out of your salary which means you won’t be able to save a single dime this coming month or put a down payment on a new car to replace the old one that breaks down often.

Are you able now to see the difference? The first example would induce true stress, the other one more like a lot of pressure.

Now don’t get me wrong. A lot of this can be driven by perception too. If you mistake pressure for stress, then your own irrational belief will trigger stress-like symptoms.

No matter whether it is true stress or just your belief that it is, stress is very bad for you. Your health will deteriorate, both physically and psychologically, you may become very irritable, angry, confused and disoriented which would make it even more difficult for you to tackle the challenges confronting you.

So what do you do?

First, try to differentiate between true stress and just plain pressure. I think this first step is very important and I will explain why. If the challenge is something you can tackle and things are technically within your control then it is a matter of getting organized and meeting that challenge. So in the example of the rent doubling, well, you will take the bullet, pay the double rent for this month, forgo the car upgrade. It will hurt but it is within the sphere of control. You are able to take this impact. You can then start planning on preventing something like this happening again in the future.

In the case of a large workload or tight deadlines, again you will apply your organizational skills to deliver the goods.

So that is how to tackle things when they may seem out of control but they really aren’t. How about when things are out of your control? Let’s go back to the earlier examples.

If you are expected to deliver something this Friday and it is already Thursday and you still need a week to finish, then negotiate an extension. Explain the reasons for the delay. Maybe even take a little heat. Point is: stakeholders need to understand and accept that delivery will be delayed. Once that is done and you get your extension your stress turns into pressure. You must also learn from scenarios like these. Delays usually are obvious much earlier than the last minute. If you had been keeping tabs on how the task is progressing early in the game you would have known much earlier that there would be a delay. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, this kind of situation can be avoided with good time estimates and also alerting stakeholders much earlier in the timeline rather than leaving things to the last minute.

So what about the situation where your budget is getting out of control? Again early estimates and good monitoring of how the budget is getting eaten up, the “burn rate” as it is called, is essential for preventing surprises. If when you had burnt $30,000 in our example above, you could already see that you really only got $15,000 worth of work done, then you already know you are on the path to busting the budget and it is time to find out why, take corrective action and let stakeholders know.

Having management skills does not prevent things from going wrong entirely because there are always variables that are either unknown or uncontrollable. A good manager is able to anticipate and handle situations as they arise. Preventative action is much better than cure. Preventing fires is way more effective that just being good at fighting them. It is important to be good at both but you really need to focus on doing more preventing and much less fighting.

And that, will contribute immensely to reducing stress.

Everyone experiences stress at one time or another. But managers are especially prone to being stressed out. They are accountable for a lot and expectations are extremely high. They are also responsible for other people’s actions which usually does not exist in other roles.

Of course don’t forget the advice that most of the literature also hands out: take breaks, relax, go on a holiday, listen to music, read, exercise regularly. All that helps too. And seek professional help if the stress becomes unbearable.

Again, take this advice from someone who’s been there. This is a personal perspective that I wanted to share with you and hope that you might find useful. But please don’t regard it as professional medical advice. It is not. Speak to your doctor if you’re sick or under stress.


Hope you found this useful. Drop me a note and let me know.

Thanks for reading.


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