Lowering Your Stress Levels at Work


This article was originally published in the Otago Daily Times on 28 January 2021.

Cardiologist and author of the book Is It Worth Dying For? Robert Eliot said: "Rule No1 is, don't sweat the small stuff. Rule No2 is, it's all small stuff. And if you can't fight and you can't flee, flow."

Eliot created the term "hot reactor" to describe people who have explosive physiological reactions to small life events that don’t turn out the way they want. Such an overreaction is damaging to their bodies. Physiologically, the heart and blood vessels are put under immediate pressure and the body works itself into a hot sweat.

Your body does not want you to sweat the small stuff, although your mind may have other ideas.

"Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff", the self-help classic by Richard Carlson, is a handbook of sorts, with 100 pointers on how to train your mind to sweat less. Two of his themes are:

These ideas apply in family life and in personal relationships, but also at work and in business. As we segway back into our work environments, and our stress levels consequently rise, it is timely to highlight my favourites of Carlson’s pointers:

#9: "Let others have the glory." Learn to let others share their ideas and opinions without jumping to assert your own views or correct them. If life is a constant competition of egos it becomes exhausting and combative. A different perspective from yours is often just that. It is not necessarily wrong.

#35: "Look beyond the behaviour." Give others the benefit of the doubt if they behave badly every now and then. We don’t know what is going on for them in their personal lives, or even in other parts of their working lives. It is a lot harder for people to check their personal lives at the door of the office, especially now technology has us connected 24/7.

#51: "Just for fun, agree with criticism directed towards you (then watch it go away)." Often we jump to defend ourselves at the slightest criticism. Yet, criticism is simply an observation by another person of our actions or opinions that does not match the vision we have of ourselves. I don't think you should always agree with criticism, but at least acknowledge it. Letting another express their observation of you defuses many difficult situations.

#55: "Breathe before you speak." Pause after the person to whom you are talking is finished. When we are waiting for our chance to speak, we are not really listening to others. Harried communication — like completing others sentences with "I know" or "yeah, yeah" — encourages us to misinterpret them and leads to misunderstandings.

#86: "The next time you find yourself in an argument, rather than defend your position, see if you can see the other point of view first." You never know, you might learn something new. Also, the person whose view you hear will feel listened to and will respect that you are open to other ideas. They are likely to listen to you more.

#89: "If someone throws the ball, you don’t have to catch it." Often stress is caused by our tendency to jump on board someone else’s problems. Someone throws you a ball and you think you are expected to catch it, i.e. solve their problem. To manage your own stress levels, it is important to put boundaries in place. For example, don’t answer the phone when you are really too busy to talk, unless it is an emergency. Often one person’s idea of what is urgent is driven by their own stress; there is no actual need for urgency.

To be honest, I think the best thing about Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff is that it is succinct. It’s a book for reading in short bursts, like just before you fall asleep or when you are detained in the loo. It is small on words, but big on ideas.