Top stress busters for the knowledge worker in tough times

In today’s tough economy, as budgets shrink and staff numbers dwindle, knowledge workers are being asked to do more with less,

Mounting pressures, along with prospects of an uncertain future, are elevating stress and anxiety levels, according to experts on workplace issues.

They say it’s imperative to promptly recognize and effectively combat these negative states, as they could impair performance, erode personal fulfillment, and interfere with workplace relationships.

IT professionals – and all knowledge workers – need to recognize signs of stress and overload and deal with these, says Baha Habashy, a partner at Intergrity+ Consulting in Markham, Ont.

But alleviating stress should not itself be stressful, he says, and suggests simple steps any knowledge worker can immediately implement to get on track.

Chunk it down

Effectively organizing the day’s tasks is one of these.

Employees, he says, need to adopt a “batch processing” mindset, allocating blocks of time to specific tasks. For instance, they could schedule checking e-mail once or twice a day, set aside another chunk of time for attending to requests, and so on.

Indeed, time for thinking and planning should also be penciled in, says Habashy, as this is indispensable for processing ideas and correctly prioritizing.

He suggests putting all thinking and planning time in one block each day. “Spend an hour figuring out which tasks are most important and what needs to be tackled first.”

Reducing physical and electronic clutter is also vital, the Integrity+ Consulting executive says.

This means adopting a workable system for handling e-mail messages, documents, and business cards.

In this context, he says, the importance an effective filing system for projects should not be underestimated. Filing, he says, should be based on roles and objectives rather than mechanical criteria, such as alphabets or numbers.  

Smart e-mail management is yet another crucial stress buster.

“Never have more than 10 items in your Inbox at once,” Habashy says. “A cluttered Inbox will make you uneasy, so archive e-mail on finished projects immediately. It’s a small thing, but will make a big difference.”

Prioritize

Distinguishing between what’s really important and merely urgent, is another way to increase effectiveness, says Habashy.

He suggests developing a system to avoid the tyranny of the urgent.

Knowledge workers, he says, should focus on high-value tasks relating to their overall job title, rather than getting completely caught up in the demands of the moment, or fulfilling other people’s expectations.

In the area of inter-office dealings, he suggests avoiding people who make too many demands unrelated to your role. “These individuals will create a culture of urgency and add to [your] stress levels.”

Instead, he said, focusing on high-value relationships will improve both your productivity and satisfaction.

Delegate judiciously

Managers can also ease the stress on themselves and their reports by delegating within bounds, and not pushing more on to their staff than they can handle.

Managers who over delegate can drain their staff, he said.

And as people who  feel stressed out are less productive, he said, managers aren’t doing their business any favours during a recession by piling an unreasonable workload on their reports.

The enemy within

While it’s common to blame the declining economy for elevated stress levels, another expert notes believes this perception could be off the mark.

“Think about it: Weren’t you just as stressed before the economy collapsed?” asks James Looram, author of the recently-released book, Your Essential Self.

A West Point graduate with a doctorate from New York University, Looram has provided “leadership” seminars for more than 30 years to corporate and higher institutions across North America. Each quarter for the past eight years he has conducted a week-long public seminar on personal peak performance.

He says while it’s human to blame external circumstances for unhappiness, the source of (and antidote to) stress and despondency is within ourselves.

According to Looram, the economic crisis is pushing people off centre because they have been off centre already – the truth is many of us started burning out a long time ago.

Knowledge workers, he said, shouldn’t necessarily multiply their activities, but pursue only those that really matter to their essential self.  “When you focus on that, everything else falls into place.”

The need of the hour, he says, is a professional and personal life revival. “Maybe you can’t quit your day job, but you can revitalize it.”   

He urges knowledge workers to un-layer their self to discover what’s most important to them.

“Figure out what you love doing and integrate it into your daily life to reduce stress. It should be an activity you can’t wait to get to each day. It is work that when you are engaged in it you lose your self-awareness.”

Looram believes professionals can be transformed into peak performers regardless of draining external conditions such as the economy.

Three magic questions

The process begins with asking three questions, he says.

What are my top talents? –  These aren’t so much acquired abilities, but innate skills one is born with, but may be suppressing.

What do I really value? – Not what one is taught by elders, parents or religious institutions, but what’s most important to you.

What brings me joy?  

By candidly answering these three questions, he says, people can start creating a meaningful vision of success.   

And this may not entail taking on more tasks, but very likely shedding some. Figuring out what you really value allows you to get rid of activities that stress you out or waste time, he said.

Looram recommends sitting down with a journal and describing the perfect day, and then actually carrying out that day every once in a while.

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