Tips for Coping with Stress at Work

This article was originally published as a featured contributor on ICMI.

You’re running fast through the forest. Sweat drips off your forehead, heart wildly beating as your eyes dart around to make sure you don’t run into a branch or trip over a rock because if you do, you’re about to be someone’s appetizer. You’re looking for the path that will lead you out of sight from the Saber Tooth Tiger that advances behind you at a rapid pace. You sneak away into a dark cave, out of view of the wild beast. Safe, at last. Sorry, tiger, no snack for you.

Flash forward to the present moment. A customer is screaming at you on the phone. The chat support “ding ding” sound keeps playing on your computer, demanding instant answers. There are 58 unread emails in your inbox. Your boss just called you into a meeting about that new project on your plate. A coworker on your team is absent again, and you’re picking up their slack. Oh, and you have to get gas after work, plus stop by the grocery store to pick up food for the dinner you have to make for the family. You haven’t deposited your paycheck yet. Oh, let’s not mention that your mom isn’t doing so well, and your partner is asking you to pick up their dry cleaning because they got called into a late meeting. Just another Tuesday!

And, on this fine Tuesday, it’s not exactly a Saber Tooth Tiger chasing after you, but it might as well be, considering you are stressed out AF and wish you could slip away into a cave and hide.

But, is stress really the bad guy here?

What if, instead of trying to prevent stress, we understand that when we feel stress, it could be a lesson to learn. A boundary to set. A queue to take from our body and mind. Not in a woo-woo-way-out-there kinda way, but in a realistic, “hey, you gotta slow down now or else you’re gonna kick the bucket early because there’s actually no tiger chasing after you and this body can’t handle years and years of chronic stress” kinda way. Easier said than done.

Our bodies are well-fashioned machines to react in incredible ways; however, living in fight-or-flight mode (and the shame around doing so) will have a long term impact.

This isn’t new. There are gobs of studies about how chronic stress can affect your health.

What does that mean for you and your customers?

Let me start by shaking things up a bit:

  • You’re not supposed to be happy all the time
  • You’re not supposed to stuff your negative feelings
  • You’re not supposed to do everything to avoid being stressed

Yikes, that probably goes against a lot of what you’ve been told in the past, especially when you’re working with customers.

Aren’t you supposed to smile into the mirror on your desk before you pick up the phone, leave your “baggage” at the office door and go above and beyond for customers day in and day out, no matter how stressed out and horrible you feel?

We look for hacks. We look for ways to quickly alleviate stress. We work extra hours to distract ourselves. We don’t talk about stress. We stuff it down. We “deal with it.”

Not facing your true feelings – that’s so 2018.

With companies like ban.do creating International I Cry At Work Day, perhaps it is time to do things a bit differently while we’re helping customers.

Because, in order to take the best care of others, we must first take the best care of ourselves.

Taking care of yourself isn’t selfish. It’s an act of service.

So, here are three tips for coping with stress while you’re busy helping customers and coworkers at work.

Tips for Coping with Stress at Work

Use Your Words

Parents often instruct fussy, crying toddlers with, “use your words” to help them express and identify how they feel in the present moment. You may feel a variety of emotions at work, some of which you may not really understand because you haven’t had the time to do so. Ignoring and stuffing stress isn’t going to make it any easier. Taking a short break away from your desk to tune into your feelings and identify them is a great place to start. Ask yourself:

  • How does my body feel right now?
  • How does my mind feel right now?
  • What emotions do I feel right now?

With this general scan, you can start to identify how you actually feel in that moment, acknowledge it, and respect it for what it is. It’s not going to immediately resolve the situation and remove the stress from your life, but it will help you understand where you are right this very second, how you feel, which is helpful when you’re caught in the rush of overwhelm.

Calm Your Brain

Breathing calms your brain. It decreases your blood pressure. Of course, this is all scientifically proven with many studies to back it up.

But who cares what the studies say – take a few deep breaths and know that while it may not remove the overwhelm of the present moment, it can simmer your nervous system. Have 36 seconds in between calls? Try this:

1. Take a deep breath in through your nose for a count of 4

2. Hold your breath at the top for a count of 4

3. Release your breath through your mouth for a count of 4

4. Repeat steps 1-3 at least three times

Take Baby Steps

Stress is uncomfortable. When it builds up, it may lead to other uncomfortable health-related issues. You, of course, just want to avoid stress entirely and make it go away forever and ever, right? While that’s unrealistic, what is realistic is taking baby steps toward shifting what needs to shift to point you in a less-Saber-Tooth-Tiger chasing you response. This isn’t to add more to your plate; in some cases, it is to take away. Here are some baby step examples for you to consider:

Step you want to take: You want to work out for an hour a day, every day.

Why you want to take it: You feel more mentally clear when you exercise.

What you’re doing now: You’re working out 0 days currently.

Baby Step: Workout for 1-5 minutes a day, once a week and increase as time allows.

Step you want to take: You want to get more sleep.

Why you want to take it: You need more energy during the day.

What you’re doing now: You always go to bed so late.

Baby Step: Go to bed 1 minute earlier once a week and increase as you see fit.

Step you want to take: You’re so busy, and you want to have more time for your family to relax at home.

Why you want to take it: You feel overwhelmed with your schedule because you’re always doing something.

What you’re doing now: Scheduling everything on the calendar and living by it minute by minute.

Baby Step: Schedule in one non-negotiable hour a week where you spend time with your family doing absolutely nothing together, then increase to more time.

You have permission to feel your feelings, even at work. You’re allowed to cry; you’re allowed to be stressed. But you’re also allowed to take time to get real with yourself. To not stuff what’s going on. To define what stress looks like for you. To talk about it. Bonus points if you’re a contact center supervisor or manager who is leading the way and talking about it with the team. To know that it’s not about being happy 24/7 but about being human, being authentic and realizing that we’re not being chased by Saber-Tooth Tigers anymore.

Jenny Dempsey is currently the the Social Media and Customer Experience Manager for NumberBarn.com. She has worked at tech startups since 2005. She's the co-founder and regular contributor over at CustomerServiceLife.com. She's a certified health coach, but not the kind that forces you to only eat cardboard and deprive yourself of ice cream. JennyDempseyWellness.com, the company she started, was designed to bring a new type of wellness into the workplace, one that gives you permission to look deeper into yourself, rather than just on the healthy snacks in the break room. She is the mother to a toothless rescue cat named Chompers. Avocados and veggie tacos are the way to her heart. She's also a Hanson fan for life.

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