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Too stressed for success?  Expert tips on managing emotions and remaining calm under pressure

23 Jul 2014 by Sarah Leembruggen.

We were fortunate enough to interview NLP Business Coach, Hils Carmichael about work stress.  The conversation ran the gamut from the impact of stress on performance to effective techniques to manage it and remain in control. In this first installment, Hils talks about the importance of knowing when to switch off and how stress does not equal success.

A recent survey conducted by Forbes showed that more than 40% of adults say they lie awake at night plagued by the stressful events of the working day. 

When asked to comment on this percentage, Hils said that it didn’t come as a surprise to her.

“In this day and age, we have to squeeze every single moment out of the day, which means we are processing information all the time. Take PR professionals as an example: there is a requirement to respond to absolutely everything the moment it comes in.  In order to provide some kind of commentary on the constant tickertape of news coming in, they need to know what is going on.  They can’t afford to switch off from that.”

We’re all well aware of the ‘always on’ nature of work that is part of the territory in PR and Communications.  What many of us fail to notice, however, is the imbalance that is created between our On and Off buttons.  Finding it hard to ignore the inbox of emails to wade through or the series of networking events to attend—mustn’t miss those new business opportunities—pressing the Off button becomes an indulgence. While the On button is a default setting with instant access to energy and focus, we have to actively press the Off button, which is not always instinctive to those employed in the fast-paced world of PR.

“You belong to a company 24-7, but you are not actually at work 24-7.  While we’ve made enormous advances in technology, regrettably our physiology has not changed much in 10 000 years,” explains Hils.   “We don’t automatically assume a state of calm; we need a period of time to break off from work and wind down before going to sleep.   Just as we move down through the gears to bring a car to a standstill, we need to do the same to our bodies. “

If you leave work but continue to answer calls and emails on the commute home and then walk in the door, still on the phone and too absorbed in the call to greet your family, you’re not entering the all-important “buffer zone” or period of time to allow the processes in the brain to reduce their levels of activity so that sleep systems can take over.  This is the time to stop anything related to work, ban the use of devices and focus on things that will instill relaxation and calm.

“Not being able to get to sleep is understandable if there is something important on our minds,” says Hils.  “It will be at the forefront of our brains.  There has to come a point where we have some boundaries.  It’s nice to have access to information and it is convenient for many people to be able to ‘just check in’ from time to time, but it’s equally important to maintain a good life-work balance and be fully present for partners and families.” 

At one time or another, most people have believed that stress equals success.  In many companies, it’s regarded as the fuel to get things done— a badge of honour. While having that jolt of energy to push yourself a little bit further to bring about success, there comes a point where it becomes overstress which in turn leads to floundering productivity, burnout and resignations. 

“We’ve got to a point where anything other than maintaining a 100% record equals failure,” Hils points out.  “However, it is short-sighted to think in these terms.  In business, we are running a marathon.  We have to look at the long-term, not just the short sprints.”

For employees in highly stressful jobs who feel as though they aren’t coping, Hils emphasises the importance of having a supportive employer. 

“People can be very unforgiving of someone who is brave enough to stick their head above the parapet and say that they’re not coping.  However an employer who shows an ill-considered attitude and lack of empathy could end up losing a best player.   With a demonstration of support, you can keep your star performers on track; it could be as simple as allowing an employee to take a little time off the pitch to recharge and come back into the game very shortly.”

Over the past 50 years, globalization has brought about an increase in working with overseas partners or clients based in almost any part of the world.

“Of course, just as companies in the field of PR and Communications have international arms, it’s important to consider the local culture,” observes Hils.  “Take Japan as an example. Employees are revered for their hard work, commitment and resilience, so the well-prepared business visitor knows it is a cultural requirement to acknowledge and empathise.”

One of the most common phrases that you’ll hear in a Japanese office is, ‘Otsukaresama’ which translates literally as, ‘You must be tired’ or more accurately as, ‘You’ve been working hard, thank you.’ It’s the first thing you say whenever you start talking to a colleague. With acknowledgment of other people’s hard work so deeply embedded in Japanese working culture, there are several expressions that encourage individuals to ride the ups and downs of the rollercoaster of working life and to ‘try, try again’ if things don’t always go according to plan.

One expression in particular relays a valuable message: ‘Nanakorobi yaoki’ literally means ‘Fall down seven times, stand up eight.’ So when you get a knock back, acknowledge it as experience rather than failure… and crack on!  

Next time, Hils talks about maintaining focus in fast-paced jobs that often find us spinning too many plates.

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