In his book, A CLINICAL GUIDE TO THE TREATMENT OF THE HUMAN STRESS RESPONSE, Dr. George Everly, Professor at Johns Hopkins University, writes: "The history of stress management has been largely reactive. Stress management was initially conceived as a way to manage stress when it becomes excessive. More forward thinkers see that stress management can be proactive and preventative in nature."
When I first read these lines about ten years ago, I realized that Dr. Everly was right. Most people apply what they learn about stress management like a band-aid at the end of a bad day. It's reactive: "Maybe I'll exercise or meditate or do yoga when I get home because today was really stressful." This is how the thinking goes for most people. But what if we could practice stress management proactively and prevent stress from happening in the first place. What would that look like?
Following Dr. Everly's lead, I developed the following six step stress prevention model, to help EA professionals and wellness professionals alike teach employees how to manage stress proactively rather than reactively. Here's how to apply these 6 steps at work for dealing with a difficult boss or supervisor.
Step 1: Raising awareness
First learn the symptoms of stress, including rapid heartbeat, cold hands, dry mouth and muscle tension. Encourage employees to connect the dots between their symptoms of stress and their sources of stress. When a certain supervisor walks into the room and the employee feels his or her heart beating out of their chest, now they've connected a symptom of stress with the apparent source. Knowing what the true source of their stress is where proactive stress management starts.
Step 2: Problem-solving
Look at the problems identified in step one and do some creative problem solving to eliminate, reduce or prevent them. Maybe this employee needs to talk to his or her supervisor, or to someone in HR or maybe even to a co-worker who isn't bothered by this difficult boss.
Step 3: Cognitive Restructuring
Here is where you encourage employees to listen to their own self-talk: Is it overly negative or is it accurate? If they hear themselves saying "I've got the world's worst boss," that's an overly-negative self-statement that only makes their stress worse. Change that self-talk to make it more accurate. "Last week, my boss let me go home early when I wasn't feeling well." Employees don't have to sugar coat their self-talk, as long as they continually modify and correct thoughts that are OVERLY negative.
Step 4: Mindfulness
Adding mindfulness into the mix, you advise your clients to stay in the present moment and to not let a minor incident that occurs on a Monday, ruin the whole week. By adopting this stay-in-the-moment approach (rather than a narrative approach where one bad moment stays with them for the WHOLE week) maybe they realize, that their boss is not "bad" all the time. In fact, it's not even close.
Step 5: Resilience
Adding a resilience routine at the beginning of their day, consisting of some combination of yoga, exercise and/or meditation, employees may find that they are better able to handle the ups and downs of their day. They are more impervious to criticism and difficult moments just roll right off their backs. This is how stress management becomes stress prevention: Making stress management a part of their daily routine.
Step 6: Social Support
As an EA or wellness professional, you are supplying some of this much-needed social support. Encourage your clients to seek out other forms of social support as a hedge against all kinds of stress. Help them to see whether they are truly dealing with a toxic boss, or a garden variety difficult boss that everyone must learn how to deal with at some point in their working lives.
The research on all these ways of coping is conclusive. Situational awareness, problem-solving, cognitive restructuring, mindfulness, resilience and social support are all proven methods for managing stress. And yet, you may be wondering, why is it that so often these methods SEEM to fail. This gets us back to the words of Dr. George Everly: "There is a large body of data, proving the effectiveness of practicing a variety of stress management techniques from deep breathing, to meditation, to mindfulness. The only reason these techniques stop working, is that people stop doing them."
James E. Porter
The WELCOA conference is suggesting that wellness programs move in a new direction. In my mind no one addressed this point better than Jim Purcell, formerly of Rhode Island Blue Cross and Blue Shield and the founder of the Returns on Wellbeing Institute. He says you have to change the culture from the top down. "No matter how good the program is it will fail in a toxic culture. The key to happiness in the workplace boils down to two simple elements. Having work that you love to do in a place where you love to do it."