4 Strategies to Reduce Workplace Stress
This is part of my recurring series on mental health. I’ve left a few links to some of my other blog posts at the end of this one. Check ’em out if you’d like. Until then, enjoy the read
This is part of my recurring series on mental health. I’ve left a few links to some of my other blog posts at the end of this one. Check ’em out if you’d like. Until then, enjoy the read.
Workplace stress and burnout are becoming prevalent problems in businesses all across the globe. Whether you work in higher education, communications, financial management or the non-profit sector, chances are you’ve either experienced or known someone who has struggled with the stress that comes from work.
While this is a challenge for every business, the good news is that more and more businesses are discussing ways of addressing and solving the workplace stress problem.
One field/industry that can benefit from stress reduction is communications. Be it PR, digital marketing, or in-house communications, these roles all share a common experience: constantly being on the go. Communications professionals are often tapped into the industries they work in, being the first to know about new developments. Along with this, they serve a wide array of clients and also need to be accessible for them.
The challenge with this is that it can lead to burnout: communications professionals, in their pursuit to be as effective as possible, often blur the lines between work and life and put their mental health on the backburner. Responding to clients and customers at every hour of the day, constantly reading every news update under the sun, and working over lunch breaks and into the evenings are all common patterns amongst communications professionals (myself included).
However, simply putting hard boundaries on work-life isn’t enough: the industries we work in require us to be sensitive to the moment, aware of what’s happening, and able to support our clients and customers in case of a crisis.
That being said, we still need to have a conversation regarding reducing stress: but in a way that is sustainable and works for us. We’re unique, and how we address our challenges must reflect that.
I’ve compiled research and anecdotal advice on how to reduce stress and manage burnout in communications roles. Below are 4 ideas for how you can start reducing stress while staying productive and serving your audiences well.
Help Your Team Develop Practical Productivity Principles
In Professor Cal Newport’s book Deep Work, the author introduces us to research and practical advice from high-performers on how they manage to accomplish a ton of work.
The common thread throughout each example Newport shares is that through productivity principles, individuals can increase their work-output while reducing their stress. The two are directly connected: improving how you work reduces the stress that piles up from that work.
I’ve read the entire book, taken notes, and applied what I’ve learned. In my own work and life, I’ve found the advice to be extremely helpful. Below are three main strategies Cal Newport suggests people apply when possible:
- Time Boxing: when you set up your calendar, schedule specific slots of your day to accomplish specific tasks. For example, you might schedule 9:00 am-9:45 am to write a KPI report for your managers on last month’s data performance. When that time comes, you focus solely on your task. The benefit of having this on your calendar is that it’s made public to your team (and your clients if need be), which ensures they know to talk to you during that time only in the case of urgency or an emergency.
- Daily & Weekly Checklists: in a previous job at the University of Guelph, I started each day by sitting down for 5–10 minutes and writing a task-list for the day. This way I knew exactly what I had to, what needed to be prioritized, and what I had to keep in mind for later. As the day went on, I would tackle whatever was most urgent, and move down the list. If I was side-tracked (an emergency, a change of priorities, etc.) I was still able to get right back to work. This was extremely helpful in a dynamic role where things were changing on a dime. If the day ended and I still had tasks to finish, I would simply move them to tomorrow’s list.
- Scheduling Deep & Shallow Work: deep work is defined as long, sustained, and uninterrupted work on a specific task. This is the tool Newport used to publish multiple research papers while teaching. The goal with deep work is to find any possible time to work without interruption. No phones, no emails, no meetings. This is obviously really hard in communications, so here’s how I applied it:
- I would schedule time in my calendar for meetings and check-ins with my manager and coworkers a bit more frequently to ensure we were both updated on each other’s work. I would also mention how I would be applying Deep Work periodically, and it would be scheduled in my calendar. If a time-sensitive or urgent matter popped up, they could stop by my workspace!
- I would schedule a similar time-frame each day to do my deep work (mine was 10:15–11:30 am) so everyone knew when I would plugin and get to work. Before and after this was when I took care of tasks such as emails, responding to questions, scheduling meetings, etc.
- During that timeframe, I would focus solely on 1–2 main tasks. These could be KPI reports, research, drafting articles or planning digital campaigns.
- Outside of that timeframe, I would schedule what’s called “shallow work”: work that, while important, didn’t require my undivided attention for a long period of time. Responding to emails, stopping by other departments, responding to applicant questions, etc.
This system allowed me to accomplish all my tasks on a regular basis, as I was able to schedule a time to work without distraction on large projects while also making time to respond to important, but smaller tasks.
Support Wellness Programming
Wellness programs are becoming more and more prevalent in the workplace. These programs are often lead either by an internal employee or by an external organization who is hired to help the organization learn ways of taking care of themselves.
These are phenomenal ways to address stress because you’ll have people who are aware of your needs and can work around any obstacles or challenges you have.
If you have a budget for professional development, you might be able to use some of it to help fund wellness programs (or if your budget is big enough, you can set aside funding for a program itself). If you don’t have funding, that’s okay! You can set aside a bit of time each week to create your own.
An example of a funded approach is subsidizing memberships to a virtual yoga program for your team to do at home or reimbursing part of their fitness memberships. Also, you might bring in experts in areas such as mindfulness or physiotherapy to teach your team healthy habits. This is also a good method because you would only need to pay for one to a handful of sessions, no long-term investment required.
A strategy that works if you don’t have a budget is to bring your team together to brainstorm ways of introducing wellness into your work and lives. There’s plenty of free research, advice, and programming on the internet you can compile to create something for yourselves. This might be where your team follows a 30-day yoga challenge or a “mastermind” group where everyone picks a new hobby to try and shares their progress with it once a month.
It all depends on your priorities. Chat with your team and figure out what’s best for you!
Be On The Same Page With Teams & Clients
When you’re working with clients and large audiences, it’s easy to get caught up responding to emails, messages, and requests all day. And it’s important to be accessible: in our work, a quick response can be a huge benefit. However, not every message requires that, and I’ve heard plenty of horror stories of vice presidents, managers, and clients panicking because an employee took an hour to respond to a request that wasn’t time-sensitive at all.
Our interconnected world has made us able to respond to message from across the world in a matter of seconds. That has amazing benefits but can lead us to become addicted to our phones and sensitive to notifications (anyone experienced a phenomenon where you think your phone went off but every time you look at it there are no notifications?).
A way to address this is simple but requires everyone involved to be on the same page. Sit down with your “stakeholders” (IE: anyone who works closely with you, such as your coworkers or clients) and discuss a sustainable way you can all be accessed while setting proper work-life boundaries.
For example, one PR professional I spoke to told me their strategy was simple but extremely effective: after 5 pm, if a client or a coworker sent an email it would have to be titled “URGENT” in order to get a response.
The professional had email notifications set up on their phone so they got a ping if they received an email. But, to ensure they weren’t constantly responding to emails until 9 pm each night, they ensured the “urgency rule” was communicated clearly at the start of a new partnership.
This way, clients knew that if there was an emergency, they knew exactly how to reach the consultant and get a response. If they wanted to talk to the consultant the next day, they could just send a regular email and know the consultant would get to them in the early morning.
I really enjoy this method for those of us in PR & Communications because it solves all our problems in a practical way: clients know when and how to talk to us, and we’re able to enjoy time outside of work while still being accessible to our clients.
Allow For Overtime
Communications is one of those fields that typically bleeds into the evenings and sometimes even into the weekend. It makes sense: responding to our communities, serving clients, and staying up to date on what’s going on in the world are all important for us. This naturally leads us to work outside of our scheduled hours that we’re paid for.
Let’s be honest, the likelihood of not working during evenings and weekends is pretty low. Sometimes the job just calls for it. However, we can still address working over-time in a way that is sustainable and flexible.
I won’t get into paying for overtime because that’s out of my scope (although some firms do billable hours where their staff submit timesheets every two weeks, so that might be an option for you). If you’re in a salaried position, this is a strategy that might be beneficial for you.
When I worked at Admission Services at the University of Guelph, our team had a simple rule: if you worked outside of your regular hours, you would write it down. The date, the hours worked, the time-frame, and the reason. So if you say, worked over lunch to meet a deadline, you would simply write down “Nov 22nd, 12–1 pm, worked on KPI report. 1hr.”
With the agreement of the team, you were allowed to use that hour to take some extra time off during a lull period. So with that extra hour, I could save it for a few weeks until the busy period calmed down, then use it to take an extra hour off in the morning. This hour replaced my vacation time.
This system was phenomenal for addressing stress and burnout because it allowed us to put in the work when we needed, and take a break when things slowed down. This was especially important in a role where I was constantly attending events that happened during the evenings or weekends. I could use my extra time however I wanted, as long as it wasn’t during a time where I was absolutely needed.
I highly recommend this method for communications professionals. It’s a phenomenal way to accomplish a lot of work while ensuring you’re taking the breaks you need at a time that won’t negatively affect your work.
Burnout is a genuine problem in the life of today’s work, and if we don’t address it there will be more problems than accomplishments down the road.
But if we take actionable steps to address burnout by preparing our workers with productivity principles, creating wellness programs, ensuring clients/audiences/teams are on the same page at all time, and introducing flexible ways of taking breaks while working overtime, we can begin the journey of solving the work-place wellness crisis. I genuinely believe that by doing so, we won’t only solve many problems in the workplace: we’ll become more productive, accomplish more, and help our businesses grow.
Until next time,
Cura ut valeas.
Content creator, researcher, ideas guy. I write on productivity through a life-style design lens (which is a fancy way to say that I think however you approach your "craft", it is best done in an integrated way).