Embrace Stress, Reject Anxiety

For better performance in the socially-distanced workplace

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

After experiencing consecutive waves of adoption of remote working practices in response to the COVID-19 pandemic by the organizations that I work with, I detected an undercurrent of stress and anxiety developing among many of their employees.

It is now becoming clear how we may have underestimated the crucial role that in-person social micro-interactions play in the workplace in providing the context and mooring that are vital for office workers’ psychological security the initial implementations of remote work

By depriving employees from the subtle but continuous feedback that they received from these micro-interactions, social isolation can fuel feelings of uncertainty: We do not know if we are performing well. As a result, it is not uncommon for some employees to report increased levels of stress.

Also, isolated, the mind may wander, lacking the guardrails provided by social interactions, potentially plunging from an initial bout of stress, into a vortex of worry and anxiety.

The difference between stress and anxiety

Emotions are normal reactions to external stimuli. Stress is a healthy brain’s way to induce a surge in adrenaline and cortisol, your bodies’ natural performance enhancers. They prepare you to perform at a high level. As the need to perform subsides, so too should your levels of adrenaline and cortisol.

So, in a healthy mind and body, stress can, at times, be beneficial. However, your body cannot sustain peak levels of performance indefinitely.

This is how anxiety erodes your health. By triggering an endless spiral of worry that does not let down. Keeping the production of the stress hormones at unsustainably high levels, and subjecting your body to chronic stress.

In short, anxiety is a disorder, neither necessary, nor healthy. Whereas stress is an indispensable ingredient for high performance.

You can manage stress. You should get rid of anxiety.

Getting rid of anxiety

The first step is to recognize anxiety for what it is: Unhelpful and unnecessary.

Here is a quick checklist to identify a bout of anxiety, and then, nip it in the bud:

  • Is it real? Understand if you are worrying about something that can realistically happen.
  • Is it happening now? If so, fix it.
  • If it is not happening now, is a realistic risk? This is to help you prioritize, not procrastinate. If a risk is realistic, you need to manage or mitigate it, once you finish dealing with more acute issues. Otherwise, long unattended to-do lists will turn into a new source of stress.
  • And finally, can I fix it?

If a problem is unlikely to materialize, or if there is nothing you can do about it, then you must really ask yourself if worrying about such a scenario is a good investment of your time and energy.

Managing remote work-induced stress

If you have noticed that you are more tired at the end of a day’s worth of Zoom meetings than after those of full the old-fashioned, face-to-face variety, you are not alone.

According to corporate coach Alyxandra Savage, there are two features of in-person work whose absence in a virtual work environment require more energy from you per equal amount of time spent working:

  • Micro-interactions.
  • Priming effects of rituals.

Firstly, silent pauses, small talk and other micro-interactions that lubricate face-to-face meetings are less prevalent in virtual ones. Consequently, virtual meetings are more mentally demanding than face-to-face ones.

Secondly, many daily work-related rituals, such as grooming, commuting, or exercising, unconsciously prime you to start and finish your workday. While remote work has removed the physical necessity for many such activities, the mind still needs a priming cue to start performing at the beginning of the workday, and to decompress and promote a more sociable or relaxed mindset at the end it.

Among the things Alyxandra recommends:

  • Shorten virtual meetings by about 10%, and assign some time in the agenda specifically for some kind of social interaction.
  • Consciously adopt rituals, or mind hacks if you will, such as a fake commute (walk around the block, or doing a grocery run); wearing different clothes during working times; or to bookend the workday with exercise.

Attitudes towards stress determine the outcomes

Stress and anxiety are two different things. Anxiety is neither necessary nor productive.

But feeling stress is your brain telling your body it is time to start to perform. What you do with that stress will determine the success of your outcomes. There is growing evidence that people that learn to deal and channel stress productively are, in the long run, healthier and more successful than those whose goal is only to avoid it.

So, embrace stress, use it to channel your energy and focus to achieve your goals. And experiment and discover the rituals that help to wind down, lest you subject your body to chronic stress, or worse, let your mind spiral down into a state of anxiety.

Read the original story in Medium.

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