For Less Stress, Try Turning to Learning

Developing a new skill can minimize workplace angst
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You know when it starts to creep in, that feeling of being bombarded. Overwhelming work demands and underallocated resources are wedged into long days at the office with short hours to meet deadlines. Stress saturates the psyche.

Often you can tap into adrenaline reserves and drive through it; sometimes angst, exhaustion and burnout take over. Output quality goes down, and poor decision-making goes up.

There are many techniques for powering through workplace pressure. I recently came across one that’s worth considering. A Harvard Business Review study authored by Chen Zhang, Christopher G. Myers and David M. Mayer (Sept. 4, 2018) found that putting your mind into study mode can alleviate stress. The authors determined that the traditional “fight or flight” response can be effective (wrestle through or withdraw and take time off), but these provide only temporary relief. Their findings show that learning — building a new skill, gaining new information, looking for a cerebral challenge — can buffer the effects of fret and apprehension, including unethical behavior, negative emotions and general weariness.

I’ve organized my take on these tension-tamers with a LEARN shortcut: Learn, Engage, Achieve, Relax and Nature.

L for Learn

According to the Harvard Business Review analysis, learning can be an amazing anxiety-buster because it helps employees build beneficial instrumental and psychological resources. From an instrumental standpoint, learning provides fresh information and knowledge for more efficient problem-solving. On the psychological side, reflecting on what we know and have gained through studying contributes to confidence, competence and enriched self-esteem. Self-improvement, in turn, helps build a more resilient spirit.

We’ve all experienced stress and its negative emotions, both dishing it out and being on the receiving end. Not to mention the trauma of constant tension, which can manifest in unethical conduct, such as taking company property or falsifying time cards. The study further found that days with more learning experiences also saw a reduction in undesirable sentiments and poor conduct.

E for Engage

The HBR research suggests knowledge can be brought to a higher level when a team engages on what they’ve learned. This is especially constructive for those who aren’t inclined to focus on individual education. Engaging and commiserating with colleagues also can be beneficial for problem-solving. Who doesn’t love chatting with a colleague and turning tension into a lighter moment?

A for Achieve

New-found knowledge brings with it a broader foundation for making decisions, drawing conclusions and charging through challenges. In fact, the HBR research suggests a terrific way to use learning to reduce stress is to take on a difficult assignment as an opportunity to become more skilled. That’s exactly what I did recently. To get past the dread of digging into a goliath project, I went in with the mindset that completing it would give me a load of new insight. Achievement through completion, with a dose of discovery. Don’t forget to employ physical achievements to cut back anxiety, such as working out or jogging.

R for Relax

Just relax. Calming diversions can do a world of good when you’re working hard to overcome stress. Take a stroll around your office building, or go to lunch with colleagues. Perhaps listening to music is your thing. For me, relaxing includes conversation with co-workers to discuss how to deal with stressful situations. The HBR findings called this out, too.

N for Nature

Like a cool breeze on a hot day, nature can have a soothing effect. Overcoming a problem can produce a sense of great satisfaction. Experiencing nature also can bring moments of realization. Give your brain a breather and entrench yourself in natural surroundings to push out the mental cobweb. Open your mind, let nature in, then listen and learn.

How do you handle stress? Do you power through problems to the point of exhaustion or pause? Carry on with whatever keeps you healthy, but remember that burnout is an outcome you want to avoid.

Incorporate the LEARN methods mentioned here to help manage anxiety. Learning keeps your sanity in check, your spirits in tune and your brain charged. Develop fresh skills and don’t let pressures creep up on you. Your employees will benefit from these practices, and so will you. Now that is learning something.

This article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue.

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