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Five simple strategies for keeping stress at bay

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What does a terrific day at work look like for you? Not sure? OK, I’ll start. Let’s say everyone arrives on time, work is delivered on schedule and new problems and projects are easily handled. I’ll throw in a box of amazing doughnuts mysteriously appearing in the break room — big, gooey cinnamon roll included.

Now take this pleasant sensation and throw it away — bam, gone! What happened? Reality dropped in with a bucket of overwhelmed workers carrying too many deadlines and not enough time and resources to get their work done.

Fracture things further with Friday afternoon fatigue and a late-day meeting that slipped into a cranky conversation when an overdue project was addressed. In this case one person’s earlier commitment was not kept as another person began playing “tag, you’re it — you should be doing this, not me.”

The heated discussion was later neutralized with another option, but it should have never gotten to the point at which friendly co-workers became feisty foes.

Hello, overwhelmed? Have you seen burnout? Yeah, it’s right around the corner. As a manager, how do you dig out when you and your team become buried and overwhelmed? Use a SPADE — five ways to help prevent and overturn the effects of being overwhelmed.

  • S: Step away from the keyboard. After hovering over a keyboard all day, when I get stressed, my neck and shoulders feel stiff and uncomfortable. Yuck. What about seated and defeated? Sitting long hours without a break can cause your rear end to become practically numb, adding to a feeling of defeat. Stress won and your backside lost. “Oh my aching …” You know what I mean.

Take this physical toll — whether on your seat or standing on your feet — add emotion, exhaustion and deadlines, and you’ve cooked up the perfect formula for “Hello, Mr. or Mrs. Nasty.” Take a break, everybody, and check your environment. Stand up, stretch and take a few slow, deep breaths and a quick walk down the hall and change your surroundings for a few refreshing minutes.

This is a good start for reducing the sense of being overwhelmed. Step away and literally move to a better frame of mind.

  • P: Prioritize, make a list and say no: Despite the mantra that multitasking is mandatory, most things must be done one at a time. How many emails can you type at once? Yeah, it’s one. List what are truly priorities, then begin knocking them out one by one.

While you’re at it, do things in an order that enhances productivity. Save specific time slots for email two or three times a day to avoid constant distractions. You and your team will get more things completed, gain a sense of accomplishment and avoid becoming overwhelmed. Have the courage to question or say no to other projects being plopped onto the stack.

Ask your boss when this happens: “What priority do you want me to give this?” Share the load with others wherever possible. Don’t dump onto another’s to-do list, but do try to enlist assistance and acquire additional resources. At the same time, if you don’t know how to perform a certain task and need guidance, get some gumption and ask.

  • A: Appreciate and be aware of others: As the manager, remember to periodically let everyone know you recognize their hard work by calling out recent accomplishments and showing appreciation. Go around the room and have each person call out things that went well during the past week.

Do you have a recognition program? When appropriate, bestow a spot award on deserving players. I have a colleague who was working another late night when her boss called for a report that he needed before the day was over. What else did he do? He emailed her a $100 recognition award with a note saying he appreciated her extra effort.

She was thrilled. Overwhelmed became newly energized with one easy gesture. Notes and comments of recognition and appreciation can lift spirits and tame tension. Appreciation can take many forms — manager to employee or colleague to colleague — with a copy to their boss. Everyone gains a grin when their efforts are recognized. Don’t forget the wonders of treating your team to pizza or bagels as well.

  • D: Don’t minimize: Not sure of an employee’s contribution? You should be aware of each employee’s impact because you have a regularly scheduled one-on-one weekly interaction with them.

Do you minimize the contribution of others? Stop it. Check yourself by asking: Do I really understand what this person does and what it takes to do it? What invalid assumptions could I be making? If you don’t understand what workers do, buck up and ask.

Take the time to set expectations for performance and what is considered a job well done for each team member. What a waste to have employees become overwhelmed by work they could perform later or don’t need to do because of changing urgencies. Your employees should be asking about this and you should be proactively bringing it up. It’s a two-way street for you, the manager, and your workers to agree to expectations and, in turn, help avoid doing unimportant tasks that can unnecessarily contribute to burnout.

  • E: Eat, play, sleep smart: How well you handle stress and being overwhelmed is directly related to how you take care of your mind and body. Resist filling up on junk food (occasional doughnuts exempted). Eat healthy options and keep plenty of water, non-caffeinated, low-sugar drinks, fruits, fresh-cut crunchy veggies and other healthy snacks close at hand.

How about play? When was the last time you exerted enough physical activity to produce feel-good endorphins, which come from breaking a sweat? When time is short and you’re overworked, do you blow off working out? Don’t do it. Work your schedule to keep your workout on schedule. For me, it’s a minimum of three times a week. Without it, frustration and stress escalate. Even a quick 10- to 15-minute walk in the middle of the day can revitalize.

How about prioritizing sleep? Experts recommend seven to eight hours a night. Any less, and after a few days fatigue builds and coping skills slide. When you eat, play and sleep smart you’ll be able to better weather stress while your brain and body continuously thank you.

Stuff happens. A terrific day at work, no matter how well planned, may be sidetracked. Help everyone better manage the load and neutralize or prevent becoming overwhelmed by using SPADE techniques to dig out before stress becomes too deep.

When your group becomes overwhelmed, take a look at what made things pile up before they come crashing down. Culprits include too many No. 1 priorities, limited resources, unrealistic deadlines, extensive overtime and lack of appreciation.

Avoid these burnout triggers and use the five options above to help nuke the ornery monster known as overwhelmed. The tough days won’t be quite as tough, and the good days — well, those may become outstanding.

Mary Elston has spent more than 20 years in management in the transportation, consulting and technology industries. She is a member of the National Speakers Association and author of the book, “Master Your Middle Management Universe, How to Succeed with Moga Moga Management Using 3 Easy Steps.” Contact her at

This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue.



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