We all know what “stress” feels like. When your boss tells you, “See me in my office,” your body heats up, your heart starts racing, and your stomach begins to churn. These are just a few of the body’s many possible responses to what we typically call stress, and what scientists call the body’s “fight or flight” response.
While acute, short-term stress may actually improve performance at work, chronic stress—that muted but ever-present anxiety brought on by thinking about a toxic boss or a laundry list of projects—can have damaging effects, including depression, anxiety, insomnia, and high blood pressure.
The bad news is that chronic work stress affects at least 70 percent of Americans. One survey found that eight in 10 employed Americans reported feeling stress at work due to factors such as increased workloads and inadequate compensation.
The good news is we can prevent these numbers from growing. While we can’t necessarily control our responsibilities, pay, or the people we interact with at work, we can control how we respond to these stressors by cultivating resilience—or the ability to adapt to stress in a healthy way by staying present, self-aware, and attendive to one’s own needs.
There are various practices we can integrate into our everyday routines that will allow us to better address our own needs, desires, and intentions in (and outside of) the workplace, and they all come down to one common theme: mindfulness.
What’s the Deal?
I recently sat down with insight meditation teacher and author Sharon Salzberg, whose newest book, Real Happiness at Work, explores how mindfulness practices such as meditation can help us reimagine our approach to our jobs—and, in the process, help us find happiness and a greater sense of balance in the workplace.
According to Salzberg, resilience serves as an alternative to “the illusion of control”—the false belief that we should have more control over coworkers, bosses, clients, and work outcomes than we actually do. In reality, we don’t have control over anything but ourselves. The thought may seem scary, but it actually offers a ton of freedom.
In fact, the first step toward developing resilience is challenging the idea that we can control everything. Rather than beat ourselves up for the disappointments and negative outcomes we inevitably experience at work (or elsewhere), we can learn to practice acceptance of ourselves and of our situations, whether good or bad. In so doing, we give ourselves the gift of mental space—and in this space, we can learn to realize that difficult experiences and setbacks are actually opportunities for learning and growth.
So how do we get to a place where we choose acceptance, mindfulness, and growth over anxiety and self-deprecation? Follow the action plan below.
Your Action Plan
Mindfulness can be practiced at any time, even while walking, drinking tea, or writing an email. Follow these simple action steps to let go of the illusion of control and instead cultivate resilience on the job.
1. Establish a regular meditation practice.
“Meditation provides us with a sense of perspective by allowing us intimacy with our experience. When we practice mindfulness, we train our minds to become aware of our emotions and thoughts as they arise, so we can better understand our intentions,” says Salzberg. Meditation allows us to see better into the nature of things, without all the baggage of judgment, insecurity, and whatever other self-destructive stories our chattering minds perpetuate.
Committing to a regular meditation practice—even just 10 minutes a day—can go a long way toward helping you feel calm in the face of work stressors. There are a wide variety of practices to choose from, so experiment to find what works best for you.
2. Loosen the grip—literally.
Emotional stress can manifest as physical tension. To help ease both, practice relaxing your body with this simple exercise:
- While sitting at your desk, settle your attention on your hands, (particularly if they are holding something—a cup of coffee, a pen, a computer-mouse) and/or on your shoulders.
- If you find your grip extremely tight (or your shoulders tense), realize that this will merely exacerbate any tension you feel.
- Choose to loosen your grip and/or release the tension in your shoulders as much as you can (Breathing helps!).
- Take a moment to observe the different sensations you feel when you bring your attention to your body. Remember, this is something you can do even as you plod through your to-do list!
3. Think before you speak.
Stress can often lead to irritability and feelings of guilt and blame. This exercise can help put the brakes on self-punishing language as you develop a softer and more forgiving inner dialogue.
- Write down an accusatory statement, in the second person, about something that happened at work (e.g.: “You’re incompetent for forgetting a deadline.”).
- Rephrase it in the first person using nonjudgmental, constructive, “I” statements (“I spent two hours looking for a misplaced file and missed my deadline as a result. How can I set up a system to avoid this happening again?”). Notice if you feel different using “I” versus “you” statements.
- Try to let go of using generalizing words like “never” and “always.” Practice using specific language that leaves room for improvement (e.g. “I was disappointed when you arrived late to our meeting. How can we ensure this doesn’t happen again?” versus “You always disappoint me.”). This kind of constructive language helps keep things in perspective and prevents unbridled deprecation, both of yourself and others.
4. Set intentions.
When we have a lot on our plate, we tend to feel overwhelmed and like the world is spinning out of control. That’s where the practice of setting intentions comes into play. This exercise will help you become more aware of the intentions that drive what you say and do. When we realize that all of our actions emerge from some kind of intention and that we have the power to change that intention, we invite ourselves to feel more present, focused, and calm. Stay present with your intentions by using these practices throughout the day:
- Set an intention each day before leaving for work. Perhaps you wish to be more open-minded and at ease during meetings and conference calls, or you want to breathe more deeply before beginning a new task. Remind yourself of this intention every time you find yourself getting off track.
- Before engaging in a conversation, pause for a moment to check in with yourself (silently) and determine your intention: Do you want to be seen as “right”, or do you want to be seen as open, compassionate, and supportive? Do you want to foster progress or hinder it?
- Before you send an email, take three breaths. Then reread the email and imagine being its recipient. Consider the emotional impact of the message and ask yourself what you’re trying to achieve with the email. Rewrite it (before sending) if need be.
- If you find yourself bored or annoyed at work, don’t judge yourself. Instead, use the setback to shift your mindset: Even the most tedious work is an opportunity to help others, cultivate awareness, or learn about yourself.
5. Reconsider your coping mechanisms.
Each of us already contains all we need to cope within ourselves. This exercise will help you gain a sense of empowerment over your coping mechanisms, and help you realize the potency of your own resources for self-care.
- On a piece of paper or on your computer or phone, make a list of everything that contributes to your stress at work.
- In another column, list everything you do on a day-to-day basis to relax, lift your spirits, or have fun (listening to music, exercising, cooking dinner with friends, etc.).
- Make a third list in which you describe the effects these activities have on your stressors.
- Look at all three lists. Reflect on how much you need to cope, if you are coping well, and/or if you need to change the ways in which you cope. Then write yourself a “prescription” for your own self-care.
6. Practice compassion.
The ability to communicate kindly with coworkers is essential both for getting things done well at work and feeling an overall sense of wellbeing. This basic loving-kindness (or metta) meditation offers a concrete starting place to begin cultivating the art of empathy.
- Sit with your eyes closed or your gaze lowered.
- Silently offer up loving-kindness by directing positive energy and goodwill to all beings everywhere, including yourself. Start by sending love to yourself: “May I be safe. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease.”.
- Repeat the mantras at a pace that works for you, focusing your attention on each phrase as you think it. If your attention wanders, begin again. The anchor here is not the breath but the phrase-repetition.
- Next, call to mind someone whom you know is having a difficult time and repeat the mantra: “May they be safe…”.
- Call to mind someone you don’t get along well with. Repeat this exercise for them. If this is too hard, send loving-kindness back to yourself.
- Finally, try offering phrases of loving-kindness to all beings everywhere: “May all beings be safe. May all beings be happy…”.
“This isn’t… hippie fluff,” declared Chade-Meng Tan, founder of Google’s mindfulness-based employee program, Search Inside Yourself. He’s right. We all now know that stress isn’t helping any of us. It’s time to do well by feeling well—at work and elsewhere. And to think resilience could start with just your thoughts and your breath. How easy is that?
How do you cultivate resilience and mindfulness in the workplace? Share in the comments below!