How to stop stress from ruining your career

Editor’s Note: ’Thinking Business’ focuses on the psychology of getting ahead in the workplace by exploring techniques to boost employee performance, increase creativity and productivity.

CNN —  

In today’s frenetic workplace, where distractions are constant and competition is often fierce, stress has never been higher.

From panic attacks and anxiety to poor sleep, acid reflux, high blood pressure and strokes, stress is causing our bodies to mentally and physically shut down, according to Dr. Tara Swart, neuroscientist and co-author of “Neuroscience for Leadership”.

“I never thought that I would be working with so many people having heart attacks and thinking about suicide,” said Swart, who coaches leaders including many working in the financial services industry.

In her book, co-authored with Kitty Chisholm and Dr. Paul Brown, she notes that the experience of stress, sustained over long periods of time, can have severe negative impact on your thinking, feeling, health and productivity,

Not only do individuals suffer, but businesses then take the brunt of the massive economic cost from disengaged, tired and stressed employees.

In the UK alone, work-related stress caused workers to lose 10.4 million working days in 2011-2102, according to the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. This figure means workplace stress cost the country £6.4 billion ($97.8 billion) that year.

“We need to listen to our bodies and think of what you should do about it,” urges Swart. A lot of mental and emotional issues actually manifest with physical symptoms, she said.

What to watch out for

Instead of telling us what we shouldn’t be doing, Swart has noted a few telltale signs we need to watch out for, signs that we’re letting stress get to us.

Some of the physical signs include fatigue, muscular aches and pains, and flu and colds that are lingering longer - a sign that stress is starting to erode your immune system, she said.

Stress makes muscles ache, warns Swart, so watch out for “that feeling when you’ve been running” where the lactic acid builds up.

Other physical symptoms include problems related to the gut and limbic system of the brain – things like heartburn, reflux and irritable bowel syndrome can be signs of stress as well.

Sometimes, stress can send us spiraling into survival mode, as Swart calls it. We crave high-sugar foods and caffeine thinking it will make us feel better but actually “it makes us more anxious.” Being irritable and moody are also signs that stress is getting to us.

How to combat all this? Aerobic exercise helps, says Swart, as it releases endorphins and reduces our cortisol levels.

But other, less physically demanding steps need to be also taken: talking to a friend or psychologist, getting adequate sleep, staying well-hydrated and practicing some type of mindfulness will all help reduce our stress, she said.

Be mindful

Many well-known leaders and CEOs have praised meditation and mindfulness as part of their ongoing success. From Oprah Winfrey to Rupert Murdoch and Arianna Huffington to Russell Simmons, it seems these high-achieving individuals know a thing or two about how to cope with stress.

“Everyone should meditate for fifteen minutes a day unless they don’t have the time. Then they should do it for an hour,” suggests fashion designer Kenneth Cole.

Michael Chaskalson, founder and CEO of Mindfulness Works and author of “Mindfulness in 8 Weeks“, coaches senior people in mindfulness skills to better manage pressures of work. In doing so, he claims his clients become more emotionally alert, more empathic and they have higher levels of concentration and creativity.

This type of training, where awareness is taught, has long been touted as an antidote to stress, depression and more recently in our highly-connected world, as a tool for leadership. In the past two years, he said there’s been a bona fide acknowledgment in his field of work.

“With mindfulness training there are a few things you can learn to do to get back to your peak,” said Chaskalson, who promotes a one-minute meditation. “A lot of leaders say the mindful minute has been one of the most powerful things.”

It doesn’t have to be yoga or meditation, Chaskalson says the with the right approach walking, even running (in a mindful way), staring out the window, just taking a break, will help leaders not only perform better but there’s evidence that it will improve an organization’s overall health and effectiveness.

“There is really sound research which suggests that this is a no-brainer,” cites Chaskalson. “But we’re just beginning.”

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