Strategies for reducing stress at work

“You don’t understand, Joan. I know how to treat people and talk to people. But when I’m under stress I just don’t do it” This manager was carefully and calmly explaining to me why he was demeaning, sarcastic and highly volatile with people. Interestingly, he honestly believed that his high stress defense got him off the hook.  

I wonder how he would react if one of his employees said, “Oh, I know I was insubordinate when I was screaming at you, but I was under stress.” Or, how about, “I know I was disrespectful to that customer but you know how high stress this job is.”  

Since when does high stress give someone permission to abuse others? Here are some strategies that work for me, when I’m under high stress and I’m tempted to blow my stack: 

Do the duck paddle

Just like a duck, you need to appear calm and unruffled on the surface, even though you are paddling like hell underneath. The more frantic the pace, the more measured your movements should become. Controlling your body—limit arm flapping and gesturing. Turn fast, jerky steps into longer strides and smoother movements. It helps to keep the mind calmer and in control. 

Wear your game fame

Warriors put on face paint, actors put on a makeup, and business professionals don a suit and tie. All three are altering their appearance before a performance with an enemy, a competitor, an audience. They are putting on a mask that will give them an edge. Each morning when you perform your dressing and hygiene ritual, think about the day ahead and suit up in your emotional mask as well. Have you ever noticed that you act differently when you are dressed up? Most people are more sophisticated, choose their words more carefully, and act on their best behavior. So take care with your appearance and your demeanor, choice of words and professional attitude with follow. 


It sounds too simple but it works. The other day, I was late for an important meeting and discovered that I forgot something at home. I was irritated because it was one of several things that had gone wrong that morning. I returned home only to discover that the item was in my briefcase all along. Now I was really angry! I tromped on my accelerator and started speeding like a fool. As I slammed to a stop at a red light, I could feel my blood pressure pounding in my temples and I was panting and almost dizzy with anxiety. As I sat and stewed in my own adrenaline, I realized I had to calm down. I began to breathe deeply through my mouth and exhaled through my nose in a slow even rhythm. Within several blocks, I was calmer and starting to think more rationally. 

Reframe your “catastrophe” in more realistic terms

Once you’re upset or stressed, emotions can carry your thoughts to a distorted, histrionic level. “I’m going to get in trouble with my boss!” “My client will be furious with me because I’m late!” In reality, your boss will probably understand and your client will be content with an apology. When you feel yourself spinning out of control, ask yourself, “What is the most likely thing that will happen?” Picture yourself in that scene and imagine you are talking in a calm, good humored way about the event. Chances are this will calm you down and bring you down to earth. 

Intentionally slow your speech

Several years ago, my car was crushed in a six car accident on the freeway. As it was happening, I recall that time seemed to slow down. Even the air bag seemed to inflate in slow motion. I walked away from the accident and felt fine for about twenty minutes—as long as the adrenaline and shock lasted—before I began to feel my body stiffen in pain. The slow motion affect, I learned later, was the brain’s way of processing what was happening so I could deal with it. Workplace wrecks can work the same way. As the impact of a work disaster sinks in, start to speak slower and in more measured tones. As pandemonium breaks out and voices rise, your slower, even tone will have a calming affect and help you and others figure out what action to take.

See your coworkers as teammates, not as adversaries

Often, during high stress, people turn on each other. “How could you not see this coming?” “Why didn’t you tell me about this sooner!” “How could you make such a dumb mistake?” This only ratchets the stress higher and sprays guilt and blame, which will create anger and resentment toward you, when the group should be focusing their energy on solving the problem.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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