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No matter how much you love your job, stress at work is inevitable. In fact, job pressure is the top cause of stress for Americans, according to a 2013 American Institute of Stress study. But how you handle yourself under pressure or in a bad situation speaks volumes about your promotability and leadership potential.
From a last-minute deadline to serious department budget cuts, here are five stressful work situations, plus effective coping strategies that’ll keep your job and your sanity intact.
1. You Get a Last-Minute Deadline
It’s Friday evening, and you’re about to leave town for your friend’s wedding—until you get an email from your boss about an assignment due Monday morning. Naturally, your first thought is probably along the lines of: “Why wouldn’t she give me more notice?!” (Or something a bit stronger.)
What to Do
Recognize that when we hold onto a belief that something should or must happen, we set ourselves up for inevitable disappointment. Instead of using the word “should,” reframe the thought as something you would like to have happen—as in: “I would like my boss to have given me more notice. But since she didn’t, what can I do to marshal resources so I can get out of here as quickly as possible?”
Then, instead of lamenting about the unfairness of it all, focus on your action plan. Frame your request for a later deadline in a way that outlines the benefits to your boss (“With a few more hours, I could...”). Your boss will be more likely to give you an extension if she’s convinced it’s the best option. If there’s no wiggle room, think about when you can block out time over the weekend (maybe on the plane?) so that you can enjoy the rest of your weekend.
2. You Have a Conflict With a Co-worker
A colleague begins to publicly berate you in the hallway for stealing his client or some other offense. You’re caught off guard, embarrassed, and you want to defend yourself.
What to Do
In the midst of a heated discussion, pay attention to the signs you might be losing control (e.g. trembling hands, a raised voice, tears). If these occur, tell the person you’re arguing with that you need to take a break and temporarily remove yourself from the situation. Whether you’re right or not is irrelevant. A month from now, your point will have been forgotten, but everyone who was within earshot will still remember inappropriate behavior.
Then, go back to your office or cube and decompress. Make an effort to relax, calm down, and consider ways to re-approach the situation, anger-free. Then catch up with your colleague to continue the discussion in a civil manner.
3. You’re in Charge of the Event From Hell
You’ve just been chosen to run your company’s annual publicity event with diva personalities and loads of moving parts—notorious for causing onsite breakdowns among the organizers. Great.
What to Do
Prepare for a likely situation in advance. Assess why the event tends to cause people to break down, then take care of the aspects you can control, and plan how you’ll cope with circumstances you can’t. Is the event stressful because it’s unpredictable and things tend to go wrong? If so, visualize and rehearse how you will respond with a calm demeanor and professionalism when your carefully constructed plan starts to crumble. Practice in front of the mirror and a trusted friend or family member so that by the time you face the scenario onsite, it’s a cakewalk.
4. Your Department’s Budget Has Been Cut
You just found out your pet project might be canceled due to significant budget cuts. Understandably, you’re freaked out—and concerned the consequence will be that your boss will decide you’re not contributing.
What to Do
Since you don’t know what’s going to happen in this situation, you have to stop worrying—before the worrying stops you. Imagine the worst-case scenario, which is that your pet project is indeed canceled. Plan how you will survive this development, including what you will do to increase the likelihood of a positive outcome (i.e. generating ideas for a new initiative that will contribute meaningfully to the organization’s bottom line), and then put it out of your mind. In the present, your project is still on and you still have plenty of productive work to do. Focus on that.
5. Your Job Description Changed
Your organization has merged with another, and because your role is now redundant, you have been assigned to a completely new one, an area you know nothing about.
What to Do
Before you allow your frustrations and negativity to get the best of you, take a step back. Are there ways to view the situation in a more positive light? Every job can teach you something valuable. Is this new role an opportunity for you to learn new skills that will be beneficial in the big picture of your career? Will it increase your visibility within the organization?
Remember you influence your attitude with the thoughts you choose to concentrate on. The more you’re able to spin “bad” scenarios into “good” ones, the happier and more satisfied you’ll be with whatever work (or life) happens to throw at you. Of course, once you’ve learned everything you can from the new role, you may decide you prefer the old one. But now you’ve made yourself that much more marketable if you decide to look outside the company for a new opportunity.
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