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International Stress Awareness Week: managing stress at work

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 10 Nov 2022

Experts in management, leadership and business transformation share the best practice for accountants when it comes to handling stress management.

International Stress Awareness Week 2022 is upon us again, and in the nick of time. The pandemic may not be dominating the headlines but now it’s the turn of various economic factors to ramp up stress both at home and work. Thinking about how to manage stress can help you combat becoming overwhelmed and protect yourself from burnout. Experts in management and leadership share their top tips.

Nurture your boundaries between work and life

When work is stressful, it’s all the more important that you don’t allow the stress to leak into the rest of your life, says Richard Templar, author of the best-selling The Rules of Work and The Rules of Management published by Pearson.

If you’re worrying about your client meeting while you’re in the shower, checking your emails on your commute or still thinking about your day after you get home, you’ve effectively added a couple of hours or more to your working day, Templar warns. “It doesn’t actually make you any more effective or productive; it just ups your stress level.”

The trick is to find strategies to stop you doing this, Templar suggests. Sing along to the radio in the shower, read a book on your commuter train, play with the kids or go for a run when you get home. “If you can switch off from work, you’ll switch off from the stress, too. Even if you sometimes feel the need to go into work half an hour earlier to prepare for your day, on balance you’ve still taken the pressure off.”

Understand stress triggers

The intricate work of accountancy requires full use of all your cognitive skills: thinking, reflecting, paying attention. All this is harder to achieve because of everyday stresses and pressures, especially post the COVID-19 pandemic, says Anna Eliatamby, Director of Healthy Leadership CIC and author of the Decency Journey series of books.

“Stress is part of our life. The first step to managing stress is to understand the internal factors that could cause it or make your response worse, for example fears linked to COVID-19, personal problems, health worries,” Eliatamby says. Then analyse the external factors that instigate stress. What leads to stress at work, for example – toxicity, workload? What are the positives? Which of these (internal or external) are you in control of, can influence, or must accept?

Then it’s a case of thinking about your coping strategies and working out which ones are fit for purpose and which need to change, Eliatamby says. “Ensure that your personal self-care – eating, staying hydrated, exercise, breathing, sleeping, healthy work practices – is good and maintained. Good quality emotional support from just one person is all we need. Caring for your physical and mental health also helps.”

Creating and using a self-care plan for these issues will help you manage stress. “Include tactics to ensure you stick to your plan, for example reminders on your phone,” Eliatamby says.

The greatest stress is the stress we put on ourselves

Accountants, professionals – in fact anyone doing important, complex or deadline-driven work – encounters stress. And often the greatest stress is the one we put on ourselves.

But there are several techniques you can employ to help prevent or minimise stress, says business consultant Jeremy Kourdi, the author of Surviving a Downturn, published by A&C Black

  • Develop a positive mindset. For example by avoiding perfectionism and delivering “good enough” outcomes; ending procrastination; adopting ruthless prioritisation; avoiding personalising outcomes; encouraging positive self-talk; and looking for opportunities (eg for learning).
  • Understand and prevent the causes of stress for you. Stress is rarely caused by one factor; it results from a range of issues, the individual experiencing it, and their reaction. Is stress resulting from your job, work relationships, change or something else? Knowing the symptoms is the start; next, identify the source of the stress. Stress is rarely removed in one swift leap but often requires action in a range of areas.
  • Anticipate stressful periods (at work or home) and plan. This includes getting temporary resources during busy periods such as year-ends.
  • Develop strategies for handling stress. For example exercising; resting (sleeping well makes a huge difference); sharing feelings; and discussing issues and challenges. Above all, do something. Suffering in silence will likely make things worse.

Practise everyday actions

Jeremy Campbell, people and business transformation expert and CEO of Black Isle Group, says a methodology called ‘everyday actions’ is worth exploring if you’re stressed and daunted. Commonly used by OIympians as a way to think and train, it breaks the big challenges down into the small steps you can take to begin to progress.

“By making the actions small we make them achievable. It is a surefire way to alleviate stress. I would also urge anyone I coach to get things in perspective at work,” Campbell says.

We are not brain surgeons or astronauts. We’re accountants. No one is going to die because the management accounts are a few hours late. “We tend to exaggerate the importance of issues in the workplace. We need to put things into the context of the important things in life – our own health and wellbeing, and that of our friends and family,” Campbell says.

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