How to deal with stress at work


Back in the day, the word “stress” had never been heard of – but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. The panicky feelings of overwhelming pressure, and the accompanying crippling lack of confidence that we can achieve the tasks being asked of us, are nothing new. It is just talking about them that is.

But what is stress? The “transactional model” of stress, put forward by Lazarus and Folkman in 1981, suggests that stress is felt when “pressure exceeds one’s perceived ability to cope”. We can therefore infer that many situations are not inherently stressful, and those feelings of fear can be avoided by changing perceptions of our ability to cope. This could be done either by putting actual support in place, or by changing the way we think.

So, to start off with, here are some common stressful feelings and coping mechanisms which may help.

I feel like a fraud and I will be found out

This is a common stressful feeling called “imposter syndrome”. The important thing to realise is that everyone feels a fake at some point. It’s completely normal and you shouldn’t let it make you feel bad.

Accept failure

Don’t be afraid of failure, or let the possibility of it prevent you making decisions. It’s how you learn. One only needs look at successful business leaders who often have many failed businesses and ideas behind them. If you fail, don’t give up. Get back on the horse. Also, realise that failure is often to do with processes rather than people. Fix the processes and try again, rather than regarding yourself as defective. Accept that you are not perfect, so don’t hold yourself to unrealistically high performance standards. Put safeguards and ‘checks and balances’ in place instead to try and stop things going wrong, rather than relying on expectations of perfect people – who don’t exist!


A lot of good business practice is about transparency. Ensure that you have visibility of measurable things, then you can make informed decisions based on facts, removing the stress of the unknown. For example, you might be worrying about whether your business has enough money to pay its staff – by putting processes in place to measure this effectively, at least you’ll know the answer.

So what causes stress?

During my 20 years of experience working in HR, both in large corporations and SMEs,  and talking to employees suffering from stress, it has been my observation that it is caused predominantly from people fire-fighting their way through their day. Therefore my tips on reducing stress are largely to do with time management.

The Covey matrix

In his 1994 self-help book First Things First, Stephen Covey draws a key distinction between tasks that are “urgent” and those that are “important”. This distinction has a lot to teach us about personal fulfilment, both at work and at home. It is very tempting just to deal with jobs that are “important and urgent”: the ringing phone from the bank, the crying baby in the kitchen. But spending all your time dealing with things in this category means that there is no time for “important but not urgent” tasks – such as a business’s long-term strategic goals, or, to take an example that might come from someone’s personal life: doing more exercise. Not allowing time for this latter group of tasks means that eventually everything will become urgent and you will constantly be firefighting. Also, jobs often become bigger unless they are dealt with sooner rather than later.

Making time for important but non-urgent jobs

Reserve a small part of each day to take bitesize chunks of your looming “elephant-sized” problems. You could call this time “red-hat” time – a portion of your day where everyone knows you can’t be disturbed no matter what, enabling you to actually make progress. You can do this by:

  • Putting your phone on ‘busy’.
  • Turning off your mobile.
  • Turning off your email.
  • Putting yourself down as “in a meeting” on the calendar.
  • The Pomodoro technique is great for actually making productive use of your time. With its name derived from the tomato-shaped timer used by inventor Francesco Cirillo, the technique works by working on tasks in 25 minute timed chunks.
  • Work to the Pareto principle: try to find the immediate 80% of benefit you can get from 20% of the effort. The rest can wait.

Celebrate small victories

Stress means that we can’t see the positives in the things we have achieved. By making yourself take time for important but non-urgent tasks, you will make small but significant progress with your challenging long-term goals. Allow yourself to mentally celebrate this and it will really help overcome that feeling of anxiety when feeling overwhelmed.

Hope for the best but plan for the worst

Optimism is a key, but often under-rated, personal attribute when it comes to business. But that doesn’t mean being naïve. Take time to consider the long-term threats to your business and put contingency plans in place so you’re not firefighting when all goes horribly wrong. This includes:

  • Making sure you have effective cover so that you can go off sick or take a break without worrying about everything grinding to a halt.
  • Learning to pace yourself. Business is a marathon not a sprint – accept that some days just aren’t going to be super-productive.
  • Accepting that timely decisions are often better than ‘perfect’ decisions. Sometimes procrastinating means that the only option left is a bad one.


Buddhism has a lot to teach us about working and living well. One very important aspect of the Buddhist way of life is to learn to “let things go”. In business, failures can be as important as successes as, if tackled properly, they teach us how to improve. Post-mortem all successes and failures to improve your processes. But then, let it go, move on, and don’t continue to mull over what you think you should have done, as this just poisons the mind. Accept that the decision you didn’t take might not necessarily have had a better outcome. You will never know for sure, so be happy that you made the best decision given what you knew at the time and don’t judge your decision with the benefit of hindsight.

How to make decisions

  • When faced with a problem it’s often what you do next to stabilise a situation that counts, so take time to stop and think about what the first action should be. Don’t rush that initial decision-making process, otherwise you could make the situation worse. When a chip pan is on fire, the worst thing you can do is what might seem instinctive, to throw water on it, since water and grease don’t mix. The best course of action is to take a few seconds to remember that cutting off the oxygen supply is the best method of tackling this type of fire.
  • Delegate. Spend your time where you add most value to your business, and delegate everything else. If you don’t trust other people will get the task done properly, you’ve got the wrong people. Get an effective team in place. That does not mean a cheap team – a good team will pay for themselves and they help run the business themselves. A good leader doesn’t micromanage, they trust people to make good decisions. To do this well, they accept that even if their way is different to how they would have done it, it can still be absolutely fine.

Stress at work is something which has become synonymous with the 21st century workplace, but I hope that by following this advice you can at least reduce it, and help others to do so as well.


Sarah Loates

Sarah Loates is a chartered HR professional and owner and founder of Loates Business Solutions Ltd, which provides HR consultancy and training in the East Midlands. Before establishing her business, which has experienced rapid growth over the past five years, she held HR roles at E.ON and PKF Cooper Parry. Sarah specialises in employee relations, employment law and talent management.

Sarah Loates is a chartered HR professional and owner and founder of Loates Business Solutions Ltd, which provides HR consultancy and training in the East Midlands. Before establishing her business, which has experienced rapid growth over the past five years, she held HR roles at E.ON and PKF Cooper Parry. Sarah specialises in employee relations, employment law and talent management.