14 April 2014

Surviving and thriving in a stressful workplace

As I travel about the country, I am often asked about strategies to persevere in a less-than-ideal workplace and, in some cases, survive a toxic work environment. Some individuals, compelled to stay in a workplace that lacks civility and esprit de corps, report feeling “stuck.” Others describe being place-bound—either by choice or circumstance—for a variety of reasons. Some, close to retirement, want to finish out their tenure with benefits intact. Others, with small children, are reluctant to make moves that require a change of school or neighborhood. Still others may be place-bound because of a spouse’s employment; and then there are those who love where they live and have no desire to relocate.

Reasons for staying in a less-than-desirable situation vary, and, if you find yourself in that position, you need to consider strategies that will help you cope—maybe even thrive. My most important piece of advice is to be a change agent, and take a leadership role in transforming the culture of your organization. I refer you to Chapter 11 of my book Creating & Sustaining Civility in Nursing Education for a comprehensive, evidence-based pathway to foster organizational change.

When you can't stop the world and get off, hang on for dear life and enjoy the ride! Yours Truly on a zip line in Costa Rica.
If you have made efforts to transform your workplace, and your attempts have failed or fallen short, you may be looking for ways to survive a stressful work environment. The following strategies are based on the assumption that your efforts have produced minimal or marginal results. So, if you are working in a situation that is undesirable but you are unwilling to leave, perhaps for one of the reasons mentioned above, consider these strategies:

1. Live your best life! Enjoy your personal life, and surround yourself with people you love and those who love you back. Develop a circle of support with colleagues and friends to share ideas and ways to bring joy to your workplace. Connect, encourage one another, and spend quality time engaged in positive activities.

2. Expand your professional network outside your workplace. Volunteer for exciting projects, new initiatives, or assignments associated with professional organizations. Associate with people who respect you and build your confidence. Join a “think tank,” and be part of something bigger than yourself.

3. Post positive quotes and inspirational messages around your workspace. Use them to inspire and remind you of family and friends who think you’re a rock star!

4. Always do your best. Stay professional, and behave civilly and with integrity. Despite how you might be treated, always take the high road. Imagine that your interactions are being filmed and may be uploaded on YouTube later that day. How do you want to appear in your video? With poise and aplomb? Or showing disrespectful exchanges and making negative comments?

5. Do small deeds of kindness. There will always be some people we get along with better than others but, in the long run, showing kindness can go a long way toward keeping work relationships civil. Just taking the time to thank someone and acknowledge their work can improve morale. Acknowledge your colleagues’ achievements and contributions.

6. Avoid “water-cooler gossip.” Have a verbal strategy at the ready when gossip occurs. For example, if someone is gossiping about Sam, another colleague, you might say, “That’s not my experience with Sam; perhaps this information was taken out of context. I suggest you talk directly with Sam.”

7. Take good care of yourself. Make your physical and mental health a priority. Exercise, enjoy the outdoors, dance, read, hang out with your pets, or start a new hobby. Take breaks during your workday; go for a walk, stretch and deep breathe, or find another work venue. Perhaps there is a coffee shop nearby where you can set up your laptop and work while enjoying your favorite beverage and snack. Better yet, consider working from home at least one day per week.

8. Maintain a healthy distance from colleagues who bring you down. Consider communicating by telephone or email. Perhaps you can meet by conference call or through an online meeting site. At the same time, hang on tight to your principles, core values, and keep doing the daily habits that amplify their meaning.

9. Employ technology to assist you. To help good practices become habit, use an app to set reminders to get up, take a short walk, talk to coworkers—and breathe.

10. Keep a gratitude journal. Focusing on gratitude and appreciation for the people and things around us decreases stress and puts life into perspective. Devote a few minutes each day to reflect on the blessings in your life. Jot down your thoughts in a journal; if you wish, share them with a trusted friend or family member. Expressing gratitude may be one of the most effective strategies there is for achieving and maintaining emotional health and leading a contented life.

11. Talk with someone. When stress or worries start to build, talk with a trusted friend or counseling professional. You may also consider speaking with a representative of your employee assistance program. If you perceive your situation as serious, you may also wish to consult with a representative of the human resources department in your organization.

12. Be strategic. If you are considering leaving the organization, make a plan and don’t act irrationally—or too soon. Communicate your plan to one or more trusted mentors. Share it with your family or friends, and vet your plan using a decision-making model.

While we may be deeply passionate about our work and professional life—I certainly am—it's important that we always remember that work is what we do; it does not completely define our personhood and who we are. I am buoyed by the words of an amazing mentor who reminded me and the rest of our mental-health crew that, ultimately, it’s the 3Rs in life that really matter: relationships, relationships, relationships. Words to live by. Now, go out and live your best life!

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership (RNL), published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International. Comments will be moderated. Those that promote products or services will not be posted.