Tools for Transforming Workplace Stress

by Reyna Eisenstark

Twenty years ago, I was working at a publishing company in New York City. One afternoon, my coworker, a man known for having a short fuse, picked up his wooden chair and smashed it to pieces. The rest of us sat frozen in our own chairs. No one turned around. No one moved. I don’t remember what happened after that, but the moment of the chair being smashed is still as vivid as the day it happened.

Although this is an extreme example of a stressful work environment, it’s certainly not unheard of. Ursula Cassidy, Vice President of People and Culture at InkHouse LLC, a public relations firm in Boston, has experienced similar situations in her career. Before joining InkHouse, she had an employee who would curse and scream, interrupting everyone in the office when he was stressed out; and another colleague who would slam doors during meetings when things got heated.

We all get angry and frustrated at work sometimes. So what does a healthy response to workplace stress look like?

That’s the question that coach and yoga instructor Dana Campbell addresses when she delivers Kripalu RISE programming at the retreat center and on-site at businesses and organizations. Drawing on Kripalu’s 40 years of yoga-based education, and rigorously evaluated by researchers, the RISE curriculum integrates breath, movement, positive psychology, and mindfulness. The program is designed to support increased clarity, resilience, situational awareness, decision-making, work/life integration, and long-term performance, through a set of accessible, evidence-based techniques.

“These are empowering tools,” says Ursula, who participated in a RISE program in November 2018, along with her company’s CEO, Beth Monaghan, and is now bringing the RISE approach to their employees at the firm. She’s hoping to counteract the industry norms: People burn out fast in public relations, she notes, and because of that, there’s a high turnover rate. Another plus: Ursula has found that the techniques she learned in RISE can be used not only with colleagues but also with clients: For example, talking in a calm, even tone to someone who’s stressed and anxious. Without really being aware of it, the person you’re talking to will begin to modulate their tone to match yours.

Stress is, of course, part of the human experience. It can be helpful, challenging us to new heights. Or, as in the case of smashing a chair, it can be destructive. “Stress hormones are designed to help us take action,” says Dana. And that can be addictive. It’s like caffeine, she explains. “We just keep pumping in stress. But then we become numb to it, and we need it even more.” The RISE program works to “help people become more robust in the face of stress. You learn how to build resilience, decreasing painful responses, and building positive, healthy responses.”

The principles that RISE teaches are scientifically validated, which helps reassure those who might be more skeptical about the efficacy of practices like mindfulness and meditation. Even so, changing behaviors and implementing new ones can be a challenge at first. Dana points out that, as with physical exercise, you have to live it in your body first. It’s like muscle memory—you repeat the behaviors until they become second nature. When she works with people and organizations to develop stress resilience, she always asks, “Where are your stress issues? How can we cultivate behaviors in the face of it?”

Dana explains that true organizational change in a company has to start at the top, which is why it’s important for employees at the leadership level to experience RISE firsthand. “The leaders set the tone for the whole company,” says Ursula.

Dana has seen the powerful change that happens every time she leads the program. Even people who were resistant at first almost always get something from it. “Everyone has at least one thing they take away from this that will be a game changer.” As Ursula puts it, “By the end of the program, everyone was changed. Everyone was calmer. It was dramatic.”

Dana hopes that people can take away the simple idea that it doesn’t have to be hard. “We hope that people personalize the practices and use them in their day-to-day life, at work and everywhere else. Small things make a huge difference.”

Three RISE Tools You Can Use in the Workplace Right Now

1. Practice the Complete Breath anytime throughout the day to get centered. Find a comfortable posture. Bring your attention to the feeling of breath moving in your body. Deepen your inhale, drawing the breath into the belly, ribcage, and upper chest. Then exhale completely, reversing the flow. Research shows that slow, deep breathing strengthens parasympathetic nervous system activity.

2. Practice mindful listening during meetings and interactions. Mindful listening is the practice of fully paying attention to the experience of listening to another person. Rather than planning what to say in response or automatically responding with nods and verbal prompts, listen with complete focus, and respond only when the other person has finished.

3. Find ways to connect with your colleagues. Positive interactions—such as expressing gratitude, recognizing each other’s strengths, and sharing authentically—have the potential to transform the workplace experience.

Find out about Using RISE for Resilience at Work, a Kripalu program open to all.

Reyna Eisenstark is a freelance writer living in Chatham, New York. You can read her blog, inspired by stories from her life, at reynaeisenstark.wordpress.com.

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