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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

How to combat stress through self-awareness

It’s not just up to employees to be self-aware of how they require support. Managers must also do their due diligence and be conscientious of their co-workers’ feelings.

How to combat stress through self-awareness
[New Africa / Adobe Stock]

The connection between stress and work performance has become increasingly complex. Suddenly, in addition to traditional work challenges like task overload and relationship conflicts, we also feel lonely and overwhelmed by the impacts of things like a global pandemic, social strife, and warnings of impending economic doom. It’s no secret that once we start to feel increased stress and self-isolation, our drive and productivity decrease. How business leaders support their employees during this stressful time indicates how well they will thrive in the future.

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The key to combating stress is self-awareness. However, achieving this can be a challenging task. It’s important to understand that there are two overarching kinds of self-awareness: internal and external. Internal self-awareness means understanding your own values, aspirations, strengths, and weaknesses, while external self-awareness means understanding how others view you in light of these internal factors. One isn’t inherently more valuable than the other, and they don’t go hand-in-hand. If you are mastering internal self-awareness, you may feel more personally and socially in control, but it doesn’t mean you will also have a greater understanding of others’ perspectives.

To tackle self-awareness and introspection, don’t ask yourself “why,” as in, “Why am I feeling this way?” Instead, ask “what,” as in, “What situations cause me to feel this way?” and, “What do they have in common?” This distinction enables you to reframe your perspective and avoid reducing your feelings down to the simplest explanation. It is a technique to help you find solutions rather than dwell on negative emotions.

SO HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO COMBATING STRESS? 

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When you achieve internal and external self-awareness, you understand your strengths and limits. You can approach a situation from someone else’s perspective and, in turn, show empathy for them.

When the COVID-19 pandemic incited a wave of working remotely, people began reporting feeling stressed due to challenges communicating and adjusting to virtual contact. But it’s not just up to the employee to be self-aware of how they require support. Managers must also do their due diligence and be conscientious of their co-workers’ feelings.

Workplaces that value communication and openness tend to foster better stress management. Research suggests that self-awareness not only makes people more confident and creative, but also more effective communicators and wiser decision makers—all qualities we see in strong workers and effective leaders. Therefore, the focus shouldn’t just be on how successful your business is, but also on how successful your employees feel because at the end of the day, the two go hand-in-hand.

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OTHER WAYS TO OVERCOME STRESS

Being self-aware 24/7 is not an easy accomplishment and takes time to develop. As you work on self-awareness, here are some other techniques that researchers have found to be practical tools for minimizing stress:

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

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Finding a few minutes in your day to practice mindfulness (paywall) has been shown to reduce stress, improve attitude, and increase compassion. While practicing mindfulness is not a new discovery in stress management, a recent surge in mindfulness apps and training videos has prompted researchers to study their effectiveness. According to an article published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, live mindfulness programs combined with recorded programs suggest the strongest likelihood of decreased stress levels.

It’s important to note that while it might help you stay present, you don’t need access to an app to be mindful. Mindfulness is being attentive to present moment experiences, which can happen in any context, including walking, driving, or talking with a co-worker.

Meditation

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Unlike mindfulness, which can be practiced at any time, meditation is the cultivation of a particular mental skill and is used to focus on one specific experience in the moment. The focus on breathing is one key factor as to why meditation reduces stress; diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the vagus nerve and is the body’s way of counteracting our fight-or-flight system and instilling relaxation. Engaging in meditation has been linked with greater emotional regulation, increased resilience, decreased stress, and better physical health. As a result, many companies provide yoga or other meditation classes to their employees as an opportunity to provide feelings of calm and overall well-being.

Professional Communication Training

Providing feedback, presenting ideas to a client, confronting a manager or co-worker—these tasks all have the potential to incite anxiety. Teaching employees how to communicate clearly, confidently, and intentionally will increase their skill set while reducing stress in future situations. Studies have shown a higher level of workplace satisfaction when employers and employees can communicate effectively. Consider implementing communication training for your employees in-house or via an outside service.

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These three approaches should be part of an overall strategy whereby today’s corporate leaders embrace self-awareness among their employees and provide the tools to help employees find ways to reduce stress.


Edward Beltran is the CEO of Fierce Conversations, an entrepreneur, and an avid cyclist.

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