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3 Ways to Stop Stress from Undermining Your Performance

businesswoman relaxing on sofa, vector

Photo credit: (nadia_bormotova)

You probably don’t need someone else to tell you this, but the World Health Organization has called stress “the health epidemic of the 21st century.” 

Yes, it’s that prevalent and has been for years. So, what exactly is it? How does it affect your performance and productivity? And most importantly, what can you do about it? 

Dr. Modupe Akinola, associate professor of management at Columbia Business School, examines how organizational environments characterized by deadlines, multi-tasking, and other attributes such as low status can engender stress and how this stress can spill over effects on performance.

She describes stress as follows: “You can think about stress as a situation where the demands of that situation exceed your resources to cope. So, there’s some type of danger or uncertainty or some effort you need to exert. That is a demand and your resources. You think, ‘Do I have the knowledge and abilities? Do I have the disposition to make this OK? Do I have the external support to support me?’”

Our stress response is designed to evolutionary alert us to life-threatening dangers, such as being chased by a lion. But what’s happening today is that non-life-threatening stressors evoke the same reaction as those life-threatening ones: the stock market goes down, inflation rates go up, and your boss acts crazy, Dr. Akinola explains. And so, we are getting sick and unable to perform as we would otherwise.

Impact on performance and productivity

So, what happens to us under stress? 

When we’re stressed, we don’t think rationally. We tend not to be able to make good decisions. We take more risks. We don’t remember things. It also affects our health and vitality. It can also narrow our focus. It shortens our tempers. And it can have adverse effects on our learning, says Dr. Akinola. 

Three Ways to Manage Stress

Here’s what Dr. Akinola recommends:

1.  Categorize and prioritize.

Identify all the things you must do in the coming week, then categorize them in terms of low or high urgency and importance. “The best managers work on the important” and, hopefully, not urgent, she said. “You don’t want to wait till things get urgent.” Then, create an accountability list and say, ‘Okay, for this one. I’m going to do this at this point. For this one, I will do it at this point.’ Writing all this down is one powerful way to take all the stuff in our heads and put it in a particular place.”

2.    Try relaxing.

There are so many tech-mediated ways now to help us relax,” Dr. Akinola said, recommending two apps: Tempers and Happier. “Breathing exercises can also help. Simply put your hands on your stomach and your feet on the ground. Inhale to the count of five and exhale to the count of five.”

3.    Build healthy habits

around exercise, sleep, diet, and enjoyment. We all know this, she said, but we need to put practices in place that help us act on it. For example, “If you’re not getting enough sleep, then maybe you need to decide: ‘OK, at 10 o’clock, I’m going to put a note in my phone that says, start getting ready for bed.’” 

Your mindset, Dr. Akinola notes, also has a powerful effect. She described a study in which researchers told half a group of hotel room attendants that their work was great exercise and didn’t tell the other half anything. Then, they tracked both groups over time. 

The result: Those who had been told their work was great exercise lost weight, experienced more significant reductions in body fat, and showed decreases in blood pressure relative to the others–even though they hadn’t changed their diet, exercise outside of work, or their workload. 

The bottom line, said Dr. Akinola: “Small changes in mindset can elicit large 

changes in your physiological health.” 

Dr. Modupe Akinola

Dr. Modupe Akinola spoke at the 2023 Massachusetts Conference for Women. This article is based on her talk and lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

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