How can employees use strengths to combat stress at work?

Written by
Changeboard Team

26 Feb 2010

26 Feb 2010 • by Changeboard Team

Stress caused by the recession

The tests and travails of the recession still continue for many of us, despite the official figures suggesting that the economy may have emerged from recession, if only just.

Employees who are fortunate enough to have held on to their jobs are bearing the brunt of more pressure, less time, tighter budgets and fewer staff around them. All of this culminates in the incessant mantras to find cost efficiencies, work smarter, not harder, and do more with less.

As a result, many of us as employees will be feeling the pinch, not only financially but also psychologically and emotionally, as we find ourselves subject to the stress tests which we might otherwise have thought related only to bank balance sheets.

Stress can be defined as the psychological feeling of when perceived demands exceed perceived resources. Put simply, its when we find that what is expected of us is far greater than what we think we can deliver. Faced with this situation, we might respond in one of four characteristic ways.

How do employees react to stress? Stress profiles

The Denier

Responds by ignoring the demands. If I dont know about it, then I dont have to worry about it may well be their internal chatter. In doing so, they keep stress at bay by simply denying or ignoring the demands that exist for them. This can work for very short periods of time, where we simply might need a break. The extra glass or two on an evening is one of the more socially acceptable ways in which many of us buy ourselves time to step back and re-calibrate, opting for some short term denial that will let us recharge and recuperate. Longer term, however, denial is almost never effective, since demands will mount up and ultimately need to be dealt with.

The Ditherer 

Not always sure what to do, and often ends up doing nothing at least nothing worthwhile as a result. They fritter time away on Twitter, checking every two minutes for the latest tweets, or update their Facebook profile, or spend time surfing the internet for anything not relevant to the task at hand. Periodically, theyll try and get back to doing what it is theyre supposed to be paid for, but still theyll find themselves easily distracted.

The key to identifying the ditherer is that they always seem to be doing something, but they never seem to get anything done. Again, in the short term, this can provide the opportunity to take a breather and regain perspective, but longer term it will never be effective.

Dealing with stress - further characteristics

The Doer

Can be recognised for their frantic whirl of activity. They deal with stress by getting stuck in and working harder and harder, longer and longer, on what needs to be done. To top management, they can look in the short term at least like the workaholics of the organisation. They might even get rewarded as such. But longer term, they will have to pay the piper. Its a fact of modern life that there is always more to do than time to do it.

Clearly, then, you cannot do everything by simply working harder, working longer because work creates its own work. As such, the Doer runs the risk of burnout, even breakdown, over the long term, if they dont learn to calibrate what they do. Its important to dial up your effort or dial it down as appropriate, recognising that its alright, even necessary, to take things easier sometimes and recharge.

The Decision-maker

Most effective in how they deal with stress. They are the people who have kept perspective and exercised clear judgement, mastering the mantra of the urgent and important. The decision-maker is able to keep things in perspective and retain a clear head, focusing on what is important and needs to be done now, and what can be moved off whether to a later time or delegated to another person.

Most critically, they do not get sucked into the trap of doing the urgent but non-important: those tasks that eat time but will never make a difference to anything. The best decision-makers have a laser-like focus on what needs to be done, and they do it. They might never seem to suffer from stress, because they have mastered the art of prioritization, focus, and execution.

How can employees combat stress at work?

While we will all have our own characteristic stress profile, its also likely that we will use elements of the other profiles from time to time. Deniers may overcome their own resistance and engage with the demands of the day. Ditherers can find their focus and get on with what they need to do. Doers can learn how to step back and do more self-care, especially when they realise they are far more effective as a result. Even the kingpin of stress management, the decision-maker, can find that they sometimes slip into moments of denial, dithering, or even just doing for the sake of doing.

Whatever your stress profile, though, there is one sure-fire way to work that will reduce the stress you feel. Our research at CAPP has shown consistently that people who use their strengths more are much more likely to report lower levels of stress and this is especially true over time.

Strength assessment - realise different strengths

The problem, however, is that most of us dont have an accurate view of what our strengths are. Its for this reason that my colleagues and I developed Realise2 (, an online strengths assessment tool that can be completed in less than 25 minutes and provides you with an immediate profile report detailing your realised strengths, unrealised utrengths, learned behaviours and weaknesses.

Many of us will think of our strengths simply as the things that we are good at, but our research has shown that that is only one half of the picture. The other half, what really makes a strength a strength, is that we find it energising we enjoy doing it and get an emotional payoff from doing so. Its this energising emotional pay-off that has the stress-buffering effects that we find in our research.

When you understand strengths as the things that you are good at and that you are energised by, a very different picture emerges. When youre good at something and energised by doing it, it is a strength a realised strength if you get to do it often; an unrealised strength if you dont get to do it enough.

Other causes of stress

In contrast, our learned behaviours are those things that we do well, but that were not energised by. If were not careful, these can be a real cause of stress. Most managers will ask us to do more of what we do well, without recognising that it could be a learned behaviour. Over time, therefore, it could actually serve to drain us, de-energise us, disengage us. As a result, it creates the stress for us that can ultimately lead to burnout or even breakdown.

Similarly, if were in the unfortunate position of having to work from our weaknesses a lot of the time the things that we dont do well and find de-energising then were going to suffer as a result.

Top tips to combat stress at work

  1. Make a strengths sandwich by doing tasks and activities that drain you in between activities that allow you to play to your strengths and re-charge. For example, when I have to do the VAT return every quarter, I make sure to put more energising activities either side of it.
  2. Re-craft your work so you can play to your strengths more (having identified what they are). Be creative, and think about how you can use what you enjoy doing naturally well to achieve the outcomes you need to achieve.
  3. Find a complementary performance partner with whom you can share your workloads, with them picking up on what you dont do well, and vice-versa. Taking this up a level, you can look at how your team can work better by allocating tasks and projects according to peoples strengths. In this way, work becomes something that people love to do, rather than have to do it is possible.

Keep things in perspective

And whatever you do, the final and most important advice must be to keep perspective. I have had a business go under and faced all the pain and trauma that can entail.

As a result I now recognise every day that there are more important things in life, and I give them my attention as one way of keeping everything in perspective.

To discover your strengths, learned behaviours, and weaknesses and what you can do about them take the Realise2 assessment at