secrets for coping with stress at work

Secrets for Coping with Stress at Work

Stress at work is real. Particularly in high-stress jobs like teaching. While study brain research, four E's jump out. Our secret for coping with stress at work will lie in understanding executive functions and emotions. To cope, we must  make the most of encouragement and enrichment to make it through. Let's dive into our brain and how it responds to stress at work.

4 Secrets for cooping with stress at work

The “High E” Moments that Cause Stress at Work

There are two “E's” that make things stressful and need lots of energy.

Executive Functions: Switching Between Tasks Rapidly

Executive functions are those parts of your thinking that need lots of energy. Learn more about this in books like Two Awesome Hours or The Organized Mind.

In the Organized Mind, Daniel Levitin talks about one part of the executive functioning of the mind, the insula. The insula is the “attentional switch.” Levitin says:

“if it is called upon to switch too much or too often, we feel tired and a bit dizzy, as though we were see-sawing too rapidly.” (43)

Executive functions are finite. We don't multitask. We uni-task but might switch between more than one task quickly. When we do this, we can fatigue our decision-making process. Stress depletes self-control.

Decision fatigue is real.  Ever wonder why you have a rough day and go home and blow your diet?

With too many decisions or too much stress, our willpower wears out(Sounds like teaching, doesn't it?) In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg says

“If you want to do something that requires willpower—like going for a run after work—you have to conserve your willpower muscle during the day,”

As a teacher, we're answering what feels like a million questions. We also get interrupted what seems like a thousand times. All the while, our insula switch is flipping between tasks. No wonder we're frazzled by 2:15. After reading research on executive functioning, we can see why.

When a person is asked to make too many decisions too rapidly, it fatigues their decision making and depletes self-control. High stress during the day can mean unhealthy eating at night and many more lapses of self-control. The secret: cut out nonessential questions.

How can you reduce questions? Procedures. I have a sign-out sheet at my door for kids to write where they want to go when they ask to leave the room. They are taught to just hand me the board and I sign. No asking, no decision. Just sign. Sometimes I choose to question or say no, but this is the exception. So, instead of having to decide YES. I've already decided “yes” and only have to decide “no.” This one procedure eliminates at least 20-3o questions a day! (And I can remember where they went and when. ;-) This may seem small but it is HUGE. I feel less stress and the class flows more smoothly.

[callout]Coping with Stress at Work Secret #1. Reduce stress by reducing the number of times your insula has to flip by reducing small decisions. Have rock solid classroom management procedures. When we put as much of our classroom on autopilot as possible, we are freed up for critical decisions. (Read The Classroom Management Book by Wong and Wong for help.)  [/callout]


Secondly, there’s also the other “high E” — emotion. As educators, most of us can handle tough situations. Difficult decisions. Professional discussions. But personal attacks can wear you out.

There are those people who go around and do drama all the time. They love to fuss about this or disagree about that. They do what I call this “neck thing” where their head starts bobbing as they fuss and fuss. Sometimes they look like hens. But for me, they look like a big red sign saying, “run for cover.”

Some see drama and “fun” but I see “high E.” The scenes in Real Housewives of Atlanta look like hell to me. When I see “high E” I know it will zap my energy. I will be worthless the rest of the day.

Schools Are Hard Places to Work.

But sometimes the drama comes running at you like a big old angry bull, and you can’t get out of the way. You don’t know it's coming. One moment you're having lunch in the meadow. Then, you open a door and on the other side you have a big snorting bull running for you, horns gleaming. You just hope you’ll survive.

Lots of people say, “life's too short” and it is. But this is one thing about schools people need to understand.

Schools grow High E situations like a petri dish growing penicillin. Because if you want to get people upset, mistreat a child. And rightly so. Stomp on their dreams and I will be the bull coming at you, and you’d better hold on.

Of course, too many people go into “charging bull” mode before listening to all sides. Or they can't know all sides. This type of person on a school board or in a school makes it particularly hard to survive.

[callout]Coping with Stress at Work Secret #2. Wise people know there are always two sides. They listen to both of them before making up their minds. If it is not their right to listen to both sides, they give people the benefit of the doubt.  Save emotions for after you have all the facts. Give others the benefit of the doubt. Learn to listen quietly. Learn to expect emotions to run high and be a person who keeps yours in check until you can sort through the issues. [/callout]

High E Overload: The Schtuff that Fuels the Fire

Most teachers love to teach the kids. But what we don’t love are the high E situations in the hall, in the parking lot, and in the front office. We have that colleague, and we’ve been around the block enough with this person to know that there’s nothing we can do. They should tattoo an E on their forehead. Every interaction will be tangling with a drama Brahma.

The High E Schtuff that Kills Educators

It is the other schtuff that burns us out.  Why do I call it schtuff?  

Shhhhhh. Well, it combines the “shhhhhh” sound. Like, be quiet. Don’t tell anyone. Don’t say anything. There’s a real pressure in schools not to speak of those things that are wrong. Schools are full of elephants, and we shush them like noisy kids in the library.

Tuff. And then tuff at the end because it sounds like “tough” because the schtuff is just that — shush and be quiet about the things that are most tough.

That schtuff that:

  • Breaks your heart,
  • hurts your feelings, and
  • leaves you spinning out of control like a speeding truck on wet south Georgia clay in a flood.

That schtuff. The schtuff that has you cry yourself to sleep. It gets your neck muscles so tight that you think you’ll break your own neck. Schtuff has you so upset; you don’t know if you can even walk in the building.

And if you’re going to make it through the High E schtuff — you have to have encouragement.

Schools that Handle Their Schtuff

When you have schools with lots of schtuff, you feel the tension in the air. Don't talk about the elephants. Pretend they aren't there. Tough it out. Even though the hope has been sucked out of the room as the air out of a cargo bay on the space shuttle opened in space.

My pastor gave a great example yesterday at church. He says everyone has big heavy baggage. They load up the overhead bins with it. It is heavier than they are. When turbulence hits their life or organization, the bins open and baggage starts falling out.

Exceptional superintendents and principals are great at dealing with schtuff. 

We’ve got too many people who just keep cramming more in the overhead bins. Keep feeding elephants. Keep shushing the troops telling them that everything is OK.

[callout] Many of us work in toxic environments. If I told you that how you're coping with your job was killing you – would you cope differently? It is what we DO with what we HAVE TO DO  that determines our physical health. There are ways we can cope, but it is vital to know that YOU have control over YOU [/callout]

How To Thrive in a High E Environment (even with schtuff)

When you work in a “high E” environment – you HAVE to add the third and fourth E’s, so you can make it ANYWAY.

High E #3: Encouragement

Encouragement is vital. We need people who love us. We need to vent. We need to hear positive things. We must have hope. We need support.

We need encouragement. There are ways to work through problems. Books like

[callout]Coping with Stress at Work Secret #3. Find encouragement in the pages of great books. I just finished reading 21 Great Leaders by Pat Williams. Somehow the fact that Walt Disney failed, and Steve Jobs did too, and Nelson Mandela struggled in prison — that helps us when we face a prison of our own. Knowing the struggles of others can helps us as a fail and get back up and try again. Find encouragement in the presence of people who are encouragers. And if someone is always “sucking your will to live” – GET AWAY!” [/callout]

High E #4: Enrichment

If you’ve seen a baby be born, you know that a beautiful soul comes into the world through much travail and pain. Some of the biggest progress comes through some of the greatest pain. 

If you wait until you have great circumstances to progress, you’ll only digress.

The birth of Mickey Mouse.

An unethical distributor stole a rabbit character Walt Disney invented. So, Walt went back to the drawing board (literally) and created Mickey Mouse. Out of agony came genius.

There are those who see the world as win-lose. Great people choose to see the world win-win.

Small people play king of the hill on tiny hills. Big people make bigger hills. 

  • Be a person of greatness — always work to make a bigger hill.
  • Be welcoming to new people.
  • Encourage others and enrich your own learning.

The world is a vast place. There are many amazing people in it. There are many incredible “undiscovered” talents. Oh, that I could find and encourage great talent wherever it is. People like:

These are just three amazing people out of the thousands of talented people in my PLN. These three (among many others) see the world as a place to make bigger hills. They are welcoming more people to jump on the hill too.

[callout]Coping with Stress at Work Secret #4. To improve high-stress situations, it is going to take lots of people in lots of places being encouraged to make progress. Make a bigger hill for your profession by encouraging more people. Recognize excellence everywhere you see it. Look to enrich the lives of others and your profession. [/callout]

So, my dear friends. I’ve talked myself out of a funk. I was down and despondent and now, by the end of the post, I'm encouraged again.

For there will always be those bulls. And listening to bulls too much is bull. Don't do it.

There will…

  • There will always be people who make schtuff and hurt people and hurt kids.
  • There will always be people who are in positions but do not lead.
  • There will always be short-sighted people who would rather stuff more schtuff in overhead bins and feed elephants than to clean out the mess and get real work done.

As long as there is breath in at least two noses on this planet, there will be interpersonal struggles.

As long as I have breath…

  • But as long as I have breath, I will work to encourage us to be excellent anyway.
  • As long as I have breath, I will work to enrich the lives of others.
  • As long as I have breath, I will work to make bigger hills and welcome all beginners and undiscovered talent.

You can

  • You can live in a small town and have a big mind.
  • You can be a teacher at an exhausting school and have an amazing classroom.
  • You can live your whole live misunderstood and use that to better understand students and their parents.

In the end, to me, High E is about achieving a High Level of Excellence. Anyplace. Any time. Anywhere you are.

If you’re going to be excellent, you have to take on tasks that are emotional and require every neuron of executive functioning you have. If you’re going to be excellent,  you must be encouraged and enriched to do better.

If you’re going to be excellent, it starts with a decision.

If you're going to be excellent, it is up to you.

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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Pam Thompson October 23, 2015 - 9:10 pm

Great post Vicki. Thank you. I desperately needed that this week!

Vicki Davis October 24, 2015 - 7:22 am

You can make it, Pam. It is hard, but plug ahead. These things helped me, I’m so glad they help you. Sometimes it is understanding that there are ways to reduce our own stress that helps us improve our own situation. (The task switching research really helped me!)


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