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Experiencing distress? Here are some skills to help you manage it

This is part of a series looking at microskills – changes that employees can make to help improve their health and life at work and at home, and that employers can make to improve the workplace. The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell have created the Employee Recommended Workplace Award to honour companies that put the health and well-being of their employees first. Register your company now at www.employeerecommended.com.

What is the one thing you want to accomplish over the next 90 days?

With goals come the pressure to achieve them, and with pressure comes stress. Not all stress is bad. Good stress, also called eustress, is the kind that helps motivate you to achieve your goals.

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However, if stress moves from eustress to become painful, where you feel you can no longer cope, you are experiencing distress. This is unhealthy stress, and the longer you experience it, the more you are putting your physical and mental health at risk.

Your mental health is shaped by how well you cope. Coping skills are trainable skills that can help you better manage distress.

This microskill focuses on coping skills. Coping skills are tools you can develop. There are both positive coping skills (such as good distractions) and negative ones (such as snacking at night) that can have an impact on your long-term health. Below are a few actions you can take to improve how you cope at work and at home every day. Like any skill, developing coping skills requires focus, practice and patience.

Pause

When you feel you are being challenged, pause before responding. When you get a troublesome e-mail or someone challenges you in person, give yourself permission to slow down. The goal is to avoid thinking errors. A rapid response without facts often adds more stress and complexity to a situation.

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman reported that rapid decision making increases the risk of personal bias that often is not accurate. To reduce bias, slow down and get the facts, get your emotions under control and write out your thoughts. Then, in an hour or so, read what you wrote. This self-editing step will often help change the tone and message of your communication so you can get to a solution based on facts and a desirable outcome.

It helps ensure that the decision is based on your beliefs and that you are comfortable with it. This can help you maintain control and reduce the urgency that some e-mails often create when they are perceived as being undesirable.

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Keep score

Most of us experience moments of distress in the workplace. It happens. But consider the following example: In one eight-hour shift, a person reports they experienced 30 minutes of distress and 7.5 hours of positivity. How would the average person report this day?

Too many people put more value on negative events than positive ones.

In an eight-hour day, there are 480 minutes. Thirty minutes divided by 480 suggests that about 6 per cent of the day was negative, but 94 per cent of the day was just fine.

If, at the end of every day, you completed this simple equation, it would help give you perspective.

There's no perfection. The purpose of this exercise is to keep the perspective that if more than 90 per cent of a day is good, that's excellent.

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One coping skill, called resiliency, helps you develop the ability to look for the positive path in situations when it may feel hard to do so, and believe through your actions that you will be okay.

Use a journal

Keep a daily personal journal for 90 days. One way to support and develop your coping skills is to measure where you are at the beginning of the period and remeasure after 30 days. Also, monitor your daily perceptions for 90 days, using a personal daily journal template.

Keeping a journal helps you take a moment each day to write out your thoughts and to put the day into perspective with respect to how you are doing and feeling.

Consider the example of putting on 20 extra pounds over six months. In this case, the person's waist expands from 36 inches to 44. This doesn't happen overnight. It's caused by daily microdecisions that result in the person ending up wearing pants that are eight inches bigger.

It will take time to change your habits and coping skills, so keeping a journal can help you keep track and keep perspective as well.

Distress can have a negative impact on your mental health when it's rationalized and not dealt with.

Awareness and taking actions to curb your distress can reduce your mental-health risk. If you don't address distress and its effects, it can evolve into a chronic mental illness. The process of keeping a journal can help determine whether you are having trouble improving your day-to-day stress. In that case, you may benefit from getting professional help.

Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto. He is also the president of Howatt HR Consulting and founder of TalOp, in Kentville, N.S.

This series supports The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell's Employee Recommended Workplace Award.

This award recognizes employers who have the healthiest, most engaged and most productive employees. It promotes a two-way accountability model where an employer can support employees to have a positive workplace experience.

You can find all the stories in this series at this link: http://tgam.ca/workplaceaward

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