Published: 11 May 2009 By Carol McLachlan for CareersinAudit.com
Under Pressure? Survive or thrive, you decide!
It’s January. Tight deadlines, frenzied pace, long hours, short tempers. An uncertain economy, intensified competition - for jobs, promotion and, just about everything else. Undoubtedly, we’re under pressure. Love it or loathe it, it’s not easing up any time soon. Will you survive or thrive? Let’s find out....
What do frogs and auditors have in common?
Drop a frog into boiling water – he’ll leap to safety. But in a pan of cold water that’s slowly heated to boiling point he’ll simply cook. Sadly, yes. As the temperature rises, many of us quietly, if not happily, boil in stress. Like frogs. And it’s bad for us: physically and mentally our health suffers.
‘Stress occurs when the pressure exceeds your perceived ability to cope’ (Palmer 1999). Too much pressure for too long, takes the body beyond the ability to function effectively; this is where the ‘fight or flight’ stress response is invoked. Chronic stress has been linked to heart disease and depression. But did you know there’s good and bad stress?
From eustress to distress
Eustress is the good stress that motivates us to continue working. It provides the incentive to get the job done. To a point we need some pressure to get us going, keep us challenged and productive. Too little pressure and boredom takes hold; we’re unstimulated, job satisfaction declines and life lacks meaning. There’s a fine balance. When the pressure is no longer tolerable and/or manageable when that distress kicks in.
Bad stress, or distress, is when the good stress becomes too much to bear or cope with. Tension builds, there seems to be no relief, no end in sight, no let up. This is the stress that leads to deterioration in performance and poor decision making. Physical symptoms include increased blood pressure, rapid breathing, generalized tension, insidious aches and pains, sleep disturbance. Behavioural clues may show up as, loss of appetite or overeating/drinking, reliance on alcohol and other ‘props’.
Warning: pressure can damage your health
So it is a myth that as pressure increases, performances goes up. It does but only to a point; the point of optimum performance, known as ‘the sweet spot’. Sustained pressure takes you past the peak of productivity and compromises your health. As you read on keep this in mind. Watch out for those stress signs and learn to recognise your own personal ‘sweet spot’.
I’ll survive. I will survive
The good news is that coping under pressure isn’t something you were born with – you can learn it. You’ll know people who are ‘good under pressure’. But first you need to make a conscious decision to learn. Here’s how:
- Develop a strong healthy attitude, a ‘Survivor Personality’ (Siebert). Think challenge rather than burden. Up your tolerance level. Develop self reliance. Accept and embrace a degree of uncertainty, trial and pressure as the norm - or be prepared to get out of the kitchen!
- Anticipate pressure and be prepared. Whether planned or unexpected, you need to manage your mental fitness level on an ongoing basis to be ready for the Big Event.
- It’s not just mental fitness, your physical well-being is equally important. Now is not the time to skimp on good nutrition, regular exercise and quality sleep.
That’s your foundation, now on to some practical measures.
Under pressure we can be faced with seemingly impossible and unrealistic targets and deadlines. This is where goal setting is vital. To achieve the unachievable you must narrow your focus. You have to be clear on what you absolutely must achieve – the bottom line, and separate this from the ‘nice to have’.
Still seems impossible? Dechunk those goals into mini steps; what can be achieved in perhaps as little as 15-30 minute time slots. And don’t forget Pareto’s Principle: decide which 20% of your activities generate 80% of your priority outcomes. Focus on this critical 20%.
When the heat is on its easy to get embroiled in the mix. To survive you need to take a little time out to assess the situation. Stand back. Disengage. Look at the big picture. To avoid feeling overwhelmed, disassociate and try another perspective. Make your focus outward and solution focussed. And try adding this one to the mix: laughing can be a great tension reliever, deflating pressure and making you feel more grounded (have you heard the one about the auditor, the parrot and the......ok maybe not!)
Resilience and recovery are important. Simply telling yourself to “stay calm” and taking deep breaths will help. So is sensing your personal boiling point and knowing when it’s time to take time off. And the great thing about enforced breaks is that they can actually add to your momentum as the mind ‘craves completion’ (Forster)
When the going gets tough, the tough get going
From thriving to surviving - here goes:
- Flexibility and adaptability. Thrivers are mentally and emotionally flexible. They can ‘rapidly read the new reality’ (Siebert). They keep an open mind and are willing try a new or different approach. Studies have shown that the feeling of having some control is important to morale and performance. Alleviate the helplessness in the face of those deadlines with flexibility of attitude and approach – this is an area where you can have a choice
- Emotional intelligence. EI includes self-awareness, impulse/mood control, persistence, personal motivation in the face of frustrations and the ability to keep distress from affecting the ability to think . Not to mention empathy, seeing others points of view and reading and appreciating their emotions. EI is the key to better business performance. To hone your EI go back to some of the ‘survivor’ tips: take a little time out, use humour and detachment, access a resourceful state. And read Goleman.
- Self managed learning. Learn from experience. On a routine basis, review and reflect - what went well and what could have been tackled differently? Model behaviours that worked in the past – yours and others. And always ask: where’s the learning here?
And what happens when the pan cools down?
As a Big 4 audit manager, my portfolio included, no less than 6 audits with reporting deadlines in the same week – the third week of January, as a matter of fact. I used the techniques above not only to ‘get through’ January but to thrive. January madness became the norm. It was February that caused the problems. The ‘mopping up’ period. Deadlines met, hours back to some sort of normality but still lots to do. Anti-climax kicks in. How do you maintain momentum when the pressure starts to evaporate?
Well, first up, acknowledge your success. Celebrate. Have a weekend off! But then get right back in the saddle! And guess what? Create some more pressure. Set start and finish deadlines – and work to budget. Remember Parkinson’s Law? Work expands to fill the time available. And don’t forget: ‘That which does not kill us makes us stronger’ (Nietzsche).
Written by Carol McLachlan, for CareersinAudit.com, the leading job site for auditing vacancies.
Carol FCA is a chartered accountant, executive coach and NLP practitioner. She’s the founder of www.theaccountantscoach.com supporting finance professionals, both individuals and organisations, in a multitude of development areas: career planning, work-life balance, time management, performance enhancement, communication. For more professional and personal development tips, sign up for your free monthly newsletter at firstname.lastname@example.org