First Aid for the Working Frazzled.

First Aid for the Working Frazzled by Cathy Jacob at

Photo by Prostock-Studio

Three “in-the-moment” practices to reduce stress and support your well-being at work.

In a recent post, The Work-Life Wars, I posed two questions.

  1. Is it possible to build a life where work and family life not only live in harmony, but nourish one another? And,
  2. Is work-life balance really the answer?

After decades of pursuing work-life balance, incidents of chronic stress, burnout, and their associated mental and physical health impacts are growing.

What if part of the issue is in how we see the problem?

Is this about finding a way to balance the competing demands of work and family? Or is it about something more fundamental? 

What if we started seeing this issue through the lens of well-being? 

Why is work/life well-being so challenging?

Building and sustaining a healthy relationship between work, family, and leisure is a complex issue.

I want to use a particular definition of complexity that originated with David Snowden, creator of the Cynefin Framework, a framework for making sense of complexity. I will also lean into the brilliant, easy-to-read book, Unleashing Your Complexity Genius: Growing Your Inner Capacity to Lead by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Carolyn Coughlin.  This book is a must-read for any leader navigating in complex environments.

Complex issues are characterized by their many moving parts, the unpredictable ways in which those parts interact, and the difficulty discerning the relationship between cause and effect. The dynamics at play affect and change each other as they interact. Root causes are difficult, if not impossible, to pin down. They are not within an individual’s ability to control. It often takes time to understand the real impact of an intervention. And sustainable solutions tend to emerge over time.

Protecting public health in a global pandemic is a complex issue; the emerging situation in the Middle East is complex; the impact of social media on our society is a complex issue. Systems are also complex – like weather systems and human organizations.

Work/life well-being is complex for several reasons. For one, it involves our bodies and the impact of our environment on our bodies. Human bodies are a collection of complex systems like the nervous system, the digestive system, the circulatory system and so on, that respond to stress and other stimuli in sometimes unpredictable ways. Work/life well-being is both an individual and collective issue. It involves human relationships and the strange and unpredictable ways we interact and behave in groups and organizations.

Here are just some of the interacting forces that impact our work/life well-being.

  • How our minds and bodies respond to sustained stress.
  • Our psychological make up and life history.
  • Our baseline physical health and stamina.
  • Our relationships and the quality of our interactions at work.
  • Our family dynamics, including the age and number of children or adults we are supporting.
  • Workload and staffing issues.
  • Our level of autonomy and feelings of competence.
  • Our ability to see positive results from our efforts.
  • Workplace norms, values, and culture.
  • Our personal financial situation and how secure we feel in our jobs.

So why is this important?

It is important because many of the common approaches we use to solve complicated problems – gathering information, analyzing the problem, finding a root cause, and developing a plan, do not work well with complex issues. Thinking of work/life well-being as a complex issue opens up new ways of approaching it. It calls for experimentation, pattern recognition, careful observation, and learning on the fly. According to Snowden, the only way to understand a complex system is to interact with it.

In the coming months, I will write more about this issue and new ways to approach it using this lens. I will share what I have learned in my own struggle with work/life well-being, what I’ve learned from my clients and others who are working on this issue.

In the meantime, what can we do today to set ourselves on a path to greater work/life wellbeing?

Begin on the inside.

“The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener.”

William O’Brien, former CEO of Hanover Insurance.

In other words, the “you,” you bring to the issue, matters.

Here’s an everyday example to illustrate what I mean.

Imagine you are a working parent with small children under the age of five who need to get to daycare so you can go to work. Because one of them was up all night with a tummy ache, you pushed the snooze button a few too many times. When the alarm goes off for the 10th time, you finally sit up in bed. You look at the clock and your first thought is you are going to be late for work. You feel a jolt of adrenaline, your heart rate rises, your breathing gets shallower and you leap into action. 

You arrive in your preschoolers’ bedroom, rushed, anxious, tense, and irritable. You tell them with an edge in your voice, “We’re late and we need to hurry up RIGHT NOW!”

In your experience, how well does that go?

In my experience, nothing will cause a four-year-old to drag his feet and become immoveable like an irritable and rushed parent.

Strangely, this principle holds true for forty-year-olds as well. If you want to set up resistance, come to a conversation rushed, stressed, and irritable.

When dealing with any issue, your state of mind, your energy, and your approach to your situation has a big impact.

And the reality is, in today’s environment, we are rushed, stressed and irritable a lot of the time.

Here are three shifts you can make in the moment to reduce your stress and bring a more grounded you to any issue.

1. Shift your pace.

Slow down to go fast.

When our primary focus is speed, we often make mistakes or waste time and effort. When you are rushing, your focus is on the future. On getting through this or done with that.

Slowing down brings you to the present. Your actions and movements become more deliberate, often more efficient, and effective. You avoid waste.

Sometimes simply putting your focused attention on something changes it.

“One of the core paradoxes of complex systems is that a lot of effort can have no impact and a tiny bit of effort can have a lot of impact. And of course, in complex systems the bummer is that you can’t know which is which until afterward. But this means that continuing to act at speed can be counterproductive…”

Garvey Berger, Jennifer; Coughlin, Carolyn. Unleash Your Complexity Genius: Growing Your Inner Capacity to Lead. Stanford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Slowing down also creates a powerful signal to your nervous system that you are safe and in control. It is the first step to shifting your state.

2. Shift your state.

When you experience high stress, you can feel your heart rate increase and your breathing get shallower. This is a sign that your sympathetic nervous system has been activated. Your brain and body are feeling the effects of adrenalin and the stress hormone cortisol. Your perspective and focus narrow and you go into a state commonly called “fight or flight.” Unless you are running from a wild animal or an immediate threat, this state is likely not useful.

One of the simplest and most powerful ways to shift your state is to breathe.

When you take a few long slow breaths, you can shift your nervous system into a parasympathetic state, sometimes called connect and restore or rest and digest. Now your heart rate slows down, your breathing becomes deeper, and you regain your peripheral vision. You can literally see the bigger picture. Now you are back in the present moment and operating from a state of calm.

The next time you catch yourself rushing and breathless, pause and try one of these two breathing exercises.

  • Inhale to the count of six and exhale to the count of eight. Repeat this for five breaths to give your parasympathetic nervous system a chance to kick in.
  • Or try the box breath. Breathe in for a count of six, hold your breath for a count of six, breathe out for a count of six, hold your breath out for a count of six.

How do you feel now?

Your problems are still here but notice the different state you are bringing to them.

3. Shift your perspective. 

It’s a paradox of working with complexity that sometimes, bringing your present moment attention to something changes it. At the very least, it illuminates it.

We see the power of perspective all around us in our polarized discourse around politics and social issues. We watch in real time as people witness the same event and assign completely different meanings to it.

Each of us tends to hold our perspectives as “the truth” but they are not truth. They are points of view that reveal part of the picture.

Every perspective you hold on an issue has costs and benefits to you. A sure sign that you are in a perspective that is not serving you is when you feel stuck.

Get curious with yourself.

  • What do you notice about how you are perceiving your current situation and how that way of seeing it impacts you and the situation itself?

Challenge yourself to find three different but also valid ways of looking at the issue.

  • What are the benefits and costs of each of these perspectives?
  • Is there a perspective that offers you a better or different way forward?

Perspective shifting is a powerful leadership skill. And changing your perspective can change more than your mind.

“… we construct our version of the world by seeing it. Life happens to us, and our nervous system responds and shapes what we see. That response shapes what we do, which shapes the way life is happening, which shapes what we see, which shapes the way the nervous system responds. And so on.”

Garvey Berger, Jennifer; Coughlin, Carolyn. Unleash Your Complexity Genius: Growing Your Inner Capacity to Lead (pp. 45-46). Stanford University Press. Kindle Edition.

What if you are stuck or just can’t think of another perspective?

Try moving your body.

If I am struggling and feeling “stuck in my head,” I get up, put my sneakers on, and go for a walk. I am amazed at how the simple act of going for a walk so often opens my thinking and offers me a new way forward.

The goal of examining your own thinking about an issue, is not to put a positive spin on your circumstances. It’s not asking you to ignore a hard truth about the reality of your situation.

The goal is understanding how your way of looking at something is impacting you and the situation itself. The goal is to free you to play with other ways of seeing.

Put yourself in a better position to affect change.

When you shift your pace, your state, and your perspective, you put yourself in a stronger position to affect positive change. You bring a calmer, more centered self to the issue. You bring someone who can see more clearly and who is more resourceful.

These simple shifts will not resolve the issue or deliver instant results.

They simply put you in a better position to solve it. They help you create the conditions from where real change is possible.

One more thing.

Please take care of yourself.

I am a leadership coach, not a therapist. These interventions and others I write about here are not treatments for mental illness, trauma, or other serious conditions.

If you are having difficulty functioning or are experiencing persistent anxiety, depression or other symptoms, please see your family doctor.

Looking for more? Subscribe to The Slow Sip, my free monthly newsletter packed with articles, podcast episodes, practices and practical recommendations to help you transform your relationship to work and life.

    Cathy Jacob

    I'm Cathy Jacob. I am a writer, coach and co-founder of Fire Inside Leadership. After two decades of coaching leaders on how to inspire while navigating the challenges of demanding careers and lives, I’ve created this site to share the best of what I’ve learned from my courageous clients and leaders in the fields of psychology, leadership, philosophy and neuroscience on what it takes to live an inspired life.

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