How to develop resilience and cope with stress

Absence from work due to stress and mental illness costs the UK economy over £30bn per annum, and absenteeism from stress is on the increase. The UK is not alone, as many countries experience the same upward trend. Many of my clients report increasing levels of stress within their organisation, while employee surveys show many people are struggling to maintain their work:life balance. So this article includes practical tips to help you develop resilience and other ways to cope with stress.

How to develop resilience and cope with stress

Definition of stress

Stress is the primitive ‘fight or flight’ response, when adrenaline is released into your body in response to a perceived threat.

Some stress is good because it gives you energy, for example, when preparing to deliver a presentation or before an important meeting. Stress is bad when it negatively impacts your health, wellbeing and performance at work.

There are two types of workload stress: qualitative and quantitative. Qualitative is too much work you don’t know how to do, and quantitative is too much volume of work. Certain relationships can also cause stress, such as when a person’s relationship with their line manager is not good. People often leave companies if they are not managed the way they’d like to be, so if you lead people, please think about the impact you may be having on your staff. Organisational change is another current stressor in today’s climate – it’s essential to keep evolving and adapting but to do it constantly takes its toll on employees.

Are you suffering from stress?

If you feel stressed, or notice that a member of staff appears stressed, don’t ignore it. Here are some of the common symptoms:

  • Insomnia
  • Increased heart rate
  • Raised blood pressure
  • Tense neck and shoulder muscles
  • Headaches
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Repetitive habits, such as biting nails, chewing lips or grinding teeth
  • Frequent minor illnesses
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Forgetfulness
  • Fuzzy thinking
  • Less articulate
  • Procrastination
  • Irritability

If you would like to see the Holmes and Rahe stress scale showing life incidents and their impact on stress levels, please ask for my PDF handout. This is a well established list to help you measure the amount of stress you’ve experienced in the last year.

Tips on handling stress

To avoid the negative impact of stress, here are some practical things you can do:

At work

  • Know your core values
    • Know your core values and live them. These are the inner part of you that will make you feel in or out of balance according to the values of the environment you are in – are they a match?
  • Take a long-term view
    • Visualise where you want to be on a personal and organisational level, and keep that at the front of your mind. This helps keep day-to-day issues in perspective.
    • Know that what is stressing you today probably won’t be an issue next week or next month.
  • Focus on what you can control or influence and forget about the rest (see diagram, right)
    • By focusing on the right things, you don’t try to do everything and achieve nothing.
  • Ruthlessly prioritise and pay attention to the most important / high impact work
    • Given what you are being paid to deliver, are you spending your time on this so you are adding the best value for the company?
  • Allocate ‘worry time’
    • If something is on your mind, allocate time to think about it. When the time is up, put the issue out of your mind so you can enjoy the other aspects of your life.
    • Having allocated time helps keep your worries in perspective. It also helps you focus within your allocated time as you know it is limited.
  • Working hours
    • Determine your maximum working hours per week and stick to them (allowing for emergencies etc.). I recommend a maximum of 50-55.
    • Imagine you have one hour per day to do your job – how would you use it? What will you now drop in light of this?
  • Take a break
    • Go for a walk to change your environment (even if it’s only 5 or 10 minutes), particularly if it’s outside in the fresh air. By stepping away from your immediate work space you can detach a little and gain clarity of priorities.
  • At the end of each day
    • Determine your priorities for tomorrow, then work on them as soon as you get to work the next day.
    • Step away from being ‘on’ all the time. Let the technology work for you, not you for it. Switch everything off for periods of time – it is OK, life will go on!

Outside work

  • Eat a healthy diet (including breakfast), exercise regularly (at least 3 times a week), and get enough sleep (7-8 hours). We all know about these already, but they are really, really important.
  • Make time for your friends and hobbies
    • These are another really important factor in giving us the resilience to cope with pressure and stress, but they are often the first thing to get dropped when things get busy at work. (Ask me for the Happiness Manifesto as mentioned in last month’s article.)
  • Protect some time for yourself
    • Do things that make you happy. Don’t let anyone or anything get in the way of this.
    • Use your holiday/vacation entitlement. Don’t work on holiday.
  • Seek and accept help, and provide help to others
    • By nature, we are social animals who benefit from being in each other’s company.
    • It is a strength to accept help when you need it.
    • Use empathy and emotional intelligence to observe what’s going on with others around you, and help them where you can. By showing appreciation for others we also give positive energy to ourselves.
  • Financial health
    • If possible, keep at least six months’ expenses in an easy-access bank account. This acts as a ‘safety net’ that gives you comfort and options.
  • Practice meditation
    • Meditation stops that constant flow of chatter in your head, and enables you to feel calm and still. 60% of leaders with well developed leadership agility* meditate regularly, and 40% semi-regularly. Try:
      • Traditional meditation
      • Yoga or Pilates (these forms of exercise can be done in a meditative state when you get used to them)
      • Focus on your breathing: Use your whole lungs by breathing in slowly to expand your stomach, then your ribcage, then your upper chest. Breathe in for a count of 4 then out for a count of 4. Do this a few times, then add holding your breath in for a count of 4, and out for a count of 4. Do this a few times, then increase the counts to 6, then 8, before you return to normal breathing.
  • Accept yourself for who you are
    • Know your strengths, be good to yourself, and reward yourself.
    • Don’t compare yourself to others; we are all different and this is good!

* See my articles on Introducing leadership agility and the Leadership agility compass.

Make a stress management plan

One important insight is to recognise that there will always be some kind of stress in your life, but what makes the difference is how you handle it. Stress is a very individual response that’s internal to you; you can’t expect ‘rescue’. Only you have control within yourself – which makes you immediately more resourceful because you can decide how to respond.

Here are some commitments that my clients have found to work for them:

“Every day I go to work and handle 50% of what needs doing – and this is OK.”
“Say no – be more careful before I immediately jump to yes.”
“Every now and then I work from home for a day to sort through priorities from a distance.”
“When things have gone wrong, I allow myself to be unhappy for a day, then it’s well packaged and out of the way. You can’t wallow in it or it would be a disaster.”

How you personally relate to stress determines your coping mechanisms – there is no one way to deal with it.

Adults can be resistant to change; whereas children take 7 days to make or break a habit, we take 28 days! So, whatever change you want to make, do that thing every day for 28 days to embed it as a new habit. Write down your action plan – just one or two things you commit to trying every day for 28 days. At the end of each day, review the impact, and at the end of 28 days, decide how you feel and what to do about it.

How leaders can help employees

Here are a few ways that you can help reduce stress for your employees:

  • Allow flexible working (arrangements could be different for each person)
  • Remove ‘roadblocks’ so people can get their work done
  • Be clear about direction and priorities
  • Listen and care
  • Act as a role model, for example, don’t work too many hours, don’t regularly work evenings, take proper holidays etc.
  • Create a relaxed working environment where people can say what they think and go home when they need to
  • Focus on what is going well
  • Pace the amount of change and also emphasise what stays the same
  • Follow the advice in my Employee engagement article


In reading through this newsletter before pressing the ‘send’ button, it strikes me there are four key things to remember:

1.    Don’t work more than 50-55 hours per week
2.    Ruthlessly prioritise
3.    Know what makes you happy and do it
4.    You can only do your best and this is good enough!

Do you agree?

Please share this article with anyone you know who might find it interesting, and let me know if you’d like help in dealing with stress.

Next month, we start a new series on how to design and develop your organisation, including vision, mission, identification of gaps, strategic priorities, organisational structure, values and culture.