How to Deal When Work Stress Gets Personal

worried man on couch

The personal is political” was a popular rallying cry of the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s—but many changemakers in the broader social-impact space still identify with this statement.

People are often drawn to social-impact work because of an experience with the cause. But when one is so personally invested, it isn’t always easy to get out of “work mode” once the day is done. So how can you manage your work in a mindful and centered way when problems at the office hit a bit too close to home?

When work takes a personal toll

The day is bound to come—if it hasn’t already—when an external or internal factor connected to the mission of your organization hits you in a personal way. Perhaps the funding stream for your favorite project has been cut short and you feel your job is in danger. Maybe you read something upsetting about your organization in the news. Or have a grassroots movement’s efforts created a groundswell of attention that speaks to you in an intimate way? These kinds of developments can impact our work and personal lives alike.

It’s important to recognize that stress (be it emotional, mental, or physical) manifests itself differently in different people. There is no “one size fits all” approach to handling these situations. But there are guided reflections and strategies that may be useful in alleviating this kind of stress.

Start with the basics: what’s drawing you to the sector?

When work stress gets personal, it can be helpful to take stock of your mission and values—and remember why you wanted to work in this field in the first place. Take a breath and acknowledge what you are feeling. Try not to overthink or overreact. 

To put the observance into context, try using these reflection questions: 

  • “Why did this have such an impact on me? How is this connected to the work?” Connecting what you observed or experienced to the work of the organization may help you focus on resolving the issue with intention and empathy. It’s important to keep in mind that certain problems may not affect everyone in the same way. For example, if you’re in a grant-funded position, project-related funding issues may be more pronounced for you than for co-workers who are paid from the overhead budget.
  • What drew me to the sector in the first place? What is my purpose in this work?” Asking yourself these questions can tame your visceral response. They allow you the opportunity to be re-inspired and centered on the work at hand. 
  • How can I put this in perspective and manage self-care?” Finding ways to tap into your personal mission can help center your thoughts and emotions. So take the time you need to process what has happened. Maybe that means stepping outside of the office for a 15-minute walk or finding a quiet spot to meditate. Getting your thoughts and emotions centered can help you manage your own well-being as you navigate your reaction and response to an issue.
  • What is it that I want to communicate? When and how will I communicate this?” In certain situations, you may need to have a difficult conversation with a boss or co-worker. First, try brainstorming some of your talking points and considering the ultimate objective of your conversation. Body language also conveys what we may be feeling or thinking internally. So be mindful of how you present yourself—and the message itself.

Finding reprieve

  1. Phone a friend: Speaking to an outside, trusted person who knows you very well can provide an opportunity for an authentic exchange. Getting feedback from someone that knows you both personally and professionally—a former supervisor or someone you volunteer with, for example—can provide a balanced perspective. They may also help you identify a secondary person to consult within your organization (like a peer, manager, or mentor).
  2. Journal your experiences: Taking note of your observances and experiences in real-time can help you get your venting out of the way early on. This way,  you can take a more measured approach to the conversation in person. A journal can also serve as a record of triggering events or problematic occurrences at work.
  3. Seek external support: This support may come from a faith-based community, a therapist, or a holistic care professional. Getting unbiased support can help reduce feeling isolated or ostracized.
  4. Advocate for institutional employee support: Talk to your supervisor or HR department about ensuring that proper support systems are in place for employees. This may come in the form of employer-provided counseling services; the institutionalization of mindful activities during the workday (e.g. yoga, art therapy, and pet therapy); or even “town hall”-style office meetings to openly discuss major administrative changes or global matters that are impacting your work.

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As one Idealist told us last year, “when your work feels in sync with your values, it adds joy and peacefulness to your life.” So when pressures arise, let’s be more intentional about creating systems and spaces for that joy to exist.

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