It’s no secret. To do our work well, it’s important we can think clearly, feel confident in our evaluation of the information available, and are capable of making good decisions to solve problems fast.
A little bit of pressure can keep us on our toes, sharpen our thinking and add a level of excitement and anticipation to what we can potentially achieve.
But what about when that pressure becomes too much, grinding us down, sapping our enthusiasm and motivation and tipping us dangerously close to burnout?
The risk is by choosing to ignore or neglecting to effectively manage this environmental pressure, this can result in it turning into something far more sinister and damaging – workplace stress.
The impact of severe chronic stress on thinking skills is like a dialling down our mental bandwidth. With 75-80% of those surveyed indicating stress is the number one challenge they face on a daily basis, something needs to change and quickly, to quell the rising tide of mental distress, anxiety and reduced performance.
This is because under chronic pressure our brain reverts to those evolutionary survival patterns developed to keep us safe.
While not a problem in the short term, the danger in the longer term is that rising levels of cortisol, one of our stress hormones, in excess becomes neurotoxic. This leads to damage of existing synaptic connections, slowing or stopping neurogenesis and the formation of new synaptic connections.
These physiological changes make it harder to think and maintain control of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain we use for logic, analysis and reasoning.
It’s also associated with psychological changes leading to an increased negativity bias and lowered mood. It’s hard to be creative, innovative or even motivated to think, when we’re stuck in the 50 shades of negative grey.
Not only that, exposure to chronic job stress has been reported to be as bad for our health as passive smoking, putting us at increased risk of depression, heart disease and cognitive decline.
Fortunately, there are a number of ways to improve our thinking skills when under pressure.
1. Define the challenge.
If you don’t know the enemy and what you’re up against, this adds to our swirling brain fog and difficulty to identify the problem. This is about acknowledging the existing pressures as YOU see them. We all have different tolerance levels to different grades of thinking difficulty. Think of it as your unique pressure gradient to contend with.
2. Seek perspective.
Before plunging head first into catastrophe and drama queen narrative seek to validate your position by asking “Have I dealt with this problem/degree of pressure before and if so, what worked to overcome it?” “Was it as bad as I feared?”
3. Check the environment for other thinking hazards.
Pressure often has more than one source. This is about checking in on what else is going on in your life. Feeling chronically fatigued, if you’re worried about your children or having relationship issues with your partner these are all significant pressure factors that can make it harder to focus on other tasks.
4. Get support.
Fighting a battle on your own isn’t just lonely, it’s less effective. At work, share your concerns with a trusted colleague, a manager (if they’re listening) or your boss. If you are concerned about making a mistake or poor decision because of the pressure you’re under, taking steps to get help isn’t a sign of weakness. Revealing your vulnerability and willingness to admit your difficulty shows courage and the recognition that as humans, we all have limits.
5. Work out a plan to take the pressure off.
This might involve changing your environment – going for a walk or run, taking time out away from work, temporarily switching off from technology, choosing to ensure you get a good night’s rest or undertaking a relaxation exercise.
Retaining your ability to think under pressure takes practice and perseverance, just as increasing our level of physical fitness takes time and a regular workout.
Slips and trips are inevitable. Looking out for what can lead to a lapse in pressure management is the first step to prevent relapse into those old ways of coping such as smoking and alcohol that don’t serve us well.
If work pressure is an issue for you or your organisation, I talk about how this is putting the health of our organisations at risk in my new white paper Fit For The Future.
You can download your copy here.