Mary Jo Kreitzer PhD, RN, FAAN discusses how to maintain a healthy work environment during stressful times.

by Mary Jo Kreitzer PhD, RN, FAAN, Director, Center for Spirituality and Healing and by Joanne Disch PhD, RN, FAAN Director, Katherine J. Densford International Center for Nursing Leadership

The current economic crisis is creating a tidal wave of stress and uncertainty that impacts the lives of people in numerous ways. Within organizations, budget cuts may mean reducing staff, reorganizing work or eliminating programs, products or services. In people’s personal lives, there are fewer dollars to pay for food, health care, tuition and other expenses of daily living.  For people approaching retirement, there is fear and anxiety as they look at their dwindling retirement accounts.

People react to stress and uncertainly in different ways.  For most of us, high levels of stress and chronic stress can adversely impact personal health and wellbeing, and erode both quality of life and productivity in organizations.  Stress can also provoke us to act in ways that we would normally not. 

To maintain healthy work environments as well as a balance between work and our personal lives, focus on the following strategies:

Acknowledge the reality of the environment. As difficult as it might be, face up to the facts and learn as much as you can about changes that are impending.  If you are a leader, communicate information in a proactive, transparent and timely manner. 

Become aware of how you deal with stress. People respond in different ways but it is common for people to be reactive, fearful, angry, discouraged and threatened. Monitor your reactions to stress and take the time to think through how you choose to respond to a situation.  An interaction with a colleague, an email or meeting can trigger in us a reactive response that we may later regret.  Breathe and take time to thoughtfully and consciously respond.

Don’t succumb to being a victim. Lots of change that is occurring is beyond any one person’s control.  It is easy (and not very productive) to point fingers and find blame. Focus on what is within your sphere of control and influence – even if it is only in how you choose to respond to what is happening in your environment. Be proactive – consider what you can do rather than dwell on what you are unable to change.  Keeping informed is one very healthy action step to take.  Avoid unproductive hallway conversations that foster negativity and fuel rumors. 

Learn new skills, including how to manage and reduce stress.  During times of organizational change and transition, take stock of your skills and abilities and identify other ways in which they may be useful to the organization.  Be flexible in assignments.   Take advantage of any programs or resources that your organization offers, such as new skill training and stress reduction programs. 

Make sure to build time in for yourself and your family or friends.  Most workplaces will continue to experience “VUCA” (volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous) in response to the uncertain times.  Setting aside time to spend with family or friends, or doing something special for yourself, is an important personal survival strategy.  This doesn’t have to be a long period of time – maybe an hour for a walk, or coffee with a friend.

Mary Jo Kreitzer PhD, RN, FAAN is the director of the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota and a professor in the School of Nursing. Joanne Disch PhD, RN, FAAN, is the director of the Katherine J. Densford International Center for Nursing Leadership at the University of Minnesota.