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micro skills

Learn to manage your stress so you can keep it manageable.Wavebreakmedia Ltd

This is part of a series looking at micro skills – changes that employees can make to help improve their health and life at work and at home, and employers can make to improve the workplace. The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell have created the Employee Recommended Workplace Award to honour companies that put the health and well-being of their employees first. Register your company for 2018 at

What is your single biggest source of stress?

When some people answer this question, they respond with: "It depends on the situation." Situations can vary from a difficult peer or boss to perceived work demands. Ultimately, it's not the situation as much as how we define it that determines whether it's good or bad.

When most of us think about stress we think of the bad kind, called distress. However, there's also good stress, called eustress, that motivates us to achieve.

The purpose of this micro skill is to pay attention to our daily load of negative stress. We can't change the world, but we can change our optics of what's happening, by slowing down and focusing on what we can control.


The World Health Organization suggests that health is not just the absence of disease; it's the positive state of physical, mental and social well-being. The longer you experience daily high stress loads, the greater your risk for physical and mental health issues and accidents.


When individuals experience work-related stress it's common for them to report symptoms such as headaches, difficulty concentrating and tension. It's not uncommon, under high levels of stress, for the mind to instruct the body to push through fatigue. A person may go days with less than five hours' sleep, not eating and hydrating correctly and adopting poor habits to cope, such as drinking too much alcohol each day.

The first step to slowing stress is to pay attention to your daily stress load so that you're less likely to get on the stress treadmill that can break your mind and body. If ignored over time, bad stress can lead to unhealthy choices, behaviour and health outcomes.

One proactive activity is to monitor your stress load weekly by completing the Stress Load Weekly Monitor and tracking your results on a graph. This will provide you with both awareness and accountability. One option to reduce stress is to build up your resiliency. However, there's only so much within your control. There may be things (such as confronting a bully) that you can being to your employer's attention to help.


Whenever a situation is creating distress and the stress is negatively impacting your behaviour, thinking and emotions, this can be a sign that it's time to take a stress break. Practicing the following four-step, stress-breaking micro skill can help you monitor and lower your daily stress load.

1. Monitor revolutions – This is akin to driving a car that can be comfortably pushed up to 4,000 rpms. Moving above your comfort zone into the red zone, where there are signs and symptoms of stress, can lead to mistakes, accidents and even heart attack.

2. Gear down and get off the ramp – It can take just a few seconds to lower your revs by simply easing off the gas and gearing down. This means getting off the track and taking a moment to pull over and stop. Stopping for a moment to regain your perspective can position you to create a stress break.

3. Get fuel – When breaking stress, you disengage from the work world for a moment to recharge and get your mind and body slowed down. This fueling period allows you to change focus, slow your brain, and get some fuel if you're hungry or thirsty. It's amazing how helpful a five-minute stress-breaking session can be. Take a few deep breaths, read your favourite sports team's score, text a loved one or peer, have a stretch, grab some fresh air, or put some cold water on your face.

4. Get back on the ramp – After five to 10 minutes of stress breaking, it's time to re-enter the track with lower revs and more fuel. This can help train your brain to keep your stress at levels you can tolerate, with lower wear and tear.

Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto and creator of an online Pathway to Coping course offered through the University of New Brunswick.