When I facilitate staff retreats or workshop on wellbeing in the workplace based on the Happy Healthy Nonprofit, we do some reflective exercises, including taking the nonprofit burnout assessment, identifying stress triggers and reactions before creating a self-care plan and addressing cultural norms..
As a group, I have participants take an online poll or do an exercise with sticky notes, answering the questions, “What are your workplace stress triggers?” As the word cloud is created, we discuss the triggers and reactions. I’ve done this exercise hundreds of time and the results across nonprofits are similar. Workload and deadlines are big stress triggers.
A stress trigger is something or someone that causes you to have a stress reaction that may not be the best response to the situation and even creates more stress. If your stress is being triggered repeatedly at work (or elsewhere) this can lead to burnout. And sometimes, we are not even aware of the symptoms, let alone changing the situation. Anne Grady, in an HBR blog post, describes the harm that repeated stress triggers can create in the workplace:
“When you are triggered, the emotional part of your brain takes over. You are flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, the same neurotransmitters and hormones that have evolutionarily protected us from threats like bear attacks (freeze, fight, or flight). Your logical brain temporarily shuts down, and you lose the ability to solve problems, make decisions, and think rationally.
When this happens, you have been emotionally hijacked, and it is difficult to see things as they really are. You go into protection mode, and until the perceived threat or trigger has dissipated, you will remain there. Over time these reactions can lead to acute anxiety, depression, irritability, fatigue, and other health problems from heart disease to lowered immune response.”
Deadlines are a fact of nonprofit work life. There are grant deadlines, events dates, and campaign milestones — and many of Gantt Chart with deliverable dates for projects. We will always have deadlines, but are they always do or die deadlines, fixed in stone, and unchangeable?
In a working paper titled, “It Doesn’t Hurt To Ask (for More Time): Employees Overestimate the Interpersonal Costs of Extension Requests,” by Jaewon Yoon, Grant Donnelly, and Ashley Whillans, discovered a simple tip for relieving deadline stress. Ask for an extension.
The researchers discovered that many employees avoid asking for extensions because they thought they would be seen as incompetent. But that concern is just an internal message we are playing to ourselves and it isn’t true. Asking for an extension or how firm a deadline is when you don’t have enough time to complete the task due to competing priorities or other reasons is not a sign of lack of ability. On the contrary, it may lead to reduced and improved performance.
Next time a deadline or a bunch of deadlines are stressing you out, why tell yourself that asking for more time will not result in being negatively judged , your organization will benefit with a better executed task, and you will be less stressed.
How do you deal with deadline stress? How does your team or organization address it?