How to cope with stress at work

Support work is a personally challenging role, within it we face demands on our time and performance. At times you may find yourself struggling to get all the tasks you need to get done finished in time or maybe you experience anxiety about working with a client who is presenting with challenging behaviour. These demands can create a great deal of distress which negatively impacts on our well-being and our satisfaction with our support roles. In this article we will explore the different ways in which we cope with demands and the most effective strategies to manage stressful work situations.

How do we cope with stress?

Generally, we cope with stressful demands in one of three ways; we may choose to master, reduce or tolerate the demand. Research has shown that there are some strategies that are more helpful and adaptive than others when coping with demands.  Depending on the nature and complexity of the demand we are faced with as well as our emotional and physiological reactions to it, we may choose one coping style over another. These coping styles may relate to how we think and feel (emotional or cognitive) or they may be action based (behavioural).

The most common strategies fall under the two following coping styles: problem-focussed coping and emotion-focussed coping. Problem-focussed coping aims to alleviate stressful circumstances by taking direct actions to deal with the stressor. This style of coping is most effective when we have the belief that something constructive can be done to resolve the problem.

Problem-focussed coping strategies

  • Active coping – taking action to remove or reduce the stressor
  • Planning – thinking about how to cope with the stressor
  • Suppression of competing activities – putting aside other things to deal with the stressor
  • Restraint coping – coping passively by holding back one’s coping attempts until they can be of use
  • Seeking instrumental social support – seeking advice, assistance and information about the stressor (from other staff or your coordinator)

However, problem-focussed coping may fail in situations that are out of our control or difficult to change. For example, perhaps you value making a positive difference in your client’s life but your client becomes frustrated whenever you attempt to fulfill this value.  In this case, and other inflexible situations, emotion-focussed coping may be more effective. That is, attempting to regulate our emotional reactions to the stressor, instead of attempting to change the stressor itself. In other words, emotion-focussed coping involves reducing or managing the emotional distress associated with a stressful situation.

Emotion-focussed coping strategies:

  • Seeking emotional social support – having people (staff, coordinator, family) around you to help you deal with the emotions caused by the stressor
  • Reframing or re-appraisal – reduce stress by perceiving stressor in a more positive way
  • Acceptance – accepting that the stressful event has occurred and that it is real, even if we do not like it
  • Denial – attempting to reject the reality of the stressful event (Note: May be an effective short-term coping strategy but this can become problematic over time)
  • Religion/spirituality – reducing stress by seeing meaning in the stressful situation
  • Humour – coping with a stressful situation through humour

By consciously utilising problem-focussed and emotion-focussed coping strategies we are more likely to be able to effectively manage the stress associated with challenging work demands. However, sometimes we can engage in unhelpful coping strategies.

Unhelpful or maladaptive coping strategies:

  • Blaming – diverting the stressful situation away from ourselves by blaming the client or others
  • Mental disengagement – procrastinating and using alternative activities to take your mind off the problem (eg. internet, daydreaming)
  • Behavioural disengagement – giving up or withdrawing effort to overcome the stressful situation
  • Alcohol and drugs – using alcohol or drugs to reduce the tension associated with a stressful situation

By spending time trying to understand the nature of the demands we are faced with, we are in a better position to consciously utilise effective coping strategies to manage those demands. This can provide us with a greater sense of control and confidence in managing challenging situations in the future.


Source: Emma Thompson, Provisional Psychologist from Independence Australia

If you have concerns for your well-being, Independence Australia offers a counselling and psychology service for eligible support workers. Click here for more information.