Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Thomas S Bateman D.B.A.


Stressing? Proactively Attack Root Causes

Instead of fretting, and beyond the usual techniques, try more direct action.

You already know the standard recommendations for handling stress: exercise, sleep, a healthy diet, yoga, work breaks, time with friends, hobbies, mindfulness, and changing your perspective (for example, viewing your challenging circumstance as a challenge rather than a threat). Nonetheless, you likely are like most other people: still stressing.

Mary Jo Bateman
Source: Mary Jo Bateman

Those tactics help, but they’re not enough. Fortunately, you have at your disposal a very different type of coping strategy—less often written about—that will help you reduce your stress levels.

Aim for the Root Cause, Not Band-Aids Alone

Human behavior and psychology are immensely complex topics, made more understandable when social psychologist Kurt Lewin’s highlighted a key distinction between a person (P) and his or her environment (E). To assess your job stress, start by identifying specific aspects of your circumstances (the environment) that are causing your stress plus how you (the person) might be adding to it, for instance by your interpretation of events.

Further using this distinction, you can spot what familiar stress-management tactics like exercise, meditation, and diet have in common: They all focus on making the person stronger and better able to put up with the many things (in the “E”) that are causing your stress. That’s not a bad thing, but these tactics don’t address the root-cause circumstances.

What people really need is a proactive, big-picture, strategic approach to stress that directly tackles root causes and sustains the effort over time. Especially in the long run, this is better than just stressing and sometimes putting a metaphorical Band-Aid on yourself, while assuming (often erroneously) that you can’t change the situational causes.

Four Steps to Proactive Stress Management

Proactively managing your stress includes these broad steps:

  1. Assess your present. Other responsibilities make it hard to take good care of ourselves. Think about yourself, your stress levels, and how stress affects your health, performance, and other people.
  2. Envision a better future. This doesn’t require a crystal ball. Imagine your future if things continue as they are, and imagine how things could be if you change your current trajectory in a better direction.
  3. Identify your stressors. Don’t attribute your stress to just one thing. Fully consider both P and E causes, and tackle directly the most important ones.
  4. Act to prevent or reduce the causes. Address and change the root causes, be they circumstances you work under or your own actions and thought processes that bring stress upon yourself.

A Prime Example: The Stress of Overload

Both older and more recent surveys point to excessive demands as a standard—often the most common--cause of job stress. Call it overload: heavy workloads, demanding deadlines, long hours, inadequate control or training or other resources, feeling overburdened. The elements of proactive stress management offered below treat the workload as the real problem and therefore the logical target for your stress-management efforts.

To avoid (extreme) overload:

Think ahead (and plan). We think and act with a very short-term bias. Longer-term thinking and preparing for later peak-work periods are (with effort) eminently doable.

Take the first steps on essential tasks. We all procrastinate, but first steps taken early can ease our minds a bit, tell us something about how much time the task might require, and improve ultimate work quality.

Say no (strategically). Being a net giver rather than a taker is a good thing. But don’t always say yes to the point of being the go-to person when others want to offload their work. Think about it before answering yes, and say no when appropriate.

Volunteer less (strategically). Some people over-volunteer to the point of getting behind and then submitting important work that is subpar. Spend your most vital efforts contributing where you’ll have the biggest effect.

To reduce your overload:

Delegate well. Delegating poorly will make your overload worse. Basic rules are to 1) hand off work to someone trustworthy, with relevant skills and a willingness to learn what’s needed to perform well; 2) communicate deadlines and expectations clearly; 3) touch base periodically to avoid future surprises; and 4) be firm regarding boundaries. This includes not allowing incomplete work to come back to you unnecessarily.

Don’t be a perfectionist in all things. Critical things are worth perfection. Adequacy is good enough for many others, and won’t take as much time. Don’t impose impossible standards or stretch-goals upon yourself if they just aren’t worth it.

Apply the 80/20 rule. The most important here (among many 80/20 rules) is that 80% of your worth to your employer derives from 20% of your responsibilities. So, identify your most important tasks, ideally with your boss, and do a world-class job on those. For the remaining majority, you can do an adequate job, or delegate, or perhaps talk to your boss about relaxing a deadline. Sometimes late-but-great work is better than hastily meeting a negotiable deadline.

Ask for help. Some people refuse to ask for help, but doing so often gives you the information and support you need to perform and feel better. It also shows an appropriate willingness to connect with and learn from other people.

Don’t fret, act. Think of how much time we spend ruminating on problems, worrying and losing sleep without doing anything about them. Taking action removes some workload, creates progress, and makes you feel more accomplished and capable. These are big stress relievers.

A Fantastic (But Not Bulletproof) Stress Shield

Proactive, root-cause solutions are underused and powerful. But they don’t make you bulletproof. There are limits to what we can influence, and life has a way of throwing curves. Instead of making total stress avoidance your goal, be realistic and just try to ensure that stress levels are healthy and manageable. Take some actions that might reduce your stress by, say, 10%. Later, try that again. The future will improve for those who take consistent direct action.