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Thoughts on the differences between stress and performing under pressure

06 June 2019


Pressure and stress are two words that are often considered broadly interchangeable in the workplace. But there’s a crucial difference between the two that’s worth talking about.

Stress is the feeling you have when there are too many demands being placed on you, and you don’t feel you have the resources (the time, the money or the energy) to meet them. When you’re feeling stressed, your number one priority should be to do whatever is required in order to feel less overwhelmed.

Pressure, on the other hand, is the situation you find yourself in where there’s a lot at stake, and the outcome is dependent on you performing in a way that shows you’re up to the task. Sports people find themselves under pressure a lot, because they know that what they do could mean the difference between winning and losing. When you’re under pressure, your primary objective is to perform as well as you need to in order to achieve your goal.

What causes pressure?

Pressure can be internal (largely self-imposed and often caused by wanting to progress) or external (someone else’s doing – could be a manager or could be factors outside of work). It’s also not a bad thing.

Up to a certain point, most of us perform better when we’re under pressure. The problems start, however, once we reach our tipping point. At this point we stop functioning well, and our physical and mental health begins to suffer. As the saying goes, pressure can burst a pipe or pressure can make a diamond.

Stress or pressure? Spotting the difference

A good way to help you distinguish between stress and pressure is to think about the options open to you. In a true pressure situation, your choices are going to be quite limited. You’ll probably need to devote as much energy and concentration as you have into completing the task at hand. All your senses become very alert to help you get things done as quickly and efficiently as possible.

But your body can’t function in that heightened state permanently. And if you’re treating stress as pressure, you risk going to the ‘peak performance’ well too many times and coming up empty. Everything you encounter will start to feel like a high stake, win or lose, do or die situation. As every successful athlete knows, you can’t operate at maximum output 100% of the time. You need to choose the right times to perform at your peak.

In a stressful situation, we lose focus and the ability to think clearly. We experience the heightened state, but we never get the chance to ‘decompress’ or recover the energy we’ve spent.

This is why it’s so important to recognise stress and find ways to alleviate it. It could be exercise, it could be meeting up with friends or doing anything that allows you to recharge, and takes your mind of that feeling of being under-resourced and overwhelmed.

While the causes of stress are different for everyone, I think some of the mechanisms we can use to cope are quite similar. The ones below are personal to me, but hopefully some of my learnings are helpful.

So much to do, so little time…

I start from a position of accepting that I always have too much to do. When you accept this, the mountain of work in front of you becomes less daunting, and it means you’re not subject to the same feast and famine cycle (which I think can be even more difficult to cope with).

I imagine ‘too much to do’ syndrome applies to quite a few of us. The best way I’ve found of coping with this is to be ruthless in how I prioritise and how I spend my time. This requires me to say no to quite a few things (not a very natural Octopus response).

Never half-do things

I see so many people with hundreds of tasks open in triffid-like inboxes, where they end up cancelling meetings or postponing meetings at the last minute because they have something else which is suddenly more important.

Jumping from task to task, but not quite finishing any of them, is a terrible way of working (and a big creator of unnecessary pressure and stress). My way around this is to prioritise ruthlessly and then start ticking things off.

Build better working habits

I think it’s incredibly important to create an environment that makes it easy for you to be as efficient as possible. When I work in reception, I spend 10-15 minutes every hour talking to people I wouldn’t normally get to talk to. And then the other 45-50 minutes focused on what I need to get done. I turn my email off and focus 100% on the thing I’m working on. It means I work many times faster than if I was dealing with constant email interruptions.

Pressure points

There are things you can do to help ease the pressure you feel at work as well. My first piece of advice would be to make sure you don’t put off the things that are difficult, especially if it’s something personal (feedback to a colleague is a good example). If something has annoyed or upset you, the sooner you have the conversation, the better. If you don’t, it gnaws away at you and adds to the overall pressure you’re feeling.

Asking for help

Admitting when we’re struggling, or that we would benefit from the input of others is something that most ‘can-do’ people aren’t very good at. When you stop and think about this, it’s bizarre.

We’ve introduced a number of different initiatives to help our people spot the warning signs when it comes to stress and pressure, and to encourage them to act before things feel out of their control. Initiatives such as Office Vibe ensure we regularly ‘take the temperature’ of the office, offering them confidential space to talk about how they’re feeling, and a safe space to bring up about any issue they would like to.

Promoting good mental health

At Octopus, we want our people to be able to adapt and thrive in an ever-changing and more uncertain world. And for almost the past year, we’ve been offering free counselling sessions through Sanctus, because it’s up to us to remove the stigma associated with mental health in the workplace. Take up of these sessions has been very impressive, because this is a Group-wide initiative and no-one feels like it’s a weakness to book themselves in for an hour’s conversation with a counsellor.

The last word

Pressure can help you to rise to challenges, to exceed expectations and to do things that are truly memorable. Stress is unlikely to help you achieve any of these things. So, it’s worth digging deeper to ask yourself whether you’re experiencing stress or pressure. If you understand the causes behind your anxiety, you’ll be better placed to do something about it, before you feel burnt out.

Companies like ours have a responsibility to help, however we can. I hope (and believe) that Octopus is a welcoming place to come and work. But I’m determined we won’t lose our sense of community as we continue to grow. And to remember that little things can make a big difference to someone’s day and how they’re feeling.