We get up close and personal in the episode, sharing some of our recent experiences with stress and our go-to coping strategies. While we're no experts, hopefully, we can give you some tips on how you can deal with stress (or at least you can learn from our mistakes).
AASHTO re:source Q&A Podcast Transcript
Season 4, Episode 10: Soft Skills: Dealing with Stress
Recorded: July 13, 2023
Released: August 1, 2023
Hosts: Brian Jonson, AASHTO Accreditation Program Manager; Kim Swanson, Communications Manager, AASHTO re:source
Transcription is auto generated.
[Theme music fades in.]
00:00:02 ANNOUNCER: Welcome to AASHTO resource Q & A. We're taking time to discuss construction materials testing and inspection with people in the know. From exploring testing problems and solutions to laboratory best practices and quality management, we're covering topics important to you. Now here’s our host, Brian Johnson.
00:00:22 BRIAN: Welcome to AASHTO re:source Q&A. I'm Brian Johnson.
00:00:25 KIM: And I'm Kim Swanson and we have an interesting topic for today's episode, don't we?
00:00:31 BRIAN: Well, that will be up to the listeners to decide, but we'll do our best. It's been a while since we've had an episode on a soft skill topic, or a non-technical or non-transportation topic and I think it's about time to cover something else. So, today I would like to talk about stress.
00:00:50 KIM: That's everyone's favorite. Subject right. Stress. What made you? Want to talk about this today, though, Brian?
00:00:56 BRIAN: Well, at the end of 2022, I had volunteered for a rather onerous volunteer job. You know, its volunteer job, So, I'm not getting paid for it in my free time. But what I didn't realize is what a toll that would take on me and my family and every aspect of my life would be affected by the stress that this volunteer position had put on me. And so, I've learned a lot about. I've learned a lot about my limits, and I've learned a lot about stress, and I know that our customers and people in our industry deal with stress all the time. So, I think this would be relatable to them to hear this conversation and maybe it would even be helpful for them to hear that other people. Go through the same thing So, you don't always have people offer up. Hey, you know when you have a conversation? Somebody. Hey, how's it? How? We're going. That's fine. You know, it's like, but meanwhile, they don't say what's really going on.
00:02:02 KIM: I think that's right. That's part of the thing, right? Is that we'll ask, at least in American culture, he's like, oh, how you doing? And then the. The canned response of it's fine. It's OK, even if it's not like I feel like everyone because you're just like, that's a surface question. I know you don't really care, and that's just how you say hello, right? I know for me personally. I've had some challenges over the last few years as well and I have tried not to just say fine. If I'm not fine or OK if I'm not OK, So, I've started to answer that question. Honestly, as opposed to just saying the canned response and I've had mixed results with that when you don't have the standard. Oh, it's fine. They're like, oh, I didn't need to open. That can of... So, there's definitely some interesting things, but I think that's part of the problem is that when you say, you know you have the canned response of, like, oh, it's fine, I'm fine. I can handle it. It's OK you don't really. Take the moment to check in with yourself and say how am I doing right now?
00:03:00 BRIAN: It is interesting the reaction that people have to that too, because they I know some people who don't. Want to hear? Anything they don't, they're not interested, or even more extreme. Team, they only want to hear positive things and they will only say positive things even if things are not good. And I find that to be a little concerning, because that means that they're really doing extra effort to bury issues, which causes a lot of stress for them. So, I kind of feel bad for those people that refuse to say that anything is negative cause I know that they're harboring a lot of issues. They're probably not healthy for them.
00:03:38 KIM: I've heard that's referred to as toxic positivity, where you're just like everything is positive, everything is good, and then that you just blatantly ignore all the negative and that can be a toxic trait for yourself. So, I would like the disclaimer for everyone listening here that we are not experts in stress. These are just our experiences with stress. And how we've handled them. So, we are definitely not experts in any way shape or form. So, take what we say in this episode with a grain of salt. So, I'm just going. To cover our legal behinds in that in that way here.
00:04:11 BRIAN: That's true. And this is also episode... Well, I don't know which. Episode this is going to be in the end.
00:04:17 KIM: 9 or 10 maybe?
00:04:18 BRIAN: 9 or 10 of this season, and you know, even though this is not, this may not be a technical or transportation related topic, but you don't have to listen to it. So, if you don't. If you don't want to listen to it, you. Just skip to the next one, but. But I do want to talk about it, So, let me first talk about stress in general. So, we do need some stress in our life as humans, otherwise we would not be motivated to do much. I mean, some people will say that they're self-motivated and they don't need stress to do that, but that little. Anxiety or little feeling of hey, I need to do this. That is a stress. Now, whether it takes a physical toll on you or not is probably what makes you determine if you are feeling stressed or not, right.
00:05:05 KIM: Hmm, that actually that brings me up to a point. So, here at AASHTO Resource, we have a little pulse surveys that we send to staff and a recent one was about stress at work. And so, I believe the question was a 1 to 5 rating and it was you feel the amount of stress. That work is appropriate or something to that effect, and we had a member of staff. It's anonymous, So, I don't know. But made a comment of no stress is appropriate. Is, So, this is a weird question. There is not an appropriate stress, So, we haven't had a meeting to talk about it as a staff yet, but my initial thoughts were that, yeah, some stress is appropriate just like it you were saying, Brian, that you do need some level and now. It's how that manifests and how you handle the stress that I think makes it if it's appropriate or not or. If it's helping.
00:06:00 KIM: Is it serving you or is it hindering? You and your ability. Need to accomplish things and function in all of that. So, I think there's a difference there. But to your point, I do like my feeling is that. There is some stress that is appropriate.
00:06:13 BRIAN: And you'll know when it's not, because that's when things start to go the wrong way on you and then I'll tell you about. For me, it comes in the form of clouded thoughts. I have a really hard time focusing because I'm too worried about too many other things that I can't get to at the moment. It comes in the form of physical ailments. You know, some people get ulcers, some people get knots in their neck. Like I'd say, those are the more mild, even though it is not mild. But those, I mean, it can be pretty extreme. What can happen to your body when you're under a lot of stress? It could be loss of sleep, which could lead to other ailments. It could be. You could have intestinal issues. You could have one ailment that I did not know would be an ailment. Is that my knees hurt really bad when I'm under stress? This and so, all of a sudden I like, I'll wake up in the middle of the night with calf cramps and knee pain when I'm under a lot of stress.
00:07:13 BRIAN: This is I had never experienced this until this spring, and I can tell you that this this volunteer job that is not related to work at all is the event. Is the activity that pushed me over the edge on my stress. Levels So, it. We'll get into. That in a minute. But what are some other ailments that that you've noticed or heard about with people stress?
00:07:39 KIM: I personally have had numerous physical ailments towards stress, and I think it's funny because in my life before AASHTO I worked in a pretty high stress environment. Relatively, I worked in live local television, So, that is a very stressful environment. So, I thought I handled stress fairly well and it was like, OK, this is fine. Fast forward a couple of years. I learned that I actually don't handle it very well and I'm getting better at it. But I did have some physical ailments that you have listed and others that you have. Not that have had. Some serious impacts on my physical health, but there's some other signs of thank you, Doctor. Google of stress. Reading here is irritability, anger, impatience or feeling wound up overburdened or overwhelmed. If you feel that way might be feeling that you have when you're stressed. If you feel anxious, nervous or afraid. But your thoughts are. Racing and you can't switch off. It's kind of what you've mentioned too.
00:08:39 KIM: Some say you're unable to enjoy yourself. Are you feeling depressed or uninterested in life, or like you've lost your sense of humor? So, those are the top five common signs of stress from the Google, and I can really to all of those at some point, I think. Most people can relate to feeling some of that. At some point, it's how you handle it and how you manage it, and knowing when you need professional help and knowing when you can handle it on. Your own.
00:09:06 BRIAN: Nothing to trifle with. It can lead to long-lasting physical ailments that are not something that can just be turned off. Once you eliminate that stress from your life, I do think it's important that people, especially in our industry, I know we've got a lot of people who work at the laboratories in our program and often they work long hours. It can be difficult. They can have a lot of stress put on them. Shorts, you know, being short staffed or having deadlines that are unreasonable. Or, you know, taking on more work than they can handle. And I do feel for them in those situations because it is something that you like. I think they have to work together with the other, their coworkers, managers, everybody in the organization to try to. Manage their companies in a way that they find that right amount of stress to be effective, but to not drive people away or not get people sick cause like you get people sick, then you've got sick days that have to be taken which means.
00:10:12 BRIAN: Work is not getting done, So, it's really incumbent upon the management and those who direct those organizations to find that right level So, that they can optimize the efficiency and productivity of their company. So, just saying, like, yeah, yeah, yeah. We'll take on all this work even though we can't fulfill it is not a good recipe. Uh for success, for your staff or for your company in general? Now I'm not a Fortune 500 CEO, so.
xx: Again, take that for what it is. Somebody might say, well, that's because you don't understand these operational optimization principles that I learned at Harvard Business School or something like that. But that's. Yeah, maybe. Maybe that's the case, but from where I sit it, that seems to be pretty self-explanatory. That's him.
00:11:01 KIM: Yeah, everyone is different, right? What I think is appropriate level of. Stress for me is not going to be the. Same as what? You think the appropriate level of stress to be. That won't impact it for you, right? Like our tolerance for stress will be different and our coping mechanisms and how we handle that will be different. But I think as an organization and as managers that are listening to this, that you do need to know that that does have a snowball effect. Right, So, if you. Are one department or one person is feeling overburdened and over stressed in their work? They are going to have the physical side effects of stress and that is going to impact everyone else, right? And then or just like they're going to be more irritable. And that again, the things that we kind of listed doesn't just impact the Person feeling the stress, it impacts everybody in that organization, so. I think one of the things to. Keep in mind, as managers and leaders and organizations.
00:11:59 KIM: And I think is something that we actually do pretty well here at AASHTO Resource is that remembering that your employees are whole people that they have a life outside, that there might be a stress that's not even work related. And then when so, you add work related stress to that it just compounds everything. So, I think that's a good reminder for most. Managers and leaders are to remember that your employees are full, complete people, right, and I think. That will go. A long way to kind of helping how you address stress at an organizational level and on the individual level as well.
00:12:35 BRIAN: I think for some people when they hear that stuff, they say, well, that's a luxury that you're afforded as working at a nonprofit. But it really shouldn't be looked at that way. If you want to retain people now, I think some of the same people who would say that that's not important to them also have a really hard time retaining people. And they may want to consider that that might be a reason why they have problems retaining people, but I do want to get into what you can do to cope. With stress, Kim, do you have any thoughts for when somebody is dealing with and you talked about getting professional help that could be one Ave. but you don't have to focus on just that, but what other what other strategies have you learned over the years?
00:13:24 KIM: So, for me personally, some of my coping mechanisms for stress are setting clear boundaries, right? So, especially with work related stress, I am upfront and honest and again it's not. It's a work in progress for me, for sure. I'm not. I don't do this 100%. But you know, if I have of my plate is full with. Things and then something is added to that plate. I am now better at being realistic with my, with my time and with my energy and with my physical resources. To know that I have to then follow. Up and ask. OK, So, how does this fit into what I'm currently working on? In my current goals and my existing goals, what needs to be sacrificed? What's what is the priority? Clear what isn't. And getting direction from people that way. I think it's helpful to know like, OK, I can't do everything, and I know I can't do everything and that's OK and So, help me prioritize what to work on.
00:14:26 KIM: I think that's helped me a lot. Setting those kinds of boundaries in my personal life, also setting boundaries. Is really helpful for me? Where if I have, you know, a friend or family member that causes more undue stress? Just being around them, I limit my time around them, right? Like I I'm just like, yeah, that doesn't help me. Your energy, your drama isn't helping me. And I need to protect myself in in that situation. So, specifically when I'm. Knowing I'm going through really stressful times, I spent much firmer boundaries and then I, you know, kind of loosen those boundaries as I'm able to handle things which maybe I shouldn't have firm boundaries all the time to prevent that, but that's not how I'm not there yet. But those have been helpful for me, and I also go back to the things that I really enjoy, right. Like I like to craft and so, I have hobbies and I lean into those during really stressful times too.
00:15:20 KIM: Or I make sure I fully enjoy my time away from the stressor, whether it be work or personal. stressor. I try to. Have something to focus my energy on that's not related to it. So, what about you? What are some strategies that you've used?
00:15:38 BRIAN: I think the boundary setting is the biggest one. You have to think about what's important too and what you can cut out. I have a really hard time saying no. And that has added to my stress. So, I'll give you an example. What happened in the spring, you know. So, we had the technical exchange. Coming up, right? And So, last year we had some times where I was just scheduled for a lot of sessions. It's like, OK, I can do this. I it's fun. I like doing presentations. I like preparing them. I like moderating conversations and things like that. Like. Yeah, hold on. I got it. So, in 2022, that was.
00:16:24 BRIAN: Uh 2023, when I also took on all this volunteer stuff, I all of a sudden, I realized, oh wait, I was putting a lot of time in outside of work, normal work hours to do some of this stuff. And I guess it just didn't really occur to me that I was doing that much, like, not just doing stuff, but thinking about stuff. And all of a sudden, my thoughts were now shifted when I was out of when I was not in the office. To something else completely, So, I did not have that time to think and strategize. That I was taking advantage of before had this other massive thing going on and for me it was a revelation that a lot of my work was thinking about things and that that should have been obvious to me, but it was not. Now it is very clear. So, now I kind of know what boundaries. Need to be said. It's not just the physical work stuff, it's the.
00:17:24 BRIAN: How much can I mentally take on? So, I think understanding those boundaries has been really helpful for me. But now let me get back to it. I started on the technical exchange thing So, Fast forward to 2023 when I've got this other stuff going on and we're getting close to technical exchange and getting my presentations ready. You know late because I'm thinking, you know. Clouded thoughts, you know, for the first couple. Months of the. Year and then we have people leave and all of a sudden, they had to take on more responsibilities. That technical change that I even had the previous year when it was too much. And I was just like, you know what? I got to do it. I can do it. I can do it. But funny thing happened all of a sudden, I got really sick. This surprised me, actually, because I had talked to some people who attended the technical exchange. And I said, you know, I was embarrassed about how poorly I performed in my presentations and moderating everything. And I had some people say, what are?
00:18:24 BRIAN: You talking about? Little did they know I was a wreck. I was So, stressed, and normally I'm not. When I do those kinds of things because I really enjoy them. But I was So, stressed, and I was So, I don't know what the right word is for it. But you know, it just was not, I guess it. Focused, I was not focused. See the irony of me not trying not being able to focus enough to think of that word. But I felt like I really wasn't focused. And it wasn't really clear. And I wasn't doing my best work. And I was also feeling extremely. Stress not sleeping well and just I felt like I was not myself. I didn't. You know, you talked about loss of sense of humor. I felt like I did that my I was not as I wouldn't say irritable, but I just wasn't. I just didn't feel like myself. That week was a good lesson for me.
00:19:19 KIM: Well, I'm glad that you were. I mean, I'm not glad you went all through that, but I'm glad you have at least a positive takeaway from that experience and how you handle that. But I think it brings up what you said that people didn't necessarily notice a difference, right? That they didn't like. Are you talking about? I think that there is a point there because I know I do this personally as well. Of that I have. My self-imposed stress versus external stressors, So, I have expectations that I am working at 100% all the time. I know what I can do, and I want to meet or exceed my own expectations where other people have different expectations of me. So, I think some of the ways. For me personally, because I've had some. Struggles the last few years outside of work that have impacted every aspect of my life and it has been one of those things that I now am aware that I can't work at. I was bringing 100% of myself to.
00:20:18 KIM: Work all the time and now I I'm not able to and so, it's one of those things that I've adjusted my expectations for myself. I've had conversations with my managers and people with an AASHTO of saying like I'm just not physically and mentally able to do what I was able to do before and here are my expectations now. So, I think it's one of those things that you have expectations and you may view the happenings of an event or your interaction with that is one way. But externally is a different thing, right? People like ohh you were fine. I didn't notice it. Any difference? Where I think most people in. My day-to-day here at AASHTO wouldn't necessarily know that I'm maybe only bringing 80% of myself to work. And they're like, oh, no, it's fine. Everything's the fine where I know there's still that 20% that I just can't give right now. And I mean, there's no surprise HR and my boss I've had this exact same conversation with it. So, this is not a revelation to them.
00:21:17 KIM: If they're hearing this. But it's was hard for me to admit that I can't bring the same level that I was bringing previously. But you know, acknowledging that and it's OK and honestly, it is one of those things where. I'm like, I'm getting a lot done with 80%. Like So, maybe. This isn't the worst thing in. The world for me. I'm like, oh, I'm still getting my stuff done and it's still good quality. So, you know, I think it was just interesting what you're, you know, you're sharing your experiences of people perceiving. You're like, oh, you were fine and. You're like, internally I was a hot. Like what is happening. So, yeah, it's just interesting.
00:21:55 BRIAN: And I know we were talking about coping and I was telling that story to get to the coping part. And one of the things I realized was I need to sleep. Sleep is incredibly important for me, much more important than. I thought it was. So, after I got through that week and I had some time to think about. About it, I realized that that is something I need to change and I needed to sleep more, So, I've been prioritizing sleep more. Another thing that I realized is that it it's important to talk about these things leading up to tech X. The stress level was unmanageable at that point, So, I just told people listen, I can't do this anymore, So, I need other people to take care of this, that and the others that you know, list the things out that need to be done. Please don't contact me. This week. I also turned off notifications on my smartphone and my watch. That was huge. I couldn't believe what a difference that has made in my life.
00:22:59 BRIAN: Turning off those notifications, now that I have them back on for some things and not for other things. But when things get tough, they're going back off. And I think like the combination of all those things, trying to eat better, drinking more water, exercising, which I'm still not doing great at, but those things help a lot too. But it is really important to talk to the people who. Are your helpers in your life about how you're feeling? And if you're talking about work strictly, you talk to your other like are you using the resources you have the best way possible. Are there other people who can take things off your plate or share the load temporarily? Whatever, whatever you have? Access to it's time to tap into those resources and let people know that you're pushed beyond your capacity. And they will want to help you.
00:23:54 KIM: And if they don't want to help you, that might. Mean take a look if you're in the right place, if you, if you bring this, if you bring your stress and concerns up into your place of employment and they don't care, then you know maybe that tells you something. Maybe it doesn't not saying one way or. The other, but I think those. Are all really great points. Learning to delegate. Kind of. Using each process of you know this is a moment of really stress or this is a period of great stress, or you know you have a busy season, right? Like construction seasons like you're busy season. So, you know. You're going to be way more stressed during this time. And I'm setting up those kind of safeguards, So, like, maybe for you that's, you know, you're automatically going to turn off notifications the beginning of the year leading up to tech X or something like that or another big event. So, maybe you have these cycles like maybe stress comes in cycles just cause that's your busy period and that you can set yourself up for success and putting these tools in place, but also learning and adding and trying out different things to kind of build your toolbox of how you handle.
00:24:59 KIM: So, I know every time I have a. This is like, oh, man, this was super stressful. I have like, my comfort TV shows that I will watch where I'm just like, I just need to zone out and watch that. So, I know like that's in my toolbox of like if I get really stressed I just need. I know I need to zone out or I know I need to do something creative because that's very helpful for me and that recharges. But I think if you aren't part of your journey, you don't really know what those things are yet and not how to handle it. A good question that to ask yourself is what do you need more of in your life right now to help with the situation? And then what do you need? Less of in your. Life and then work towards those things. So, you like. I need more time or I need more energy or I need less distraction or I need less. Then you can kind of tackle the problem with those specific things in mind and. We'll see what works for you.
00:25:56 BRIAN: That's a great idea and a great way to prioritize your time. I also like to think about what's the worst thing that happened if I didn't do this one thing, and that helps me take things off my plate. Now one thing I really struggle with and it's one of the burdens of caring about integrity and caring about continual improvement. And caring about customer feedback and caring about all of these things that we care about is that they do put a lot on your plate, both physically and. Optionally, So, like with my volunteer work, I think that was the hardest thing, because typically volunteer organizations like that are completely volunteer run, are pretty imperfect. And that in itself was a major stress for me because I don't do well with imperfect situation, not just imperfect. I mean, it doesn't have to be perfect, but things that are done the wrong way do not sit well with me. So, when I'm working with somebody who doesn't like to do things the right way or I see a situation that is just.
00:27:01 BRIAN: So, suboptimal that I think it's unacceptable. it is no good for me So, like that added to my load and I had to start letting some things go too. So, just for my own health and sanity. And that was a good coping mechanism too.
00:27:17 KIM: In my life outside of AASHTO, I'm also a life coach and So, part of the things that I talked about and that is where what you just expressed was where your core values were misaligned with what you were working on and the core values for the other organization or other person. So, one of my core values is usefulness and being productive and effective and efficient. And I have a similar thing right now where I'm volunteering for organization and it's not being. Done as effectively as it could be. Or as efficiently. And it is one of those things I'm like, OK, So, I'm here doing acts for this volunteer. But I'm also going to help in this area because it doesn't sit well with me otherwise. So, I definitely can relate to what you were saying there. But that's a misalignment, and So, you're like, ooh, if our values don't align right now. You should be more strategic in how you select volunteer opportunities in the future.
00:28:07 BRIAN: Excellent point. And the hard thing about it is you won't know until you're in it, because every volunteer organization says the right things, right? They all have these, like, really nice mission statements. And all their values are positive. I mean most of them right. So, then you get into. It and you're like this is not at all what they what? I thought that they. Cared about or did or because it really those volunteers that get in there are the ones who drive the actual like culture that, that, that organization has.
00:28:32 KIM: MM.
00:28:39 BRIAN: Because anyway, we're about out of time with this topic, but I hope that at least something positive was taken from it by someone who listened to this. If they made it all the way through and moving forward, we hope that people are not discouraged from volunteering at different, different places after they heard all this. It is really an important thing to be part of the Community and to actually give of yourself. Outside of your work, if you can, but uh, you got to figure out when you can and when you can't and how much you can take on before you do it. So, don't, don't be afraid to put yourself out there, but know when to say when. If you can, do you have any last thoughts that might be helpful for people?
00:29:17 KIM: I've been lucky where I can generally and not think about work when I'm not working, and I would encourage everyone to really focus and hone in and practice doing that makes when you're working work. But when you're not working. Don't think about. Work kind of like you were saying that you didn't realize how much time you spent outside of your working hours thinking about projects and things like that, and how much of a mental tool that takes. So, I've been fairly blessed to be in positions where I've been able to do that very easily, have a clear work and non work thought process, So, I would just encourage. Everyone to try to kind of strengthen that boundary within themselves of when you're not working, don't work and actually enjoy. The people you're with and your family and your friends and the activities that you're doing and I think. That will really help with stress.
00:30:11 BRIAN: That is probably the one area that I really am terrible at and need to get better and communication with your family and your friends about what's going on is important. They'll know anyway because they know you better than anybody. But if you can, if you can talk about that and that helps you. Get into the mindset where you can stop obsessing about it and stop thinking about it and be able to separate like Kim just said then that's great. That really is as good as you can do for that as being able to separate it.
00:30:45 KIM: And I would just encourage anyone if you're struggling a lot with stress or any of the physical and mental side effects of stress, don't be too proud or too embarrassed to reach out for. Help and know when. You need professional help, and you don't have the tools in your toolbox because getting professional help, whether it being talking to someone. Professionally or getting medicine or whatever your professional. Help looks like. It's OK to need everyone's toolbox will be different, and sometimes you need help with that. And I think just don't be ashamed of it. Don't be afraid of it and you know. Do what you need to do to . Live the best life you can live.
00:31:25 BRIAN: That's great. Final thought. Thanks, Kim. We hope everybody enjoyed that. If you have questions, call a professional. Don't call me.
00:31:34 KIM: I agree with that completely, but if you want. To share some of. Your tips and when you see this episode posted on social media, feel free to comment or repost with some of your stress-relieving tips or strategies, or how you set boundaries. We'd love to start that discussion as well.
[Theme music fades in.]
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