Taking responsibility for workplace stress: introspection, observation, and “getting out of this meeting” cards

Photo shows a sample fictional stress kit with paper and a ball and some paint and other containers
Italian Renaissance Stresskit (credits Antonio Sadaric and AI Michelangelo interpretation by Midjourney.com)

[Prelude: Yo,I don’t think we should talk about this

Come on now, why?

People might misunderstand what we trying to say

No but this is part of life…]

Let’s talk about stress, baby

Let’s talk about you and me

Let’s talk about all the good things

And the bad things that may be


Let’s talk about stress for now

To the people at home or in the crowd

It keeps coming up anyhow

Don’t be coy, avoid, or make void the topic

Cuz that ain’t gonna stop it

Now we talk about stress on the radio and video shows

Many will know anything goes

- Adaptation of a Salt ’n’ Pepa song that shall remain uncited here

Desperate times call for simple measures. Mental health deterioration suggests that we are worse than we used to be at dealing with the normal stressors of life because of the trauma and withdrawal of the pandemic: a 25% increase in the global prevalence of depression and anxiety.

We all complain about being stressed or about others being stressed — and in the process, we are stressing ourselves and others out. But very few of us take the time to think about how we contribute to this situation — via our small and big actions, habits, thoughts, complaints, and behaviors. And which, in turn, worsens our ability to manage stress properly.

The main problem with how workplace stress is being addressed today is disregarding the power of an individual and waiting for someone else to step in and make significant changes. Meanwhile, management may opt for quick wins aiming for short-term or public relations goals. Change takes time. And sometimes, this takes too long, especially when you are exhausted from dealing with these workplace stressors.

In this piece, we offer two tools — the Habitual Stress Indicator and the StressKit. One is serious, the other more humorous, but both rely on introspection and specificity. They are after the root causes of stress — from very small to very big. They also provide us a way to share what we learn with others — in doing so, we may refine our ideas, change our behavior, and lower the general stress temperature at home and work.

It feels like everything is on fire — but there is no real escape.

Source: From ‘Playing with Fire: The Anatomy of Burnout’, Capt. Bossman’s Workplace Stories’’©

The world finally acknowledges that workplace stress is a real-life problem with real-life health consequences. If we are to believe numerous studies on alarmingly high self-reported stress levels, things are expected to become a lot worse before they get better.

Because our work is so interconnected by technology and teamwork, our tasks are equally interlinked, and our moods are more contagious. Our roles are less clear and introduce more ambiguity. The higher the level of ambiguity, the higher the anxiety we experience. And the more anxious we are, the harder it can be to deal with ambiguity.

Add heavy workloads, tight deadlines, remote work, and human disconnection, and this stress can become chronic. Friction causes sparks, and sparks aren’t good in explosive environments.

Friends and colleagues more frequently share that they are stressed by work. Or they casually mention feeling burned out, dismissing it as temporary. We have to take it seriously ASAP and as an opportunity to ask for specifics. The most frequent source of stress at work is the boss, so ask, “What exactly about the boss or colleague causes your cortisol to rise?” “How does your response make matters worse?”

Finally, it is always important to remember that what is stressful for one person is not for the other. What is stressful for us at one time might not be stressful at another, depending on what else we have going on. Finally, stress can be good if well managed — helps us change, evolve and perform. Managing smaller stressors gives us practice for life’s larger challenges.

Not enough corporate responses focus on self-reflection and individual agency — and this is where you can make a difference.

Instead of relying on external forces, we suggest you take initiative. Challenge yourself to become an active observer and influencer of stressors at work — those you experience, those you might be imposing, and those you might be able to alleviate.

A question a day for 21-days

A major source of stress is conflict (differences of opinion etc.), which is inevitable between people with diverse backgrounds, preferences, and opinions. We cannot delete “conflicts,” nor should we need to want to. But we can better manage them by taking more responsibility for our reactions and actions.

There are three parts to most habits: cue (colleague talks loudly on phone), routine (go to the vending machine), and reward (high from junk food). Some routines can be psychological — a colleague ignores your comment in Zoom (cue), you become despondent (routine), and you feel that you are the only nice and considerate person in your organization (reward).

Habits take 21 days of repetition to instill, and our default responses to stressors become habit, too. The work here is figuring out why we do what we do and when in response to stress, and how to change it. Human Sustainability Inside Out (HSIO) developed Habitual Stress Indicator to help you do that around three main sets of questions:

· What stresses you at work negatively?

· How might you be contributing to stress at work?

· What can you do to improve the emotional climate at work?

The questions under these rubrics are listed in the Appendix, and the program is available here.

Increasing awareness of how stressful your environment is and what specifically is stressful about it can set the foundation for future interventions. It provides a way to talk to peers and managers, but also partners, parents, and kids.

An imaginary (or real) stresskit

All of us develop coping mechanisms for what stresses us at work. These can be patterns of behavior (tuning out annoying colleagues), escapes (daydreaming about other jobs), or wishes (being boss for a day to set everything right).

Now spend some time thinking about the flip side of these stressors — what annoys you might suggest that would relieve the stress. Think of developing your personal Stress Survival Kit to think of pro-active ways to take action about what stresses you. You will observe that your items will tend to cluster around basic human needs, such as being heard and belonging.

Depending on the situation, you fall back on your stress survival kit and pick the best tool to deal with it. Whether it’s $100 in Gold, or one miniature combination Russian phrasebook and Bible (see Dr. Strangelove). Just as Jesters were proto-therapists relieving the stress of the rules they served, your stress kit will remind you to wear a smile like an umbrella.

Share what your stresskit contains and what you learned from doing it. This could be with colleagues or team members. This could also be a question for a candidate or new recruits. What they share will give you insight into them but also ideas for potential benefits or corporate gifts. It will also reflect that you and your organization cares about reducing stress.

And with holidays coming up, think of tailored stress kits for your loved ones and see how on target they may be — and then ask them what would actually provide relief. The more specific we can be about what triggers us and others, the closer we can come to making positive change.

For inspiration, here some of our items:


- A thinking cap (to signal that you don’t want to speak in a meeting)

- Monopoly-style “get out of meeting” card

- Pink-tinted glasses to take a break from the grey reality

- A Ferris Buehler sleeping in pass


- A workplace tribe membership card “we got you”)

- A free lunch brought to your desk card

- Mouthpiece to take some heavy hits when you don’t make a deadline or miss targets


- Arsene Lupin card (to disappear, change shape, take on a different personality)

- A megaphone to ensure that you are heard in a meeting

- A set of headphones for drowning out the office noise

- Hollywood director’s clapperboard to mark the end of a scene and the start of a relaxation period


- A funny mug that says “I’m so stressed I drink my coffee cold”

- A subscription to a comedy streaming service

- Your favorite childhood cartoon list to soothe your inner child’s ache

- A collection of videos where pets do goofy things

If you give yourself and people insight into specific ways to lower your stress, they will reward you with their consideration.

Make time for yourself, by yourself, first to take the 21-day challenge and then design your kit. By becoming more aware of how self-care can help you deal with external stressors outside of your control, you are already giving yourself more chances to actively reduce your stress levels. And it’s a first step, not the whole journey. Individuals don’t change systems, but systems led and supported by healthy and motivated individuals do.

Appendix: The HabitualStressIndicator©

Thank you for your interest in challenging yourself to be an active observer and influencer of stressors at work — those you experience, those you might be imposing, and those you might be able to alleviate.

Week One: What stresses you at work negatively?

- What one action did your boss take that increased your stress level?

- What one action did a colleague take that increased your stress level?

- What would have made your day significantly better? (fewer interruptions, personal calls)

- How did being pressured at work impact a personal action? (consume more alcohol, cancel an event, be impatient with a loved one)

- Focus on your physical workplace. What increases your stress? (elevator noises, lighting)

- Focus on a strong emotion you felt and try to understand why you felt it. Use the six sigma “why” process to get to what could be a root cause. What did you learn?

- What do your colleagues think stresses you out?

Week 2: How might you be contributing to stress at work?

- Observe if you were abrupt or impatient with anyone. Why? What was the impact?

- What did you do that made your day worse?

- How could you have been more precise in an email or conversation?

- When did you behave in an inflexible manner?

- Did you expect someone to read your mind? Why?

- How many times did you interrupt someone for something that could have waited? Why?

- Did you talk badly about someone today? Why?

Week 3: What can you do to improve the emotional climate at work?

- Reach out to a new staff member to ask them how they are doing and how you might be able to help. What did you tell them?

- Talk to a long-time staff member and ask for a few minutes of advice. What happened?

- Say thank you more often than usual today. Praise good work.

- How can create a positive source of stress at work? Can you motivate or challenge someone, or yourself, in a supportive and productive way?

- Ask a colleague about a work project that brought them joy…

- Write a note to a colleague to thank them for what they did/made you feel.

- Think about someone to whom you owe an apology; if so, do it

- List of things for which you are grateful at work. Do something today to support one of them.

Developed by Human Sustainability Inside Out. Thank you to Dianne Hagopian for the idea and commitment to being her word in practice. Published April 2022. Please do not share without permission.

Antonio Sadaric and I compiled this post, which draws from input from many others, especially Bahia El Oddi and Susanna Harkonen. We welcome ideas and feedback.



Carin-Isabel Knoop (on Humans in the Digital Era)

Harvard Business School Executive Director, passionate about improving lives at work. Pragmatic optimist devoted to helping those who care for others.