Stress Awareness: How to keep your cool in the midst of chaos

How well do you think you handle stress at work? It seems like every year, practice managers working in busy surgeries are being asked to do more with less.

One of my colleagues told me that when they first started working as a practice manager, it was exciting. However, after a while, this excitement changed to anxiety as they were slowly buried under their workload, suffering from severe stomach aches, with little time for strategic or creative thinking.

Over time, high stress in practice management has drastic consequences for team morale, productivity, and overall patient experience.

Certain amounts of stress can be positive. It can increase your attention and focus, improving performance. But research also indicates that if we don’t keep stress levels under control, we risk hitting a point of no return that could result in complete breakdown.

The good news is there are many strategies you can use to deal with stress before you hit this point. Here are some that you can use regularly to keep your head above water:

Be grateful


You may be asking yourself: What does gratefulness have to do with practice management?
The answer is that it puts your business management decisions into perspective. When life is hectic, it’s easy to go to a place of anxiety and negativity—but being grateful shifts this context. For example:

  • I’m grateful that my body is healthy and that I’m well.
  • I’m grateful that I work with a team of smart, ethical people whom I respect.

Start by noticing things; think about how many times you say ‘thank you’ for something during the day—finding a parking space, someone opening a door for you, or letting you know a problem’s been sorted. Did you smile? Did it make you feel happy?

It’s a reflex, an almost knee-jerk reaction to simple daily interactions. We mutter it, often without really acknowledging the person we’re thanking. Try picking one interaction a day and say a meaningful thank you; make eye contact and say ‘thanks, I appreciate that’ (no need to overdo it, but make it more noticeable than you usually would).

What would happen if you and your team made a 180-degree turn from negativity and dwelling on ‘what went wrong’, to gratefulness and focussing on what’s right? Start every staff meeting from this mindset and see if your perspective changes.

Accept imperfection

You’ve probably heard the story about the Japanese tea bowl? Hundreds of years ago an emperor sent a cracked tea bowl to be repaired. When the craftsmen filled the cracks with gold and resin, the bowl was not only made stronger than it originally was, but had a new kind of beauty – the beauty of the imperfect.

When you try to make every decision the “perfect” one for every possible instance, it just adds stress and risks paralysing you; you’re always worried it’s not going to work or something will go wrong, because you’re trying to achieve the impossible.

Instead of aiming for a perfect decision, go for the best possible decision that you can make, given the circumstances and information you have available at the time. Nobody knows the perfect answer, and mistakes will be made, but the way we learn from them prepares us for the future.

Reduce the caffeine

I love the ritual of my morning cup of tea. I’m not giving it up or saying that anyone else should either—but just don’t drink too much. You’ll feel better, make better decisions, and let’s face it – you’ll be more pleasant to work with.

(To be fair, I do tell people not to approach me before 9am so I can have a cup, but it also means I’ve got at least an hour or so to get through emails, finish a few jobs and sort my day out…).

Tea and coffee raise your cortisol levels (a stress hormone), which is associated with that ‘fight or flight’ response, but also with agitation and irritability. Paradoxically you find that people reach for the coffee or tea when they’re feeling run down because it gives them a burst of energy. However, organic acids in coffee (including decaf) will produce even more cortisol.

I remember working with one GP who would have a coffee on the hour, every hour – that was at least 8 cups a day! He’d realised it wasn’t healthy so took some steps—after cutting back by about 25% (starting with one less cup and gradually increasing it), he got rid of the jitters, his short fuse, and the afternoon caffeine crashes that used to stop him getting things done.

Of course, everyone is different, but if you don’t overdo the caffeine you might just find yourself handling chaos and the unexpected with much greater ease.

Get some more sleep

There’s always that one person who likes to boast about how they function on five, four, or even three hours of sleep. Honestly, it’s nothing to be proud of—lack of sleep leads to a whole host of health risks, as well as clouded thinking, mistakes, and poor decision-making because, (surprise, surprise) you’re tired.
If you want the brainpower to lead and manage a business as complex as a medical practice, you’re going to need enough sleep. Yes, this can be difficult, but I would challenge you to look at what you spend your time doing during the last few hours before you go to bed. If it’s watching movies or browsing Facebook, try going to bed instead (and putting the phone down).

Try the ‘Military Sleep Method’ – it requires practice, but it does work:

  • First, calm yourself and systematically relax each part of your body from head to toe.
  • Start by relaxing the muscles in your forehead – you probably didn’t realise how tense your body can be before you sleep, did you?
  • Next, relax your eyes, cheeks and jaw and focus on your breathing.
  • Now go down to your neck and shoulders and do the same thing, all the way to your toes.
  • Keep your arms loose at your sides including your hands and fingers.
  • Take a deep breath and slowly breathe out, relaxing your chest, your stomach, down your thighs, knees, and feet.
  • Imagine a warm sensation going from your head down to each part of your body as you go.
  • Keep your mind clear and focus on this process, or if that’s a problem, then imagine you’re lying in a boat on a calm lake with nothing but clear blue sky above you.
  • If your mind wanders or you start getting distracted, go back to this image.

Practice this every night for the next six weeks and see how it works for you.

You can find out more about this and other sleep techniques here.

Thornfields have a range of courses such as Personal Resilience and our ILM workshops to help you become a confident, competent manager with the resilience to take on the toughest workplace challenges.

If you want to know more about how we can help, contact us today.


Created by Survindar Chahal
Survindar Chahal
Survindar is the Content Manager for FPM Group. An ex-Practice Manager with an NHS background and previously worked in senior urgent care management roles.


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