How To Stay Calm At Work: Advice From 5 Women With Very Stressful Jobs

From an airline pilot to an emergency room manager, we ask Canadian women with super-stressful jobs how they handle the pressure.

Life is strewn with stress bombs—especially when it comes to our jobs. In fact, work is the leading cause of stress among Canadians, according to Statistics Canada. (We’re more stressed about work than we are about money, family and even our health!) And a 2017 Monster survey found that one in four Canadians cite stress as the reason for leaving their jobs. The lesson in these stats? Stress at work is unavoidable, so it’s in our best interests to learn how to manage it. And what better people to teach us than Canadians who work in some of the most stressful industries? We spoke to five women who deal with frequent deadlines, high-stakes health care and dangerous situations on a daily basis and find out how they stay cool, calm and collected on the job—and how they decompress in their off hours.

Kristin Long, 46, WestJet Airline Pilot

Kristin (right) and her co-pilot. (Photo, courtesy Kristin Long)

“The aviation business is in my blood. My father was an airline dispatcher, my mother was a customer service sales agent (a.k.a., a ticket agent), my grandfather was an airline operations station manager and my sister is a flight attendant. I started my aviation career 25 years ago as a flight attendant and became a pilot 20 years ago. I’ve been piloting for WestJet for 15 years.

I fly an average of 80 hours per month and every month the schedule is different. The varied schedule isn’t for everyone and switching from mornings to evenings to red-eye flights poses unique challenges. I fly mostly domestic and transborder flights in western Canada and destinations to the southwest United States. Some days are short, less than four hours and some days are long, up to 14 hours. Truthfully, typical days aren’t really a thing in this line of work.

In order to effectively manage and prepare for a crisis scenario, pilots train in a flight simulator every six months. This regular training paired with years of experience has given me confidence in my decisions-making abilities, helping me to stay calm in stressful situations. I try not to focus on what I cannot control. As pilots, we can’t control things that cause delays, like the weather, so I focus on what I can control. This helps me to stay calm and focused when I’m on the job.”

Mana Mansour, 34, Award-winning broadcast producer, host and on-air style expert 

(Photo, courtesy The Marilyn Denis Show)

“Working on The Marilyn Denis Show is both very busy and very fun. As a segment producer, I conceive segment ideas that are both creative and informative for our viewers and then logistically make them happen. This includes booking guests, sourcing products, casting makeover candidates, executing the segment with our director and crew, planning graphics, writing scripts and (finally) rehearsing with our experts to make it all go off without a hitch!

The television business is very fast-paced and deadline oriented. One of my biggest challenges is managing my time in an efficient way so that I feel that I can get everything done—while still doing a great job. But honestly, the longer that I’ve been in television, the calmer I’ve become. I chalk this up to experience and being more confident in my abilities.

My best route to calm is to stay on top of my deadlines by prioritizing my tasks based on urgency. What’s the point of stressing now about something that is weeks away? I also keep an organized inbox and calendar and budget a realistic amount of time each task will take me to complete. And taking a break and grabbing a coffee is so helpful when things get really overwhelming. Stepping away, even for a few minutes, can be really beneficial.

On my off-hours, it’s important for me to carve out some time to connect with my family in Vancouver, whether it’s on the phone or Facetime. It really recharges me. I also love indulging in a great meal with friends. So simple yet so fulfilling.”

Dorothy Quon, 36, Emergency Department Manager at Michael Garron Hospital

(Photo, courtesy Dorothy Quon)

“In a word, the ER is chaotic. The atmosphere is certainly not for everyone. I think you’ve got to be a little [nuts]to enjoy it.

I started working in the emergency department shortly after I graduated from nursing and I never really left. I worked on the unit for seven years, up until an injury (two slipped discs in my spine) sidelined me. Nursing is extremely physical, so during my recovery, I jumped around in different roles that were more administrative work, eventually landing at my current position three years ago.

Now, I’m responsible for making sure the emergency department [runs smoothly and stays on-budget]. I’m in constant communication with staff to ensure patient records are managed correctly—sometimes, it feels like the responsibility of the unit rest on my shoulders. In a way, I probably feel like this because I have intimate experience working in emerg, so I have a deep appreciation and desire to make everyone’s jobs a little easier and more manageable. I know the problems and now it’s my job to fix them.

People come to the emergency room when they’re at their worst. They are distressed, sick or injured and they need help. Understandably, there’s anxiety coming from patients and it’s important for staff to manage their emotions. Sure, they need to be treated with our skills but excelling in the person-to-person connection is vital to a patient’s care. You have to basically learn to empathize without absorbing it. It’s not easy and it takes practice but it’s a must—otherwise, you’ll burn out. Another strategy that’s helpful in stressful situations is to over-communicate. If you’re feeling anxious about something just ask a question and talk it out. The unit has 20 to 30 nurses and five to 10 doctors working at any given time. Lean on the people around you and their vast experience.

On days when I’m mentally and emotionally exhausted, the best thing for me is to find something to focus on. I love hiking, running, listening to a podcast while walking my dogs (two huskies, Juno and Bowie) and going rock climbing.”

Alana Gillespie, 27, Peel Regional Police Constable

(Photo, courtesy Alana Gillespie)

“Being a police officer means that you are awake and at work before most. Every day is different and when I start my shift, I often wonder what the day will be like. One minute I could be at a fatal vehicle collision where so many lives are affected, and the next I could be attempting to resolve a disagreement between neighbours. My stress level could go from zero to 100 within seconds and it’s never easy to predict how and when that will happen. But all of the rewards of being a police officer definitely outweigh the challenges I face.  I love meeting and interacting with new people every day—and constantly learning.

Without a doubt, one of my biggest challenges and stressors is having to make life or death decisions within seconds, and then having to justify those decisions to my superiors. We’re under additional scrutiny, from the public, the media and our oversight agencies.

I did my training with Peel Regional Police, which has an extensive training program for new recruits, plus ongoing training for all officers. Part of that training is being involved in scenarios where we visualize situations and learn breathing and relaxation techniques. This type of training helps me to stay calm and focused during high-risk situations. Another tool for handling stress is leaning on my colleagues, who are more like family to me than co-workers. I know I always have their support when I need it.

Finding a work-life balance, especially when the majority of my family and friends don’t work shift work, takes some effort. But it helps to have a supportive family who understand that I can’t take every holiday off work.

To help unwind and clear my head during off-hours I like to stay active; Crossfit is a major part of my day-to-day life. I also enjoy running and practice yoga as a way to regenerate and recharge. Besides spending time with friends, I also receive a lot of satisfaction from volunteering at a local high school as an assistant coach for the girl’s varsity basketball team.”

Soha Lavin, 42, founder of Countdown Events Planning and Design

(Photo, courtesy Soha Lavin)

“I started my event planning business 17 years ago when I moved from Ontario to Vancouver. It’s a client-facing industry that not only has me dealing with vendors, venues, artists and guests, but also being the public face of my brand and managing my team. (Luckily for me, they’re incredible.) There are a lot of things to juggle but what brings me the most joy is the creative opportunities. It’s a dream job because I have the freedom to come up with concepts and see them through to execution—I receive immense fulfillment from that process alone. I also love being inspired by and partnering with the artisans we collaborate with on different projects.

One of my bigger stressors is when things don’t go to plan. No matter how well an event is planned or executed, it only takes one product or vendor to cancel to push our plans off-track. That’s why I run through different scenarios of elements that could go wrong, so if they do, we’ve got plan B for every step of the production process, just in case.

I think my childhood [spent in Iran] taught me a lot about what is truly important in life. I try and keep the big picture in mind and not allow the little things to send me off course. It sounds simple, but when I start to feel overwhelmed, I go for a short five-minute walk and take deep breaths to centre myself. And I’ve learned that treating others—and myself—with compassion brings a sense of calm. It’s also important for me to decompress. I do that by cooking for my family, which is my love language. Serving others gives me joy and refills my cup.”