How to Deal with Stress at Work
If you're struggling with crippling workplace stress, you're certainly not alone. According to research by Gallup, eight out of 10 Americans say that they frequently or sometimes encounter stress in their daily lives, and much of this is linked to the professional environment.
That means psychological strain in the workplace is the norm, not the exception. It doesn't mean it should be accepted as standard, though. Stress is known to have dire mental and physical health consequences, and can have a noticeably negative impact on productivity, too.
"What we tend to see in the workplace is that motivated individuals experiencing significant stress end up engaging in presenteeism — they're at work, but they lack focus and aren't actually achieving anything," explains Dr. Marcie LePine, occupational stress researcher, associate professor at Arizona State University, and member of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology.
So, if you're feeling particularly overwhelmed at the office, it's important you address the matter. The key question is, how? Read on to discover strategies you can adopt to both improve your external work situation and cope better internally.
1. Identify and categorize your stressors
As career coach and business psychologist Dr. Sharon Melnick explains, "We only experience stress when there are aspects of a situation that feel out of our control." The key to minimizing tension, then, is to reclaim control wherever you can. Doing so begins with an identification and categorization exercise — you have to pinpoint and label what's behind your workplace stress before you can tackle it.
Start to pay attention to events and occurrences at work that trigger stress, and take note of them — you can even keep a stress journal. Once you have a list, LePine recommends you break these stressful demands down into two categories: hindrances and challenges. "Hindrance stressors are things like overload, ambiguities and conflict — anything that hinders progress and detracts from your ability to get work done," she explains. "On the other hand, challenge stressors are positive things like work complexity, autonomy and high responsibility — factors that push and motivate us to achieve, but that are still experienced as stressful."
Once you have a clearer sense of what you're dealing with, you will, in LePine's words, "have a better idea of how to handle those stressors in your external environment", and you'll be prepared to take the next steps.
As Melnick notes, to better handle stress, you can control your psychology, your physiology (more on these two later), and your performance and certain aspects of your external environment. With regards to the latter, she advises that you figure out which factors are within your control and focus all your energy on addressing these.
2. Seek to eliminate hindrance stressors by opening lines of communication
When it comes to hindrance stressors, as defined by LePine, you want to "find a way to remove them from the work environment if possible," she says.
If you're feeling overloaded, facing lots of red tape or battling with workplace conflict, for example, take these struggles to your supervisor. "Speak to your manager about what you have on your plate," says Melnick, "and seek out role clarity if this is what you're missing. A lot of people aren't sure about what they should be doing and they start spinning as a result. Role clarity is your best time management tool."
Melnick does, however, recommend that you don't take problems to your boss without brainstorming answers first. "Bring recommendations and solutions to your manager, and then ask them if there's anything they want to add or subtract or comment on." For instance, if you're struggling to manage your workload, think about practical ways you can cut down your to-do list — by delegating to others or prioritizing only high-impact tasks, perhaps — and then pitch these ideas to your supervisor. "You want to use this interaction as an opportunity to show leadership and self-management skills," she adds.
It can be equally helpful to arrange discussions with your fellow colleagues, especially if your stress stems from distractions and interruptions. "The average person is interrupted approximately seven times an hour," says Melnick. "You want to educate and train the people around you to respect your time in order to get the best out of you." You might find, she says, that when you open lines of communication, you can collectively come up with effective time management solutions. Perhaps you can decide to minimize meetings or allocate "focus" hours when you don't answer emails, take calls or interact with others.
3. Address challenge stressors by filling gaps
As challenge stressors, like complex work tasks and weighty responsibilities, are inherently positive, the answer is not to remove them. You do, however, ideally want to learn how to handle them better so that they don't cause as much stress and associated exhaustion.
"Often, what individuals need to cope with these kinds of stressors is some sort of training — to fill a gap in skills or in your ability to deal with such demands," explains LePine. "Sometimes, attending a development workshop or seeking out some type of mentor can be helpful in getting through these challenges."
This is also something worth raising with your manager. "Frame it as part of your overall professional development plan," LePine suggests, adding that if your company doesn't run mentorship programs or offer additional training on a particular matter, it may be a good idea to look outside the workplace for what you need. "Let's say you need assistance with learning how to speak in front of a group," she says. "You could go out and find support for this from community organizations."
4. Control your psychology
Stress is, in part, a psychological experience — it manifests as racing thoughts and excessive worrying about the past or future. In order to cope better, it is, therefore, very important to learn how to exert more control over your mental state.
Research has shown that mindfulness exercises can be hugely beneficial in improving mental clarity and presence of mind, and thereby reducing stress. So, if you're plagued by work-related worries, it might be worth attending meditation classes in your area or downloading one of the many mindfulness apps available online.
When it comes to your psychological state, Melnick also notes that it can be helpful to have a clear intention about "who you want to show up as" at work, and what sort of impact you want to make, and to then filter every thought and action through this lens. "Researchers say that we have 60,000 thoughts per day, so it can be very powerful and calming for us to organize all those thoughts around a single intention," she explains, recounting the story of a client who found success by setting an intention to be perceived as a "strategic influencer".
The single best way to deal with stress, Melnick says, is to maximize the things you can control, and stop focusing on the things you can't. "Ask, 'What's within my control?" and then be impeccable for your 50 percent," she advises.
5. Control your physiology
Stress is also a physiological response to demands, so to manage it, it's important to pay attention to your physical state and make bodily adjustments.
"What's happening is that our circuits are being blown because we're too overwhelmed," explains Melnick. "Because of the way we live today, we are always 'on', and this is what wears us down."
The answer, she says, is to balance your "on button" with your "off button" by employing a breathing technique that she calls, "the mental reset": inhale through your nose for five counts, hold your breath for five counts, and exhale through your nose for five counts. "I would recommend doing this mid-morning and mid-afternoon for two or three minutes each time," she adds.
LePine agrees that deep breathing can be especially powerful. "When you're worked up, you breathe much faster, so inhaling deeply to slow your breath down can, in and of itself, have a calming effect on you," she explains.
Alongside taking time out to step back and breathe daily, LePine also recommends that you go for regular short walks and invest in exercise. "Some people may be able to relieve stress and work through strains by working out," she notes, adding that many organizations are now starting to offer subsidized gym memberships in an attempt to enhance employee well-being.
While it can be difficult to give ourselves permission to take such breaks, especially when we're stressed, LePine shares an analogy that serves as a reminder of the importance of prioritizing mental health. "They say that if the oxygen masks drop when you're on an airplane, you need to put one on yourself first, before you help others," she says. "The same applies in the workplace when it comes to stress. If you're not taking care of yourself first, there's no way you can take care of others or anything else."