It’s normal—even helpful—to experience some stress at work. The right level of stress can sharpen your thinking and motivate you to do good work. However, too much stress, endured for too long, can be draining. It can be bad for your health, your relationships, and the quality of your work. Also, your reactions to excess stress can have a negative effect on the people around you.
How can you deal with unhealthy and unproductive work stress? Here are some tips.
Recognize the warning signs of excess stress.
The first step in dealing with stress is learning to recognize its warning signs. Excess stress affects your body and mind. Without knowing its signs, stress can build gradually to the point where you’re paralyzed with anxiety, lash out in anger at coworkers, or feel like you can’t succeed.
So, pay attention to the signs of work stress. These may include physical signs, such as
- Muscle tension or headaches
- Stomach problems
- Trouble sleeping
- Low energy or fatigue
- Rapid heart rate
They can also include mental and emotional signs, such as
- Apathy and loss of interest in work
- Trouble concentrating
- Anxiety, irritability, or feelings of depression
- Misuse of alcohol or drugs
Identify your stress triggers.
As you become more attuned to the signs of stress, make an effort to identify what causes your stress level to rise. This might be obvious: a long stretch with extra work, worry about the possibility of layoffs, or tense relationships with coworkers or your manager. There may also be triggers to your stress that you haven’t recognized, things that might bother you more than other people—perhaps because of your past experience or simply your particular personality.
As an exercise, keep notes for a week or two on when you feel an extra level of stress and what might be triggering those reactions:
- Where were you and what were you doing just before your stress level started to rise?
- Who were you interacting with?
- What were you thinking and feeling?
These notes, and your reflections on them, can help you identify your unique stress triggers.
Once you’ve identified your most important stressors at work, think about how you might deal with them. For each stressor you identify, write down steps you might take to address it in a positive way. That might mean getting a better handle on your workload to avoid feeling overwhelmed. Or it might mean learning to recognize and control negative thinking or irrational fears.
Reduce work stress by taking care of yourself.
If stress from work is having a negative effect on your work output, your health, your relationships, or your life outside of work, it’s time to step back and pay attention to your basic needs:
- Get moving.Physical activity is important to your health and is one of the most effective stress reducers. Take a walk during a break in the workday—even if it’s just for five minutes—to interrupt a feeling of rising tension. Build more physical activity into your daily and weekly schedule.
- Sleep well.Adopt healthy sleep habits to get more rest. That means a regular bedtime and no work or electronic devices as you wind down for sleep.
- Build healthy eating habits.Avoid stress-driven eating, which can lead to weight gain and swings in blood sugar and energy. A regular schedule of healthy meals and snacks can help keep your emotions on an even keel.
- Make time for fun and social connections.Your emotional health is tied to your physical health, and it is important for sustained work performance. Include your own emotional needs in your priorities.
Learn to relax.
Relaxation is a skill that can be learned. When you feel tense from work stress, practice relaxation techniques that work for you. These might include
- Deep breathing to restore a feeling of calm
- Progressive muscle relaxation to intentionally relax your body and mind
- Mindfulness or meditation to pull your thinking out of a cycle of worry and restore an ability to focus
- Listening to calming music
Take quick relaxation breaks at work or use a relaxation transition as you begin and end the workday.
Sharpen your focus at work.
If your stress is coming from feelings of overwork or a lack of control over your work, think about ways you might regain control, confidence, and calm:
- Work with your managerto set realistic goals and expectations. If particular aspects of your work are causing more stress than others, it might be a sign that you need more training on those tasks. Or perhaps work on the team might be shifted so that you and other team members focus more on what you enjoy and are good at.
- Prioritize to focus on the most important work—the work that will have the biggest impact on your team’s and organization’s success and that will meet the most important needs of your customers. Work that seems urgent but is less important may need to wait.
- Break big tasks into small steps, and map out a schedule to get them done.
- Use to-do lists to stay on top of your tasks.
- Protect your timeto minimize interruptions and enable concentrated focus. Schedule time for planning and work on bigger projects.
- Delegate and collaborate.Where possible, share responsibilities and enlist the help and ideas of others.
Take time to recharge.
No one can run a marathon at a sprinter’s pace. To avoid burnout and succeed over the long term, you need to take breaks to recharge:
- Take quick breaks.A five-minute break for a walk or deep breathing can relax your body and restore your mind so that you can focus more efficiently and creatively on the problem at hand. The distraction of watching a funny video or having a quick conversation with a friend can have the same effect. The point is to get your mind off work so that you can come back to it with renewed energy.
- Schedule time for your own needs—for family, friends, exercise, and breaks to relax and restore your energy.
- Use your vacation timeto refresh and recharge yourself. “Working vacations” tend not to be vacations at all and don’t have the same restorative effect.
Talk it over.
When you endure your work worries alone, stress can build up. A conversation with a trusted coworker or friend can release that tension. It may also give you a fresh perspective and new ideas on ways you might respond. You might even get an offer of help—if not with the core work issue you’re facing, then with something else that can free you to focus on work with less distraction.
Be sure to return the favor when the opportunity arises. Helping, listening, and collaborating are keys to effective teamwork and a balanced, satisfying life.
If you need help prioritizing in a work crunch, talk it over with your manager. Knowing what’s critical and what can wait can reduce the pressure you’re feeling and help you regain a sense of control over your work.
Flip negative thinking.
Some work stress is caused by negative thinking and unnecessary worry:
- Practice positive reframing.When you find yourself looking too quickly and too often at the downside of work events and interactions, push yourself to imagine alternative and more positive outcomes. Then think about the steps you might take to make those positive outcomes happen.
- Focus on achievements. When you feel daunted by the work ahead, take a minute to consider the progress you’ve made. Think back to past achievements and other challenges you’ve overcome.
- Challenge negative thoughts.Is what you are worrying about really true? What might be a more positive and equally reasonable explanation?
Avoid unproductive conflict and draining work interactions.
Some conflict with coworkers is healthy and productive. Talking through different opinions on the best solution to a work problem can get your team to a better solution than any one of you might come to on your own. However, some work conflicts and interactions are emotionally draining and should be avoided:
- Steer clear of gossip.It can lead to negative talk and undermine team morale.
- Avoid people with consistently negative outlooks.Complainers and doomsayers create stress for the people around them. If you’re forced to work closely with a coworker who spreads negativity, talk to your manager about ways to handle these interactions.
- Be cautious in sharing political and religious views at work.If your views are not relevant to your work or the work of your team, they’re probably best kept to yourself. If political or religious discussions are fueling conflict at work, talk with your manager or human resources (HR) representative for help in setting boundaries.
- Strive to resolve conflict in positive ways.Focus on the present and what you can agree on to move forward. Don’t dwell on past hurts or resentments. If a conflict can’t be resolved and isn’t critical to work progress, agree to disagree and walk away from it.
- Focus on what you can control, and let go of what you can’t.In working with other people, you may be able to influence the way they behave, but you can’t control it. You can control your own behavior and how you react to what others do and say. Put your focus there.
Know when to seek help.
If you’ve tried the steps above and you’re still feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or discouraged, you might benefit from talking with a mental health professional. Your employee support program is one source for this help. An expert at the program can listen and offer practical suggestions in a phone or video consultation and can refer you to a mental health counselor for additional support.
You might also find a psychologist or mental health counselor on your own. An expert can help you understand the source of your stress and help you take steps to address it. That might be by changing ingrained habits of thought and behavior, by forming a strategy for better communication with your manager and coworkers, or by treating a clinical problem such as depression or anxiety disorder that could be contributing to your feelings of stress.
Morgan, H. (2021, January 21). Dealing with work stress (B. Schuette & C. Gregg-Meeker, Eds.). Raleigh, NC: Workplace Options.
Disclaimer: This document is intended for general information only. It does not provide the reader with specific direction, advice, or recommendations. You may wish to contact an appropriate professional for questions concerning your particular situation.
Workplace Options helps employees balance their work, family, and personal needs to become healthier, happier, and more productive, both personally and professionally. The company’s world-class employee support, effectiveness, and wellbeing services provide information, resources, referrals, and consultation on a variety of issues ranging from dependent care and stress management to clinical services and wellness programs. To learn more visit www.workplaceoptions.com.