Stress Can Stop You Dead in Your Tracks – Managing Stress in the Workplace
Stress: More Than an Occupational Hazard
You wake up in a cold sweat at three in the morning after dreaming you blew a big presentation in front of important clients. The so-called “Sunday Scaries” now permeate your entire weekend, robbing you of precious rest and quality time with family and friends. Your phone pings at all hours with notifications of new emails, text messages, including from your boss. If your job is your biggest source of stress; you’re not alone: data from a recent Harvard study shows that 36 percent of workers suffer from work-related stress. Since the data was based on self-reporting, the actual percentage of overly stressed American workers is likely much higher. In a different study, two out of every three employees surveyed said their stress levels at work are higher than five years ago.
When allowed to balloon without intervention, job-related stress can lead to poor morale and communication, decreased productivity, absenteeism, and complete burnout. According to the Mayo Clinic, burnout is “a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.” Unlike other forms of toxic stress, burnout is specifically related to the workplace and is formally recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as an “occupational phenomenon” in 2019. Stress also has well-documented, negative effects on long-term mental and physical health.
How to Cope When Stress Has You Down
We’ll talk about the role that office culture plays in contributing to employees’ stress in future articles. Ideally, you have managers and HR professionals who believe in work/life balance and make available resources to support your wellness. But if the results of a recent Gallup study of 7,500 full-time employees are any indication—about two-thirds of whom had experienced burnout on the job—many employers could do a better job actively promoting well-being among employees.
In the meantime, there are several proven ways to better manage stress and avoid burnout:
- Take meaningful breaks: This applies to both breaks during the workday and weekends/vacations. One contributor to workplace stress is the real or self-imposed pressure to stay constantly connected to our jobs. Do we seriously think our world will end if we’re not checking our phones every few minutes? How many of us wake up and, before leaving bed to brush our teeth, immediately reach for our phone and check for business emails or text arriving overnight? What if you and your partner both reach for your respective phones, then wonder why breakfast and getting out the door feel so rushed? If we’re always available by phone, text or email, eat lunch at our desks while still tethered to phone, tablet, or computer, and work during our vacations, we never allow ourselves to fully rest and recharge. Use your daily breaks to take a walk outside, connect with a supportive coworker, practice mindfulness, or (gasp!) calmly eat your lunch for once!
- Prioritize and organize. Not knowing how to manage your time and workload can make any job stressful. Do you have a system in place to manage tasks and deadlines? Are you able to successfully determine what has to get done today and what could wait until tomorrow? If you have direct reports, do you effectively delegate? The right tools can help you stay on track: digital calendars, project management tools, and to-do lists may help you focus and prioritize, as can distraction-blockers that limit access to social media and other, let’s face it, timewasters.
- Set boundaries: Protecting your time and sanity is one of the most important aspects of managing job stress. Yet, many people find it hard, sometimes impossible, to set boundaries at work. In many cases, closed doors won’t stop people from interrupting. Or coworkers are content to hover until you finish an important call that doesn’t concern them. So, start small by blocking off time on your calendar during the workday when you can focus deeply on a project or task without being interrupted by emails, impromptu visitors complaining about the breakroom snack selection, and phone call which you accept even when “call waiting” informs you that it’s a conversation that can wait. Set your phone to “Do Not Disturb Mode” during certain hours of the evening and early morning. Unless your job truly requires you to be on-call—we can’t all be EMTs and 24/7 plumbers—it’s important to create a healthy distance between the workday and the rest of your time.
- Get real about self-care: Self-care means different things to different people, and it’s more than just treating yourself to a massage or nice dinner. If you’re suffering from chronic stress, it’s time to take a serious inventory of your health and lifestyle. Nutrition, exercise, and sleep all factor into our ability to respond to stress. If you need to see your doctor, make the appointment. If there’s a hobby or spiritual practice that adds meaning to your life, make finding time for it a priority. And remember that letting yourself reach the point of burnout serves no one: not your boss, not your teammates, and not you. Or, as author Paulo Coelho puts it, “When you say ‘yes’ to others, make sure you are not saying ‘no’ to yourself.”
- Seek support: If you’re truly suffering from workplace stress, it’s time to seek support. If you trust your boss, HR rep, or someone else in your company, consider talking to them about the sources of your stress and potential solutions. Many employers also offer Employee Assistance Programs with access to free counseling sessions. Family, friends, mental health professionals, and spiritual leaders can also be great sources of comfort and insight.
From Burnout to “On Fire”
At times, a little stress can be a good thing: it keeps the work exciting and motivates us to perform. But constant stress is debilitating and for too many American workers it’s become a condition of employment that we accept without question. It may feel overwhelming to put yourself and your health first, but it’s important to understand that you are your own best advocate. It’s okay to say no on occasion–remember, setting boundaries helps your productivity and sanity. Moreover, you might inspire coworkers and even your employers to make positive changes in their own lives!