Strategies for Managing Stress in the Workplace

It’s no surprise that work can be stressful. But is it worth it to spend your day riddled with anxiety to bring home a paycheck? Managing stress in the workplace can improve employees’ health and increase their productivity. Here are some strategies for making the workday more tranquil and conducive to flow.

Why Should You Manage Stress in the Workplace?

Some people work best under pressure. If you believe that, you might feel like stress in the workplace is a necessary evil. However, it’s not. Intrinsic rewards are better motivators than external pressure. Moreover, stress produces a lot of adverse side effects that detract from productivity and wellness at the office and beyond.

Stress Affects Physical Health

Whenever you’re stressed, your body has a physical response. Levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, increase. Your blood pressure, heart rate, respiration and blood flow go up as well. This helps your body prepare you for danger. If you had to fight or flee to survive, your body wouldn’t need to worry about digestion or your emotions. You would have to reserve your resources so that you could take action to stay alive.

When your brain tells your body that you’re safe again, your cortisol levels diminish. Your body returns to its usual way of functioning.

But stress is chronic for many people. About one-third of people who responded to a survey about stress said that they had visited a doctor for a stress-related issue.

When your stress levels are high all the time, your body doesn’t have a chance to operate optimally. Your major organs don’t get the blood flow that they need. Your immune system gets weaker.

Chronic stress has been linked to health problems such as:

  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Pain
  • Muscle tension
  • Low libido
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Hypertension

If you’re dealing with any of the issues above, you’re probably not contributing effectively at work. Plus, feeling sick makes you even more stressed out. Workplace stress can become a cyclical issue that affects your livelihood.

Stress Diminishes Your Mental Health

Stress isn’t just bad for your physical health; it can contribute to mental health issues too. Stress affects the way that you deal with emotions.

Research shows that chronic stress changes the way that your brain works, leading to problems with memory, learning and decision-making. Stress alters the connections between certain parts of the brain.

People with PTSD, for example, may have a stronger connection between the area of the brain that’s responsible for executive functioning and the region that produces the fight-or-flight response. These individuals may have less connectivity between the hippocampus and the part of the brain that moderates the stress response.

Therefore, they have a stronger and quicker reaction to fear. They also have trouble turning off the stress response.

Whether you’re dealing with stress-related anxiety, depression or memory problems, if you can’t think clearly, you can’t do your job well. Lack of focus can lead to procrastination and exacerbate stress. Mood issues can chip away at your motivation and ability to perform at an optimal level.

Can Stress Be Positive?

Stress affects everyone. Different people have various ways of coping with it.

Some bounce back easily after a tense situation. Other people have trouble readjusting to their daily life when they’ve experienced a stressful event.

But stress isn’t always negative. Small doses of stress can get you excited about a project. Stress can motivate you because it gives you energy and helps you stay alert.

Also, stress improves your resilience. Have you ever heard the saying, “Feel the fear and do it anyway?” The phrase comes from a book with the same title by Susan Jeffers, Ph.D. The idea is that fear will always be present in your life. It’s a survival mechanism.

Noticing what causes you fear can help you be more aware of your response. Pushing past fear enables you to realize that you can succeed even when something scary blocks your past. The more you practice this, the more resilient you become.

Resilience in the workplace is crucial because it allows you to stay grounded and maintain a purposeful path no matter what the external circumstances are. You can perform well even if your boss is having a bad day. You protect yourself against being overwhelmed when you have multiple deadlines and a lot of tasks to juggle. Resilience allows you to flourish in the face of adversity.

Seven things that resilient employees do differently include:

  • Creating high-quality connections
  • Managing stress and preventing burnout
  • Being authentic
  • Developing perseverance
  • Staying inspired
  • Having mental toughness and flexibility
  • Managing risk and dealing with setbacks effectively

Imagine if you were free to be yourself at the workplace instead of pretending to be someone that others expected you to be. What if you developed meaningful friendships with your colleagues and had the confidence to stand up for what you believed in? Picture yourself as a resilient, self-assured employee who is unfazed by challenges.

Wouldn’t that be freeing? Strategies for managing stress in the workplace can help you become that person.

What Causes Workplace Stress?

To understand how the strategies to manage stress in the workplace work, you have to know what causes job-related pressure. For some people, the mere act of going about their daily routine is stressful. Dealing with traffic on the commute, trying to communicate with a stubborn boss and managing deadlines is enough to make some people sweat.

Although the details of workplace stress vary, there are a few issues that affect people universally. These include:

  • Feeling like you don’t have control
  • Having no direction
  • Experiencing guilt because you procrastinated or didn’t maintain a commitment
  • Feeling like you have too much to do and not enough time
  • Change
  • Fear of the unknown or uncertainty
  • Perfectionist expectations

Stress in the workplace can become a vicious cycle if you don’t manage it. If you develop physical or psychological conditions because of it, you might stress out about those new diagnoses. Stress can also create interpersonal conflict and defensiveness, which increase workplace pressure. If you’re stressed at work, you might be more likely to have an accident.

You’re not weak if you have trouble managing stress. You just need to learn some coping skills. These aren’t magic solutions; they require you to put in some effort. Keep this article handy so that you can refer to it when you’re feeling especially stressed out and need some resources to help you cope.

Managing Stress Caused by Change

Humans are comfort seekers. We are often motivated to avoid fear and stick with what feels familiar. Your brain doesn’t distinguish good from bad. Instead, it differentiates between comfortable and uncomfortable. A habit that isn’t good for you, such as taking drugs, can register as comfortable because it relieves stress and produces familiar feelings.

In much the same way, change can make you feel uncomfortable just because it sends you into the unknown. Change triggers the same emotions as fear because it makes you rely on your survival instincts to navigate new paths.

You may think that you want a promotion or to work on a new project. However, when you’re facing those opportunities, you might feel a lot of pressure. That’s because they’re new experiences, and your brain is trying to trick you into sticking with what you know instead of venturing out into new territory.

We believe that change is unsafe, and familiarity is safe. However, that way of thinking is flawed. Change may be unknown, but it usually helps us grow. Therefore, it’s important to use strategies to deal with change so that you can thrive in your career.

One of the biggest mistakes that people make when handling change is waiting until they have to make a move. Many people don’t change until maintaining the status quo becomes the less comfortable choice. At that point, either option is stressful because the individual also feels like they don’t have control over the situation.

Being able to deal with change is imperative for optimal performance in the workplace. Organizational structures often shift. Employees have to learn how to let go of the old ways of doing things and embrace the new.

Even if you’re in control of the change, transitions can produce anxiety seemingly out of nowhere. Entering the unknown makes you vulnerable. Accepting this vulnerability is the first step to coping with transitional stress.

When you recognize your emotions and can name them, you take away their power. You allow your brain to process them instead of shoving them down, where they’ll affect your subconscious mind anyway. It can feel scary to allow intense emotions to bubble up. We often equate feelings of vulnerability, concern, worry and anxiety with negativity. However, it’s crucial to acknowledge them as valuable parts of your life if you want to move on.

Some steps that you can take to manage change better include:

  • Looking for opportunities to be proactive so that you feel in control of the transition
  • Focusing on positive emotions
  • Reminding yourself that the emotions that you judge as negative are only temporary
  • Looking at previous instances of change and celebrating the way that you dealt with them in the past
  • Practice mindfulness instead of worrying about the future.
  • Quiet your mind to prevent anxious thoughts from taking over

We provide some strategies for practicing mindfulness and quieting your brain later in this article. They’ll come in handy any time you’re feeling stressed, whether the anxiety is caused by a change or something else.

Practice Mindfulness in the Workplace

Mindfulness has been shown to reduce the stress response. Perhaps that’s because it encourages you to pay attention to the present moment. When you worry, you’re often trapped in thoughts of something that happened in the past or concerns about the future. If you’re immersed in the present moment, though, paying attention to the here and now can help you recognize that you’re safe.

Benefits of Mindfulness

Some of the benefits of mindfulness practice include:

  • Improved mood – Practicing mindfulness may work as well as antidepressants in preventing relapse in people with depression.
  • Stress reduction – Mindfulness reduces the stress response as well as its associated physical consequences, such as hypertension.
  • Improved pain-coping – People who practice mindfulness experience less pain and increased mobility.
  • Enhanced brain function – Mindfulness boosts attention and concentration, which can improve cognitive performance over time.
  • Weight management – Being mindful has been found to help people avoid overeating.

Techniques for Practicing Mindfulness

Any method that allows you to tune into the present moment can work as a mindfulness practice. The goal of these strategies is to steer you away from autopilot mode.

When you live on autopilot, you let your subconscious mind drive your activities. You follow patterns that have been ingrained in you by society and don’t necessarily pay attention to what you really want. When you function on autopilot mode, you navigate toward comfort and familiarity.

That means that you also deal with stress in the same way as you always have. If you have typically handled tension by becoming irritable and angry, you’re likely to continue doing so.

When you practice mindfulness, you open your awareness. You notice what’s really going on in your body and brain instead of letting intrusive thoughts take over.

By doing this, you can calm your stress response. Through mindfulness, you learn to watch your thoughts as an observer. You are not your thoughts. You are not your emotions. You are more than that, and you aren’t bound by the anxiety that you may be used to.

We discuss a few mindfulness activities below that are easy to try at work.

Mindful Breathing

Bringing your attention to your breathing is a quick way to connect with your body and the present moment. You don’t breathe in the past or future—you breathe in the present moment. When you draw awareness to your breath, you also bring yourself into the here and now.

One of the easiest ways to practice mindful breathing is to count your breaths. The following steps can help you try this technique:

  1. Take a deep breath in as you count to 4.
  2. Pause for a moment when you have inhaled fully.
  3. Slowly exhale, counting to 5.
  4. At the end of your exhale, allow any remaining air to escape.
  5. Pause briefly.
  6. Repeat the process.

Counting your breaths helps you stay focused and prevents your mind from wandering. It also helps ensure that you breathe slowly.

As you get better at mindful breathing, you can practice other techniques, including:

  • Envisioning that your breath is an endless cycle that extends through you and the universe.
  • Breathing in a positive word or mantra, such as “calm”; breathing out a negative word or thought, such as “fear.”
  • Feeling your breath as it touches different parts of your body; start by noticing how it moves through your airways and expands your lungs and belly. Eventually, you can try visualizing empowering breath reaching every cell, from your head to your toes.

Body Scan

Doing a body scan is another way to help you tune into yourself. It helps you remember that you can regulate your stress response and allows you to remain in control.

Here are the steps for performing the body scan technique:

  1. Relax your body and close your eyes. Rest your hands gently in your lap or on the arms of your chair.
  2. Bring your awareness to your breath, inhaling and exhaling gently without trying to force or change it.
  3. Draw attention to your body, including the temperature, sensation of clothing on your skin and feeling of heaviness on the surface that you’re touching.
  4. Begin at your toes, observing how they feel without judgment. Allow them to relax further as you concentrate on them.
  5. Move systematically up the body, noticing the way that each body part feels.

Mindful Viewing

If you have trouble staying focused while going inward, use your sense of sight to practice mindfulness. Remove yourself from your office or cubicle if you can. Go sit outside or look out a window.

Look at the view as an objective observer. Instead of labeling objects using words, such as street, car or tree, try to take in their textures, hues and patterns. Notice how everything moves. Let it create an ever-shifting image in your brain.

Try to maintain alertness and awareness without becoming consumed with one thing. If you get distracted and drift off into thought, that’s totally normal. Don’t worry about it—just bring your observation back to your eyes instead of what’s going on inside your head.

This practice is easy to do in any setting. If necessary, you can even do it while sitting at your desk and looking at the items that you see every day.

Check in with Yourself

At a minimum, you should take time to check in with yourself throughout the day. You might set an alarm to remind you to do this in the morning and afternoon.

When the notification goes off, take a few deep breaths. Then, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How do I feel right now?
  • What’s going on around me?
  • What’s going on inside me?
  • What do I need right now?

Getting into the habit of doing this prompts you to make mindfulness a priority. You can always take a minute to be with yourself. When you do this regularly, you’ll be more aligned with your desires. As you cater to your needs more frequently, you’ll be less stressed. You’ll be empowered to say yes to what you want and no to the things that might stress you out further.

Turn Off Distractions

Whether your coworkers stop by your office regularly or your phone pings when you receive an email, you’re probably bombarded with constant distractions at work. Even if you feel like you handle interruptions well, they contribute to a general feeling of overwhelm.

You might believe that all of the notifications that you get on your smartphone help you be more productive. You might worry that you would miss out if you didn’t have technology at your side at any given moment.

However, research shows that an unhealthy attachment to smartphones can cause anxiety. Some people have withdrawal symptoms if they can’t check their device. Smartphone use is also associated with increased stress.

Even if you think that mobile technology is helping you, there is a limit. The notifications from your smartphone stimulate the release of cortisol, a stress hormone. Plus, the distractions can make you up to 40 percent less productive.

When you’re not getting your work done as efficiently as possible, guess what’s going to happen? You’re going to feel more stressed out.

Therefore, limiting interruptions as much as possible can help you reduce stress at work. Consider taking some of the following steps to curb distractions at work:

  • Set aside a 2-hour period during which you don’t answer phone calls, emails, texts or knocks on the door. Communicate this to your supervisor and colleagues so that they don’t plan to meet with you during this time.
  • Schedule a time to check texts, voice mails and emails two or three times a day. Keep your phone on do-not-disturb mode for the rest of the day.
  • Put a do-not-disturb sign on your door.
  • If you can’t be alone in the office, try working with other productive people.
  • Block online distractions by using an app that prevents you from accessing certain websites.

Manage Your Time Wisely

Poor time management can make you feel tense, worried and anxious. Think about the following scenarios, allowing yourself to envision your potential stress levels if you were involved in each one:

  • You have spent the day playing games online or talking to coworkers, and it’s nearing clock-out time. You only have 30 minutes to put together that important proposal for your boss.
  • You get to work in the morning knowing that you have a busy day ahead of you. You plow forward without creating a to-do list or checking your schedule, hoping that you manage to get everything done.
  • Your boss gives you another project to do. You’re not sure which one is a priority, and you feel paralyzed because you don’t know what to work on first.

If these situations make you feel tense or anxious, then mismanaging your time in real life could be a huge stressor. Becoming aware of your time can help you know what’s coming up and take control of your experience in the workplace.

Try to maintain some kind of to-do list every day. You can do this in your planner, a calendar or a scrap piece of paper. Keeping a regular system and doing it the same way every day can reduce stress. Therefore, use the method that works for you, but be consistent once you find what works.

Even if your day is insanely busy, never start without looking at your to-dos. Some best practices to use when scheduling your day include:

  • Doing a brain dump on a separate sheet of paper so that everything that you have to do doesn’t run through your mind all day
  • Limiting the items that you put on your working to-do list
  • Estimating the time that each task on your to-do list will take and giving yourself deadlines
  • Sorting the activities on your to-do list in order of priority

Not knowing what’s coming around the corner can produce significant stress in employees. When you keep a to-do list, you let your mind know what to expect. Of course, unanticipated events can always occur. But when you’ve done your best to plan the activities that you can control, the unforeseen circumstances shouldn’t lead to a heightened stress response.

Take Breaks

Do you ever feel like you’re too busy to squeeze in a lunch break? The constant hustle and bustle isn’t helping your stress level—or your productivity. It’s a myth that you need to keep moving to get more done.

The human mind needs breaks to be able to function optimally. If you give yourself a chance to rest, you’ll likely be more efficient when you work. You will be more alert, have more creative ideas and avoid getting burned out.

Your brain has limited resources. When it has been focusing on a single task for too long, it becomes sluggish. Even a quick break can restore your energy and allow you to perform efficiently so that you don’t fall behind, which can make you stressed out.

The people who say that they’re too busy to meditate, take care of themselves, socialize, eat a healthy meal or exercise are the ones who need to do those activities the most. If things feel chaotic, you’re probably riding out a state of chronic stress.

Give yourself a chance to decompress. Some suggestions for taking productive breaks in the workplace are:

  • Stay away from screens – try meditating instead.
  • Try doing mild physical activity.
  • Connect with others.
  • Take a power nap.
  • Take all of your vacation days.

Work shouldn’t stress you out to the point that it affects your physical and mental health. Using these stress-busting strategies in the workplace can make you more productive, relaxed and satisfied on the job.

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