7 ways to combat work stress
Get stress under control before it cripples your performance and harms your health.
Unless you’re a professional Zen master, you probably experience work stress. Sometimes, the adrenaline of hitting a deadline or making a quota can be motivating, or even invigorating.
But when workplace pressure is so high that your stress symptoms include dread or anxiety about your job on a near-constant basis, it’s time to fix that. According to a Monster's 2020 State of the Candidate survey of 1,000 full-time and part-time employees in the United States, 34% said their job negatively affects their mental health. Many employees have experienced anxiety (41%), depression (24%), and physical illness (12%) as a result of their job. The good news is, there are ways you can manage your stressors.
Steve Nguyen, a Dallas-based leadership and change consultant, says work-related stress needs to be fought on three levels: the causes, your ability to manage it and by treating the damage already done by it. To help you keep calm and carry on, Monster asked the experts for tips to lower stress at work.
Even if you feel like you work best in organized chaos, it’s important to focus on the organized part of that equation if you want to take your stress levels down a few notches.
“Nobody likes the feeling of walking into a mess,” says Michael Woodward, a New York City-based organizational psychologist and executive coach. The easiest way to start the day with a clean slate is to end with one. “Before walking out the door [at the end of a workday],” he says, “take a few minutes to flip through your inbox, toss any unnecessary paper piled on your desk and straighten up your workspace.”
And before you start a new day, make a plan and list tasks in order of importance. That way, you know what’s on your plate and what to tackle first.
Identify your stressors
It might sound like a no-brainer to figure out what stresses you out (deadlines, overlong to-do lists, etc.), but taking the time to know what actually pushes your buttons is the first step to fixing the problem.
The next step is paying attention to how you respond to your stress triggers. For example, when someone adds a task to your overstuffed to-do list, do you yell? Head for the vending machine? Stew over it quietly by yourself? By recognizing your responses, you can focus on finding more productive ways of dealing with the cause.
Watch what you eat and drink
There is a pretty close relationship between food and mood,” says Whitney Wright, a registered dietician nutritionist and founder of Omaha, Nebraska-based NourishedAvenue.com. “If you skip lunch and then mid-afternoon satisfy your craving for a double fudge mocha, you’ll fel good for the first hour, but then you’ll crash because your body is missing the necessary proteins and fats you need.”
She suggests limiting your consumption of coffee, tea, sugar, soft drinks and alcohol. Fast food can be quick and easy for lunch, and drinks after work can sound appealing when you’re super-stressed, but when you make those choices repeatedly, they can exacerbate the negative effects of stress. Plus, hangovers are never relaxing.
Staring at the same spreadsheet or Word doc isn’t going to make it less stressful—probably the opposite, in fact. So go for a walk, do some easy yoga poses at your desk, do something that will pry you away from your stress and allow you to clear your head.
Woodward suggests meditation as a way to pull you out of your current mental state so that you can center yourself. “Meditation can be as simple as a five-minute deep-breathing exercise where you set your smartphone timer, focus your attention on a simple and relaxing image, relax and take deep breaths at regular intervals until you hear your alarm,” he says.
Share your feelings
One of the symptoms of stress is isolating yourself from others, Nguyen says. This can increase feelings of stress because it can make you feel like you’re going it alone. But you don’t have to.
“Develop a good support network, and recognize that help is sometimes necessary to get through hard times,” he says. Sometimes a little venting can relieve your mind, so find a friend or trusted colleague in whom you can confide.
“Talking it out—without going overboard, which can reinforce it—allows your feelings and experience to be validated. This is the first step in releasing,” says Nancy Irwin, a psychologist and life coach in Los Angeles. So whether you choose a professional or a trusted friend, don’t bottle your stress. Release it, and you may find relief.
Protect your leisure time
All work and no play makes for a very stressful day, so Nguyen says it’s paramount to make time for leisure activities to help you relax and recharge. If you have vacation time waiting for you, don’t be afraid to take it. Studies have proven that exercise reduces stress, so make sure to prioritize that, as well as R&R.
Plot your escape
When you’ve done everything you can to remove big stressors from your work life and you’re still dreading Mondays and waking up from work-induced nightmares, you may have to face the hard reality that it’s not you, it’s them.
“Sometimes, despite everyone’s best efforts, there’s simply a bad fit between an individual and their work environment,” says David Ballard, assistant executive director for Organizational Excellence with the American Psychological Association in Washington, D.C.
“If the stress is chronic and begins causing serious problems in aspects of your life such as your health, job performance or personal relationships, look for other jobs that allow you to be healthy, happy and productive.”