We’ve all been there. You’re stressed about meeting a deadline or presenting in front of your boss or making numbers for the quarter. Those are typical work-related stressors and they’re not going away. But if you’re stressed out at the office all. the. time. it can have a lasting impact on you, your work and the rest of the company.
In addition to causing physical and emotional problems like high blood pressure, anxiety and insomnia, chronic work-related stress hinders your ability to do your job well, leading to even more stress. “When we become stressed, our perspective narrows and it becomes difficult to see the big picture,” says psychologist and executive coach Dr. Melissa H. Smith. “Often this can lead to poor decision making, impulsive action and emotional reasoning. When stressed, we typically want resolution as we believe this will lead to an end to our anxiety. However, in an effort to end our anxiety, sometimes we jump to conclusions rather than slowing the process down, gathering our thoughts and calming our emotions.”
This can create a snowball effect across an entire company, Dr. Smith explains. “If we are chronically stressed, which is unfortunately the state of many workers today, our default is toward more extreme reactions, impulsive decisions and emotion-based reasoning. Of course, there can be many negative impacts of poor decision-making across an organization from poor hiring decisions, projects gone awry, dysfunctional team dynamics and difficulty receiving feedback about such decisions.”
Although we can’t eliminate workplace stress completely, we can learn how to manage it effectively. Here are some techniques for dealing with stress at work.
1. Advocate for yourself
First, recognize where your limits are, if your boundaries are being pushed and if there are any ways you could advocate for yourself more, says psychologist Dr. Jeannette R. Bergfeld, of the Therapy Group of DC. “For example, you may notice that you tend to stay past normal working hours, that you’re given so much work that you barely have time for a break or that you’re frequently being challenged interpersonally by a difficult coworker.”
Once you’ve determined your pain points in the workplace, figure out what you would like to see change, and “then think about how to advocate for these changes with a supervisor,” Dr. Bergfeld says. “Try talking this out first with a trusted coworker who could give you input on what to ask for and how to ask for it. Often workers have more power to negotiate working conditions than they realize in these situations, and while it may be stressful initially to start the conversation, it can be incredibly helpful for you in the long run.”
2. Take breaks—and a vacation
Stop sitting at your desk all day and get up to stretch your legs and refill that water bottle. Or better yet, take time off for a vacation—which apparently no one is doing. According to a recent poll conducted by Bankrate, only 13 percent of employed Americans say they plan to take a quarter of their vacation days (or fewer) this year, while 4 percent aren’t planning to take any vacation time at all, even though their companies offer paid time off.
“Using all of your PTO and taking restorative breaks throughout the day are critical to managing stress at work,” Dr. Bergfeld says. “Have reminders on your phone or computer to take a quick break at least once an hour to take a few deep breaths, get a drink of water, stretch, walk around and chat with a friend. During these breaks, really hone in on what you’re feeling physically and emotionally. If you notice any signs of overwhelm (muscle tension, fast heartbeat, significant fatigue), consider taking a longer break so you can do a longer relaxation exercise or take a walk outside.”
But there really is nothing like a much-needed vacation; science even says so. “Don’t think having an otherwise healthy lifestyle will compensate for working too hard and not taking holidays,” said professor Timo Strandberg of the University of Helsinki, Finland, who presented the findings of a 40-year study at the ESC Congress (European Society of Cardiology) in August 2018. “Vacations can be a good way to relieve stress.”
3. Practice self-care outside of work
Whether you take a bubble bath, join a yoga class or listen to music, remember to practice self-care when you’re not in the office. "I often hear from patients that it’s hard to prioritize these kinds of self-care strategies, particularly for people who tend to be more perfectionistic and ambitious in their careers,” Dr. Bergfeld says. “It’s important to remember that self-care also makes you a better employee, coworker, friend and family member. You’ll have better quality work and relationships if you’re taking time to recharge.”
She recommends keeping a log of your non-work activities for a week and noting your mood and energy level after each activity, highlighting the ones that gave you the biggest boost. Then you can start prioritizing those activities more in your life. “You may be surprised at what kind of activities are the most restorative to you. Having this time to recharge outside of work will go a long way to managing your stress level at work,” she says.
Are you sitting at your desk right now? Then try to breathe, using this technique known as paced breathing. Dr. Smith says it can help lower anxiety and drop your stress response, so you can think clearly and respond more wisely. Here’s how to do it: Picture a box. (You will follow each step of this breathing process along each side of the box.) Step 1: Slowly exhale for four seconds, imagining breathing along the top of the box. Step 2: Slowly inhale for four seconds, following down the side of the box. Step 3: Hold your breath for four seconds, as you move along the bottom of the box. Step 4: Exhale again for four seconds, moving up the other side of the box. Feel better?
5. Set up a comfy workspace
You might not be able to get rid of your annoying officemate (you know, the one who chews loudly), but you can probably arrange your desk space so it’s your own little happy place. “In a shared work area, you can't do much about lighting and temperature, but you can fill your space with pictures and other reminders of peace and stability,” says psychologist Dr. Michele Leno, of DML Psychological Services. Maybe buy some fresh flowers or bring in a pretty shawl to help combat the office air-conditioning. Psychologist Dr. Jephtha Tausig also suggests buying back or foot support or even requesting an ergonomic chair, or try a standing desk option. If lighting is an issue, and you can’t change the entire office’s light bulbs, set up a desk lamp instead.