Workplace stress is highly personal. Some people thrive in fast-paced jobs (think emergency room nurses, police officers, and air-traffic controllers) where making a mistake can put people’s lives at risk.
But just because the rest of us wouldn’t last a day in such high-pressure environments doesn’t mean our jobs are less stressful. Short deadlines, endless paperwork, the occasional angry customer, and meetings that drag on for hours, putting us even further behind, all can cause stress.
In other words, it’s not the job that creates stress, it’s the way a person responds to the pressures and demands of each workplace that makes him or her stressed or come to live.
Not surprisingly, people respond to stress differently. The way they respond depends on their personality and the culture of their workplace.
Short-term effects of stress include headaches, shallow breathing, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, and upset stomach. Long-term constant stress can increase the risk for heart disease, back pain, depression, lasting muscle aches and pains, and a weakened immune system.
Stress also can affect your mind by impairing concentration and imagination. Stress also increases the chance you’ll make mistakes because you’re not thinking clearly.
Constant stress can affect your emotions and behavior by making you grouchy, impatient, less excited about your job, and even depressed.
When you’re in a high-pressure situation, examine your train of thought to see if it’s adding to the stress you feel.
Are you imagining a far worse outcome than is likely? Is the project or situation likely to affect your job approval, reputation, or income? Are you really out of your league or are the immediate demands really more of a challenge than a disaster in the making?
Proper time and priority management can reduce a lot of workplace stress.
Start each day by making a to-do list of tasks, calls to make, and e-mails to write. Prioritize the list according to tasks you must do, those you would like to do, and those that can wait. Don’t schedule too much. And build in time for interruptions.
Hourly mini-breaks during which you stretch your shoulders, back, and neck can provide physical stress relief. This in turn can reduce mental stress.
Stop promising to do more than you can handle. Be polite as you say, “With the workload I have, I can’t take on more at this time.”
Every day, plan to spend some time at rest, but not asleep. Sit in a comfortable chair, close your eyes, and relax your muscles.
Then, focus on breathing regularly as you continuously repeat one simple word, such as "peace," "relax," or "om," aloud or silently. Continue until your muscles and mind are relaxed.
Sit or lie down, if you can, and close your eyes. Starting at your head, tense your face by clenching your teeth and furrowing your brow. Hold the tension for 5 seconds, then release it. Next, tense your shoulders by bringing them up to your ears. Hold for 5 seconds, then release. Next, tense your arm muscles and hold for 5 seconds, then release. Continue to tighten and release each group of muscles in your body until you reach your toes. Focus on the warmth and heaviness of your body as you relax. Breathe gently for a few moments, then open your eyes.
Sit or lie down and close your eyes. For 5 to 10 minutes, imagine you’re in a place you love like the beach, the mountains, or the house you grew up in. Breathe slowly and deeply as you imagine what you see, feel, hear, taste, and smell in your special place.
Lie flat on your back with your eyes closed. Place your feet slightly apart and rest 1 hand above your navel, the other on your chest. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth until you’ve emptied most of the air from your lungs.
As you slowly count to 4, gently inhale, making your stomach rise. Pause for 1 second, then as you slowly count to 4, gently exhale, letting your abdomen slowly fall. Pause for another second, then repeat this process 10 times.
A healthy diet rich in whole foods, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein may reduce stress. Consuming lots of caffeine, sugar, and alcohol can increase it.
Many studies have found exercise reduces stress. Aerobic exercise like running, swimming, or brisk walking, works best for most people. Yoga, Pilates, tai chi, or simple stretching also can help by bringing about a calmer, meditative state.
Talking with a family member or friend outside of work about the issues that cause your stress at work can help you put things in perspective. Explore solutions and ways to cope together.
If you’ve tried these self-help methods but continue to be highly stressed, get help from a mental health professional who specializes in stress management.