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 stake.
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 irate 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 urgencies and demands of each workplace environment that makes him or her stressed or energized.
Not surprisingly, people respond to stress differently, depending on their temperament and the culture of the workplace in which they find themselves.
Short-term effects of stress include headaches, shallow breathing, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, and upset stomach. Long-term chronic stress can increase the risk for heart disease, back pain, depression, persistent muscle aches and pains, and a weakened immune system.
Stress also can affect your mind by impairing concentration and imagination and increasing the chance you’ll make mistakes because you’re not thinking clearly.
Chronic stress can affect your emotions and behavior by making you irritable, impatient, less enthusiastic about your job, and even depressed.
That said, whether your primary job is answering the phone or running a railroad, here are some ways to manage work-related stress.
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 it according to those 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, which 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 five seconds, then release it. Next, tense your shoulders by bringing them up to your ears. Hold for five seconds, then release. Next, tense your arm muscles and hold for five 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 five to 10 minutes, imagine you’re in a place you love, such as 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 one 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 four, gently inhale, making your stomach rise. Pause for one second, then as you slowly count to four, gently exhale, letting your abdomen slowly fall. Pause for another second, then repeat this process 10 times.
Eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly. 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.
Numerous studies have found exercise reduces stress. Aerobic exercise, such as running, swimming, or brisk walking, works best for most people, but yoga, Pilates, tai chi, or simple stretching also can help by inducing a calmer, meditative state.
Talking with a family member or friend outside of work about the specific issues that cause your stress at work can help you put things in perspective. Explore solutions and coping strategies together.
If you’ve tried these self-help strategies but continue to be highly stressed, get help from a mental health professional who specializes in stress management.