Having healthy strategies to manage workplace stress is essential for your overall well-being, especially when you consider that the average person will spend nearly a third of their life at work.
We’ll explain how to do two important things: 1) minimize the number of work-related frustrations you’re dealing with and 2) find more effective ways to cope with the frustrations that you can’t eliminate entirely.
How common is workplace stress?
According to the American Institute of Stress–yes, that’s a real organization–83% of U.S. workers deal with stress that stems from work. In fact, a quarter of people say their job is the most stressful thing in their lives.
Workplace stress causes absenteeism, prompting about a million workers to call in sick on any given day. It also costs companies money, resulting in lost income of an estimated $51 billion a year.
So, despite being detrimental, workplace stress is incredibly common. It’s something that pretty much everyone will deal with at some point in the course of their career, making it all the more important to address it proactively.
Why it’s important to manage workplace stress
It would be pretty difficult to find a job that’s never stressful. A little bit of stress is a normal part of work and life in general. When a heightened stress level becomes routine, however, it can have serious side effects.
When you feel stressed, you can’t fire on all cylinders. This means you don’t do your best work. Aside from the negative impacts to your output for the company, this also hinders your career.
When you’re not performing at your best, you miss out on opportunities to take on new challenges and achieve impressive milestones, which are the things that help you advance to increasing levels of pay and responsibility.
Worsened mental health
Being consistently stressed at work can seriously damage your state of mind. It can lead to moodiness, increased aggression, lack of focus, and difficulty concentrating.
Over the long term, stress can increase your risk for anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.
Weakened physical health
Your mental health isn’t the only thing that suffers from unhealthy stress levels. It also affects your physical health, causing muscle tension, headaches, sleep loss, weight gain, stomach issues, and insomnia, just to name a few.
And, some studies have even shown high stress levels to be linked with more on-the-job accidents, which no one wants to experience.
Increased stress outside of work
If you’ve ever been grumpy toward a family member after a stressful day at work, you know firsthand that job-related stress rarely stays at your job. It spills over into the other areas of your life, negatively impacting your relationships and hobbies.
Strategies for managing workplace stress
1. Identify your stressors
The first step toward better-managing workplace stress is to understand exactly what’s stressing you out.
Write down a list of the people, things, and situations in your job that cause you frustration and anxiety, being as specific as possible. For example, instead of just writing down an annoying coworker’s name, think of the specific behaviors of theirs that irk you, like doing subpar work or constantly contacting you about insignificant issues.
2. Categorize your stressors
Next, break the list into two categories: the items you can take action to mitigate (like an overly needy coworker) and the ones you can’t realistically get rid of (like important client meetings). You might be surprised by how eye-opening this exercise can be and how many things fit into the first category once you start thinking proactively.
Don’t worry if many things are in the ‘can’t fix it’ category. That just means you will need to focus more on managing your response to stressors rather than removing the stressors themselves.
3. Create action items
For the things that fall into category 1–stressors you can try to minimize–create a plan to help you take action.
This won’t be easy! You might have to do some things you’re uncomfortable with, like having a frank conversation with a coworker whose behavior drives you crazy. When it comes to managing stress, however, it’s much simpler if you can resolve the issue that’s stressing you out by getting rid of or improving it rather than merely learning to cope with it.
4. Manage your workload
An overwhelming workload is the top cause of job-related stress. Combat it by taking measures to manage your workload better.
Start by having an honest conversation with your boss about what you’re finding hard to manage. Is it a series of tight deadlines? Competing priorities? Too much on your plate in general? Simply bringing it to your boss’s attention is a great step toward getting the support you need to lighten the load.
Remember, it’s in your company’s best interest to have you functioning at 100%. You can incorporate this fact into your conversation for a better chance of a positive result. Here’s an example:
“I’m having trouble giving our clients the level of attention we promise them when I have so many accounts. For example, I spend about three hours daily on the phone, answering clients’ questions and providing status updates. I can’t get meaningful work done while I’m on the phone, so that’s close to 40% of my workday that’s not spent on actual account work. Having fewer accounts would allow me to complete projects faster while also providing more attention to each client.”
While the ultimate goal is to reduce your stress level, positioning it as a win for your company will give you a better chance of getting the desired outcome.
5. Adopt an assertive communication style
There are four main workplace communication styles: passive, passive-aggressive, aggressive, and assertive. You can learn more about each of the communication styles here, but for our purposes, we want to focus on the assertive style.
An assertive style consists of respectful but forthright communication. You deliver your message with empathy while remaining confident and steadfast.
It’s amazing what can be accomplished with assertive communication. Instead of reluctantly agreeing to help an incompetent coworker for the millionth time, you might say, “Sorry, but I’m too busy with my own work to help. I hope you’re able to figure it out.”
Instead of accepting a new assignment when you’re already overloaded with work, you might say, “I’m already working on Project X, which I was told is priority number one. Would you like me to put that on pause to work on this?”
This type of communication isn’t meant to place blame or call out others, but rather to focus on the facts and express your needs rather than suffering in silence.
6. Improve your response to stress
We’re told that stress causes a ‘fight or flight’ response all our lives. But these aren’t the only two options to deal with it. In fact, they’re not very effective at dealing with stress at all.
Instead of having an angry outburst (fight) or sweeping stressful situations under the rug (flight), work on adopting more productive stress responses. Deep breathing, getting regular exercise, practicing meditation, and carving out time for self-care are all highly effective in helping you better handle stress in your career.
7. Set (and keep!) boundaries
Boundaries aren’t going to set themselves. They only exist when you create them, which is why it’s so important to get clear on what “policies” you have to keep stress at bay.
Setting boundaries to minimize stress might mean not checking email after a certain hour, blocking off time in the day that’s reserved for uninterrupted work, reserving certain days of the week where you don’t take meetings, or using all of your allotted PTO days, just to give you a few ideas.
But here’s the even more important part: you have to enforce these boundaries, and you have to do it over and over again.
The great news is that it gets easier with time. Once your colleagues know you’re serious about not answering the phone on weekends, they’ll make sure to talk to you about important matters before leaving the office on Friday versus trying to contact you on your personal time.
8. Recognize your choices
As frustrated or trapped as you may feel in your job, you do have choices. They might not always be the options you’d like, but they’re all the same.
Even if it’s not realistic to hand in your two week’s notice at this moment (or that’s not what you’re looking for at all), it can be empowering to consider what that might look like and to realize there’s a path out of a stress-filled job if you need to take it.
By focusing on what’s in your control and making your well-being a priority, you’ll be better equipped to respond to stress in the moment and prevent it from creeping into your work life in the future.