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How to Deal with Stress at Work: What’s Normal and What Isn’t

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If you're wondering how to deal with stress at work, you're not alone. It’s no secret that our jobs are stressing us out.

Between commuting, company mergers, office politics, and the new twist of working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s a lot more than just job duties for workers to navigate. These additional stressors can take a toll on workers’ mental health if they’re not adequately addressed and managed.  

A recent survey by Northwestern National Life shows that 40% of respondents report that their job is very or extremely stressful. That same study also reports that 25% of respondents believe their job is the number one source of stress in their lives. 

So, how do we deal with job stress and is it always necessary to feel so overwhelmed and anxious at work all of the time? Let’s walk through what steps you can take to help you manage stress at the work and the signs you can look out for to identify stress and know when it’s time to take a step back. 

Table of contents
How can I reduce stress at work?
How do you handle stress and pressure at work?
What are signs of stress in the workplace?
Know when you need help...
How to handle stress at work? Be proactive

How can I reduce stress at work?

If your job is stressing you out—whether it’s because of unreasonable expectations, company changes, or something else—you may be experiencing one or more of these symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Short-temper or irritability
  • Upset stomach or nausea
  • Dry mouth
  • Clenched teeth or jaw
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Migraines
  • Loss of interest in work
  • Pessimistic thoughts

If you know your job stress is rising or if it feels like it’s becoming too much, there are a few different techniques you can try to figure out how to deal with stress at work. 

10 ways to cope with stress at work

  1. Get a good night’s sleep. You know you should get those seven to nine hours of sleep, but when you’re stressed about company changes or trying to get a lot of things done, sleep doesn’t always come easy. Give yourself a nighttime routine to help you unwind and mentally prepare to sleep. Everything looks clearer when you’ve given your body enough time to rest and recharge instead of staring at your phone into the late hours.

  2. Fuel your body with good nutrition. Be sure to get the foods and vitamins your body is craving, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Not only will these foods fill you up better than something out of your office’s vending machine, you’ll notice your energy and attention levels are better.

  3. Move your body. Exercise is a proven way to lower your stress levels. Even something as short and simple as a 20 minute walk can help raise your endorphins and clear your head of stress and worries.

  4. Call a loved one. Sometimes we need to vent about a frustrating or stressful experience, and while your favorite coworker is a tempting option, it’s probably best to vent about work to someone outside the workplace. It could be a quick phone call to your best friend over lunch or a conversation with your spouse at home—whatever helps you get your feelings out so they don’t build up inside.
  5. Try meditation. Practicing meditation regularly can help you keep your mind focused on the present moment and avoid spiraling with stressed-out thoughts. It can also be a good break in the day that can leave you feeling refreshed. Some people find a coach or a mental health app helpful to guide them through meditation.

  6. Put down the phone or laptop. If your stress is causing you to check your work email every 10 minutes or you find yourself too overwhelmed to do anything except scroll through social media in the evenings, try putting your electronics away for a set period of time. The mindless scrolling or frantic checking can cause even more stress on your brain, when what you really need is time away to recharge. 
  1. Make a list. An effective way to manage your stress if you’re particularly busy at work is to make a list of everything you need to do. Put it in order of importance or priority so you can see what needs to be done now, tomorrow, or next week. Even if your list is pretty long, it will clear your mind a bit to see it all written down and organized into what you need to do right now.

  2. Try delegating. The most effective professionals are those who know when and how to delegate. Even if you’re not a people manager, see if a coworker or even your boss could help you take something off your plate. Or, could you ask your business partners to handle the prep work on a project before you dive in? Find small items that could be reassigned and see how others can help.

  3. Put your stress into perspective. When you’re immersed in your work day in and day out, it can be easy to lose perspective of the gravity of some projects. While you should do the best job you can, sometimes A+ level work just isn’t possible and what is the worst that could happen if you settle for “good enough?” Unless you’re in the medical or emergency services field, you probably don’t have lives at stake if you miss a meeting or make a mistake on a project. A good rule of thumb is if the issue won’t matter in five weeks or five months, don’t spend more than five minutes worrying about it.

  4. Talk to your manager. If all else fails, talk to your manager about dealing with stress at work and how you both can find a better way to manage work duties. If you have a good manager, they’ll find ways to cut back on your workload to make it more manageable or can help create an environment that promotes a healthier work culture. Be sure to bring specific examples or issues up with your leader so they can fully understand where your concerns are and what needs to be addressed.

How do you handle stress and pressure at work?

Sometimes, stress and pressure are unavoidable in the workplace. If you’re wondering how to deal with a stressful new job or are dealing with particularly overwhelming and uncertain circumstances at work, it’s important to have a gameplan ready for how to handle those situations so you can manage your stress in the workplace. 

1. Communicate, communicate, communicate

When work becomes stressful, people tend to work faster and may skip the usual steps to loop people in on what’s going on. However, communication is critical to ensure work is done efficiently. Communication can also help reduce the stress when everything is clear for stakeholders involved with a project. 

Be sure to regularly touch base with your coworkers and manager, and consider sending out recaps for your team after a meeting so everyone is on the same page with action items and the project status.

In addition, don’t be afraid to communicate how you’re feeling or handling the pressure. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, let your leader know to see if there’s a way to adjust priorities or reassign duties to someone else. Or, if you’re comfortable with the current level of stress or pressure at work, you can communicate that to your boss as well so they know your current workload is manageable.  

2. Find an organization system that works for you

Staying organized is another key element that tends to drop off when people feel stressed. But, if you keep up on your organization system and have everything in its place, you may avoid additional stress. Whether it’s making a to-do list, keeping client notes and information digital so you can access them anywhere, or filing emails into folders, use a system that works and keeps you on track.

On the other hand, inefficient organization systems or processes can also cause stress and frustration in a job. If there are parts of your work you know could be streamlined or improved, see if you can find a new, better way of working that’s more efficient and decreases anxiety at work. 

3. Have a way to unwind

If you spend many of your work hours under pressure, be sure to have a routine or outlet that lets you unwind and relieve stress. It’s also not a bad idea to have more than one method to relax. 

To help yourself switch gears and leave the stress behind, try going to the gym before or after work or listen to calming music on your commute. By putting your work stressors or to-do list behind you, you’ll be able to come into work the next day feeling fully refreshed and ready to get started. 

What are signs of stress in the workplace?

If you’re a manager who’s concerned about your team members being stressed, here are some signs to look out for:

  • Employees don’t take their allotted paid time off, such as lunch breaks or vacation days, or take the time off but then logging in to get work done

  • Employees bring up less risks or creative ideas during team meetings

  • Employees seem rushed or in a hurry every day

  • Employees are making more small mistakes on projects or reports

  • Employees seem fatigued or tired often

  • Employees are becoming sick more often

  • Employees don’t engage in small talk or personal conversation like they used to

  • Employees mention feeling stressed, overwhelmed, anxious, or similar feelings

As a team leader, it’s your responsibility to help your employees prioritize important work while maintaining their mental health—and preventing too much stress is part of that. 

It may be helpful to share the work stress management tips and strategies listed above with your team, but remember that employee stress may be caused by the company’s practices or a culture that promotes a stressful environment (which will take more than individual changes or coping strategies to fix). 

How to reduce stress in the workplace

If you’re a leader or just someone who cares about having a low-stress workplace, here are some ideas to help you learn how to be less stressed at work and promote a healthier workplace environment for your coworkers or employees. 

  • Encourage employees to take time off and time away from work and don’t send them emails or messages while they’re away (or, if you do, make it clear that you don’t expect a response).

  • Prioritize clear communication with employees about expectations, feedback, and processes.

  • Avoid last minute changes to projects or timelines when possible.

  • Create a culture that doesn’t tolerate discrimination or harrassment of any kind and where employees feel like they can speak up if they’re experiencing harassment.

  • Encourage employees to make use of company benefits that can help with mental health.

  • Provide training for all people leaders to improve communication, inclusive behavior, and team building skills.

  • Optimize team processes and organization systems so next steps are clear and information is readily available.

Know when you need help...

Sometimes, it can be difficult to put work stress aside or manage feelings of overwhelm and anxiety. If you’re still wondering how to handle stress at work or you’re experiencing signs of depression, consider talking to a mental health professional. 

These experts can help you with additional strategies to reduce your job stress and learn how to better deal with and manage stress and anxiety at work. Many workplaces even offer benefits or resources for employees’ mental health that you may be able to use.

How to handle stress at work? Be proactive

Some level of job stress is inevitable as long as deadlines, office politics, and industry changes continue. However, learning how to deal with these feelings or avoid triggering situations is critical to prevent stress and anxiety from building and negatively impacting your mental health. 

Proactive communication with your team, along with setting and sticking with boundaries, can help you become less stressed at work. Let your team or manager know if you’re feeling overwhelmed in your job and keep everybody in the loop about upcoming projects so no one feels caught off guard. 

There will be times when stress is unavoidable, but if you can master how to manage stress in the workplace by following the steps outlined above, you, your focus, your productivity, and most importantly, your mental health will all be all the better for it.

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