Workplace stress can be as damaging to your health as secondhand smoke, according to a team of researchers at Harvard Business School and Stanford University. Yet being “stressed out” by work has become so commonplace that it seems as if it’s the new normal. One Nielsen survey found that 80 percent of employed adults experience job-related stress.
While stress is a reaction to the perception of a threat, anxiety is a reaction to stress, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). Both can be manifested in a long list of symptoms ranging from headaches to stomach upset, back pain, fatigue, insomnia, irritability, an inability to focus and more. Long term, stress carries a higher risk for heart disease, autoimmune conditions, depression and other mental illness.
With so much at stake, it would be nice to have an “off” switch to stop job-related stress in its tracks. While it’s not quite that easy, our career coaches recommend several strategies that can help mitigate workplace stress and anxiety. But, first, let’s explore its underlying causes.
THE IMPACT OF WORKPLACE STRESS AND ANXIETY
Workplace stress and anxiety has the ability to influence people at work and at home, affecting:
- Workplace performance (cited by 56 percent of respondents)
- Relationships with co-workers and peers (51 percent)
- Quality of work (50 percent)
- Relationships with superiors (43 percent)
- Personal life (83 percent of men; 72 percent of women)
Source: Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA)
What causes workplace stress and anxiety?
Overwhelm — Many people express feeling overwhelmed at work, with too much to do in too little time and/or with insufficient resources, contributing to a steady stream of job-related pressure. Deadlines were cited as a main culprit of work-related stress by 55 percent of the respondents in a Workplace Stress & Anxiety Survey conducted by the ADAA.
A New Zealand study found that 14 percent of women and 10 percent of men who reported high levels of psychological demands at work suffered from depression or anxiety by the age of 32 — in individuals who had no previous history of either. High psychological demands such as long hours, pressure and lack of clear direction transcended other factors including personality type and socioeconomic status.
Challenging work relationships — Not only can working for a difficult boss produce anxiety, it can also pose an increased risk for health issues. By producing adrenaline and other stress hormones too often or for a prolonged period of time, the body’s adrenal system ceases to function properly, increasing the risk of chronic disease. Whether you have to deal with a boss who is unfair, a micromanager or a hypercritic, research shows that the longer you are exposed to this type of workplace stress, the greater toll it may take on your psychological and physical health.
Self-doubt — Feelings of inadequacy can originate from internal and external sources, and often add fuel to the anxiety flame. Self-doubt is the result of internal banter, including thoughts like “Will the boss like my presentation? … Is my case stronger than the other side’s? … Am I good enough?” This insecurity is often the result of your own unrealistic expectations, perfectionism and people-pleasing tendencies.
It can be exacerbated (or caused by) external factors such as performance “incentives” that lead to in-house competition, monthly quotas, and sales tracking boards or other metrics shared in weekly/monthly team meetings.
Job security — Other factors that may pose a threat to your job security — such as unstable economic conditions, a corporate merger or acquisition, outsourcing or even a natural disaster — can be anxiety-provoking when you have financial obligations to fulfill, a family to support, a mortgage to pay and a job you like.
This period of ambiguity can be harder for some people to endure than for others. A high intolerance of uncertainty has been strongly correlated to worry and anxiety.
Imposter Phenomenon — A term coined by Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D. and Suzanne Imes, Ph.D., the Impostor Phenomenon is common among high performers, and can feed workplace anxiety. “Even though they are often very successful by external standards, they feel their success has been due to some mysterious fluke or luck or great effort,” as Dr. Clance explains. “They are afraid their achievements are due to ‘breaks’ and not the result of their own ability and competence.”
Recent studies seeking to link personality traits that may lead to the Impostor Phenomenon found that it occurred more commonly among people who scored high on perfectionism and neuroticism and low on self-efficacy, conscientiousness and organizational citizenship. It comes as little surprise that perfectionists with little belief in their own abilities would feel stressed or anxious!
PLANNING AHEAD CAN REDUCE STRESS
A study led by Brandon Smit, a professor at Ball State University, shows that planning how to resolve incomplete work tasks can help employees reduce job-related stress. Many people find it tough to turn the work switch to the “off” position during time away from the office because their brain sends them constant reminders of all the tasks awaiting their attention.
The study divided participants into two groups with similar lists of outstanding tasks. One group used a planning approach, specifically outlining when, where and how they would complete their outstanding tasks. The second group did not use a planning approach.
The group who didn’t make specific plans for attending to their incomplete tasks had a much harder time detaching from their work, according to the research. To help turn off job-related stress when you leave work:
- At the end of each workday, make a list of your incomplete tasks.
- Create a specific “game plan” for completing each of these tasks, including: when, where and how you plan to approach them.
- Start larger tasks earlier (rather than later) in the day, giving yourself a greater likelihood of completing them that same day.
5 career coach strategies to reduce workplace stress and anxiety
Take a step back and evaluate your situation. What is at the root of your stress and anxiety? Are your concerns merited — or could your perceptions be skewed? Sometimes job burnout can be a sign that it’s time to consider a job or career change. Other times, lifestyle modifications can improve your ability to cope with workplace stress. Consider these career coach strategies to help keep workplace stress under control:
1. Ensure work/life balance Because technology allows us to be constantly connected, the line between work and personal life is frequently blurred. Many people find it hard to leave work at the office, checking emails before breakfast on up through bedtime. This constant connection can lead to burnout.
To maintain a healthy work/life balance, try to put parameters around both. Just as you wouldn’t bring your family along to a new client meeting, keep office matters away from a romantic dinner with your significant other by keeping your cell phone in your pocket or silenced.
Don’t let the urgent things at work take you away from the important things in life. By respecting your own boundaries, others will follow — but you have to, first, put those boundaries in place and, second, follow them yourself. Consider not only your priorities and values, but also your non-negotiable sanity-savers — i.e., a walk around the block at lunch time, a yoga class before work or time to read a great book over the weekend. Whatever makes you relax and recharge during your time off will make you more effective during your time “on.”
2. Change non-productive thinking patterns Workplace anxiety is often produced by inaccurate or distorted perceptions. Cognitive distortions take many forms. A few of the most common include:
- Black-and-white (all-or-nothing) thinking — a cognitive distortion that doesn’t allow for any middle ground; rather, something is labeled at one extreme or the other. You had a great day or a horrible day. This type of rigid thinking is not only inaccurate, it is also blocks opportunity. The next time you feel inclined to call yourself “a complete failure” because something went wrong at work, try adopting a softer stance, specific to the situation at hand: “OK, that didn’t go very well. I’m going to prepare better slides for my next presentation.”
- Catastrophizing — also known as snowballing. “I lost this sale” becomes “Now I’m going to lose this client,” or worse yet, “I’m going to get fired.” This downward spiral quickly blows facts out of proportion. When you feel yourself start to swirl, see if you can stop yourself in your tracks. “I lost this sale.” The End. Or, better yet, “I lost this sale … Let’s move forward now.”
- Emotional reasoning — a distorted thinking pattern leading you to believe that what you feel is what is real. For example, “I feel worried, therefore there must be something to fear” or “I feel like a failure, so I must really be a disappointment to my boss.” Before you let your emotions color the truth, remind yourself to do some fact-checking.
3. Take a “recess” Research has proven that children behave better and learn more if they are given a daily recess during their school day. Adults need breaks in their workday, too. Taking a 15- to 30- minute “recess” to break up your day relieves eye strain, muscle tension and refreshes the mind. One recent study went so far as to recommend a 17-minute break per 52 minutes of work for optimum productivity.
Better yet, a vacation is a great way to recharge. Some people avoid using their vacation days because of the backlog that will await them upon their return, creating even more stress. However, research proves that vacations can help break the stress cycle, buffering the detrimental effects of job-related pressure.
If planning a vacation to an exotic destination feels like too much of a strain — on your time or your budget — you may want to consider a staycation, which can be equally relaxing. Whether you play “tourist” in your own city, visiting often-taken-for-granted local leisure and entertainment activities, or just stay home and clean closets, any time away from work can be mentally cleansing.
To maximize the benefits of your vacation, experts recommend “unplugging.” While it may be impossible to completely shut off all communication, they advise checking email, text messages and social media as little as possible.
4. Meditate The benefits of meditation are both real and wide-ranging, as research continues to prove its benefits on the mind and body. Moreover, a little goes a long way. Perhaps the best news of all is that taking part in an 8-week meditation practice can actually change your brain structure, as a recent study by a Harvard-led team of researchers recently found. Not only did participants who spent roughly 30 minutes per day practicing mindfulness meditation report a reduction in stress, their MRIs showed significant changes in the gray matter density of the hippocampus, the portion of the brain responsible for self-awareness, compassion and introspection.
5. Sleep well The old rule of thumb was to get 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. New research now indicates that the quality of sleep is just as important as duration. Because slow-wave sleep (“deep sleep”) is necessary for body repair and maintenance, interruptions in sleep can result in a reduction in positive mood, including friendliness and sympathy for others. You can try to improve the quality of your sleep by reducing your intake of caffeine, keeping a consistent sleep schedule and limiting screen time before bedtime.
2 simple ways to fit meditation into your busy lifestyle
1. Alternate Nostril Breathing Rest your left hand comfortably in your lap. Using the thumb and ring finger of your right hand:
- Close your right nostril with your thumb.
- Inhale through your left nostril slowly and steadily. (Count to 4)
- Close your left nostril with your ring finger so that both nostrils are closed. (Count to 2)
- Open the right nostril. Keep your left nostril closed with your ring finger.
- Exhale slowly and steadily through your right nostril. (Count to 4)
- Inhale through your right nostril slowly and steadily. (Count to 4)
- Close your right nostril with your thumb so that both nostrils are closed. (Count to 2)
- Open the left nostril. Keep your right nostril closed.
- Repeat cycle 5 to 10 times.
2. Visualization Visualization can be as simple as remembering a scene that brings you to a place of tranquility, like a walk through a forest, or a favorite spot on the beach. Call upon each of your senses, recalling how it looks, sounds, feels, smells and even tastes.
As distracting thoughts enter your mind and compete for your attention, whisk them away, and return your focus to the scene in your mind. The more you practice, the easier this exercise will become.
Job-related stress and anxiety has become more prevalent, particularly as some organizations are forced to produce the same results with fewer resources. Many employees are handling heavier workloads and juggling more priorities — both at work and at home — than ever before, leading to a sense of overwhelm and, sometimes, to burnout.
Managing workplace stress, however, is critical to maintaining your physical and mental health. By making a few small — but impactful — lifestyle changes, you can keep job-related stress under control.
What strategies have you found most helpful in reducing workplace stress and anxiety?