While some stress in the workplace can act as a motivational tool, what can we do about an overwhelming amount of stress? It’s important to recognize the difference and take steps to minimize negative pressures where possible. In this article we will be looking at measures that can help to tackle stress before it gets too much.
Firstly, think carefully about what is causing the strain. Is it the role itself, or is it a problem with your colleagues? Or are you stressed because you’ve lost your work-life balance?
Remember that your employer has a duty to ensure that workplace stress is managed (and manageable): in most countries, this is even enshrined in law. And this has benefits for them too – a workforce with access to support will take fewer sick days.
1. Communicate your workplace concerns
Or rather, don’t expect the problem to go away on its own. If something is bothering you, take ownership and speak up – your bosses may not even be aware that it’s happening. This is especially important if anything underhanded or devious is going on; it’s not worth compromising your own integrity.
- Ask for support – no one should be expected to be a superhero all the time. Whether this is an extended deadline, more training or clarity on a particular issue, it’s better to tackle this head on than let them fester. Asking for help from colleagues can be a great way to build bridges (in fact, studies have shown that people warm to those asking for a favour – it’s called the Benjamin Franklin effect) and you have nothing to lose from asking.
- If you have an issue to tackle, remember to communicate calmly, clearly and openly. Email can be best for this, so that you have a chance to clearly lay out what you want to say, and to read it over to make sure that it’s measured and rational. This way you have a written record of speaking up, in case you need to escalate or refer back to this in future.
- Assume that anyone could read this email: avoid accusations and generalizations, but make concise factual statements, with evidence if relevant. If it’s not an urgent issue, leave it in your drafts folder to make sure you still feel that way after a good night’s sleep.
2. Praise yourself for work well-done
It’s common to use “to do” lists to give ourselves tasks – but how often do you use it to reflect on your own progress? Reframe your thinking from ‘I’ve got so much to do’ to ‘I’ve already made a good start’ and you will be surprised at how much tension that relieves.
- Take time out each week to set your tasks out, and reflect on how much you got done last week (Monday mornings or Friday afternoons are best for this). At the beginning of each month, make a note of your long-term goals and reflect on how you can achieve them.
- You can even reward yourself with a treat – sometimes we all need a helping hand to motivate ourselves! But remember if you don’t meet your own goals, to not beat yourself up: treat each new day, week, and month as a fresh start.
- Keeping track of your successes can be useful evidence to demonstrate your progress in appraisals or pay reviews too, particularly if you feel your work can sometimes be underappreciated. Remember that it doesn’t have to just be finished tasks – perhaps you got significantly quicker at using a piece of software, or helped out a colleague.
3. Find a workplace ambassador
If you’re in a large company, your HR department may already have wellness ambassadors, known as mental health first aiders, ‘designated listeners’, or similar. Seek them out – that’s what they’re there for! They will usually have company-specific resources that they can provide.
- Even if it IS just a shoulder to cry on (literally or not, their role isn’t one of judgement), then the act of reaching out to someone who understands your situation can help. You’re not alone, and you have just made a new ally.
- If your workplace doesn’t have this available, then suggest it: local mental health charities can offer training and e-learning. Your managers or HR team might not know that there would be an interest in it.
- And the outreach doesn’t have to be specifically related to mental health either – even providing training courses covering communication skills and empathy has been shown to reduce resignations and sick leave.
4. Address your workplace environment
Sometimes your office and colleagues can be as much of a cause of stress as the job itself – perhaps you’re sat next to someone with an annoying or distracting habit, or you’re freezing under an air conditioner. See if you can shift around within the office, or find a break out area to make your own once in a while.
- Most managers will be happy to shake up a layout if it doesn’t require any cost – I often use the adage that “a change is as good as a rest” – and you don’t have to complain about Tina’s annoying laugh directly (sorry Tina).
- Make sure your desk is optimized so that it’s not exacerbating your stress: poor posture and dodgy lighting can cause headaches and neck tension which can make a bad day worse.
- If it’s possible, why not raise the option of working from home every now and then? Many workplaces are moving towards remote working – even one day a week gives you a break from office politics and allows you your own space.
5. Balance yourself at work
‘A better work/life balance’ is commonly cited as a reason for job-seekers searching for a new opportunity, but usually this can be addressed before it comes to that.
- Set boundaries for your work day – with your manager, if possible. Checking emails at 10pm isn’t conducive to a good night’s sleep: explain that you will turn your work phone or notifications off at a certain time. If you need to work outside your agreed “normal” hours, make a note of how long and how often, and see whether you can reclaim your time.
- Take better care of yourself generally – everyone knows that exercise, eating right and a proper night’s sleep are good for us! If you’re well-rested and healthy, you’re better equipped to handle stress, and a positive mental attitude is easier to maintain.
- Ask whether your workplace has a corporate gym membership option: not only will it save you and your colleagues money, it’s likely to create a culture where exercise is respected and encouraged. And then you’ll be full of endorphins, the natural stress-reducer.
6. Take a break at your workplace
The longer you stare at a screen, the more stressed you will feel, as numbers and letters swim out of focus and your eyes ache. We’re not programmed to work continuously for a full eight hours or more, so respect the needs of your body and mind by pressing the reset button for a few minutes.
- Step away from your desk at lunchtime if you can – ideally, get out of the office altogether, and find a green space. Even better, cram in a quick gym session or tick off some chores, so your evenings can be extra-relaxed.
- Ask that lunchtime hours are honoured as ‘meeting-free zones’. You will feel reset and refreshed for your afternoon, and not wound up, hungry and stressed. No one wants to sit in a boardroom listening to rumbling tummies anyway!
- Studies have shown that workers who take regular breaks are actually more productive that those who don’t. Have you ever had an epiphany about a problem purely because you weren’t actively thinking about it? That’s as good a reason as any to stretch your legs or make a tea round.
7. Exploit your commute to work
As the pressures and stresses of everyday life mount, your commute to and from work can feel like it’s adding insult to injury. Take back that time so that you arrive at work ready to face the day – and to cleanse your mind of the working day on your way home, so that you can rest and recuperate properly.
- Incorporate exercise and get those endorphins pumping. Not many of us are lucky enough to live within walking distance of our jobs, but why not try getting off public transport earlier, or parking your car further away? You’ll feel more awake and more relaxed before you sit at your desk.
- Get into mindfulness or meditation. The wellness industry has fully embraced technology and there are many apps to help you on your mindfulness journey. Your commute is the perfect time to learn some techniques to deal with the stresses of the day.
- Entertain yourself. With so many podcasts and audiobooks to catch up on, use your commute to listen to that classic novel or comedy show you’ve heard so much about – arriving at work enriched or with a smile on your face will make you feel like you’ve already achieved something, and reclaimed part of your work day for yourself. It’ll be likely to motivate you to go for a walk at lunchtime too, to keep listening.
Remember that some stress in the workplace is to be expected, but no one should be making themselves ill as a result of their job. And remind your employers that it’s in their best interests to keep their people happy, healthy and stress-free!
Writer based in Yorkshire, UK. Seven years of experience working in - and writing about - recruitment across temporary and permanent markets, and a range of sectors. Copywriter and proofreader for a decade. Passionate about cats, booze and origami!