If you’ve ever had a job, you’ve most likely experienced stress at work. Stress doesn’t discriminate when it comes to the type of workplace and profession—you don’t have to have a traditional 9-to-5 or work in an office to experience stress. I would venture to say that both a clown who works at children’s birthday parties and CEO of a Fortune 500 company can get stressed out sometimes.
That’s because the thing about stress is that it’s a very individual thing. “Part of the problem with stress, in general, is two-fold. One is that what you feel is stress and what I feel is stress, may be completely different,” explains Will Heckman, M.S, NBCT, DAIS, Executive Director of the American Institute of Stress. “It’s very, very subjective. The other thing is that there is good stress and there is bad stress. And in the workplace, it’s very important to differentiate between the two.”
Heckman says there are eustress and distress. Eustress is the “good” stress; the type of feeling that still is uncomfortable but ultimately moves you forward. At work, it could be a big project that you’re excited about but is very daunting and nerve-wracking. “It’s a first date. It’s a promotion at work. It’s being put in charge of something,” Heckman says. “Yes, it’s stressful, but it’s exciting. It colors our life. It gives us meaning and it makes us productive.”
Distress, on the other hand, is the negative type of stress that can affect your health. It can mess with your sleep, your mental health, and can even make you sick. When left untreated, it could lead to burnout and serious health problems. Not to mention that it just sucks the joy out of life and can even affect your relationships with others.
So what are some ways that you can handle stress at work? Below are a few tips to take into consideration…
Since what’s considered stress is based on the individual, your goal should be to figure out what really makes you tick and be mindful of the signs that accompany them. “If you’re finding yourself short of patience, more than normal, that’s definitely a sign,” Heckman says. “If you’re feeling such anxiety that you really just don’t want to go to work, that’s a problem. Some people can have depression problems. If you’re suffering headaches, that should be a red flag going up. And the big one seems to be insomnia.”
Most importantly, you shouldn’t take these signs or feelings as a normal, everyday occurrence. “Don’t let it become your new normal to be stressed out,” he adds. Heckman also suggests taking AIS’s Stress Mastery Questionnaire that will give you more insight into what is stressing you out.
Okay, yes, this is easier said than done. While you can’t really tell your boss that you’d rather not take on that project or task, there are ways that you can manage your duties and workload so it suits your particular working style. It’s all about taking more control of the situation. Heckman says that might mean getting and staying organized if that’s what helps you get more done. It might also mean trying different productivity techniques. He also recommends writing down a list of everything you need to do because the act of checking those things off your list can help lower your stress levels.
“When you work with other people, the stress is not always yours,” Heckman says. “Stress is contagious, and if your colleagues are stressed out, you may catch it.” If you’re more mindful of the difference between what your coworker’s stress is and what yours is, you won’t take theirs on. This could mean trying to lighten the situation or providing a different perspective to your coworker to help them stay calm.
Sometimes, spending your whole day in the office can really drive you crazy. So go outside (even if it’s just for a few minutes) or go for a walk. “One of the things that I like to do is if I have a meeting where I know it’s a big deal and it’s going to be stressful, I do it over lunch,” Heckman suggests. “Have a little bit of a social aspect to it—that helps some people.”
It may get to a point where you have to have a talk with your manager or someone higher up. If you find yourself having to go with this option, Heckman says the best way to go about this is with a calm and rational mind.
Again, that’s not the easiest thing to do, but if you approach it that way, you’ll be able to get your point across clearly. “If you’re going to meet with your manager or your boss and you’re feeling overwhelmed about something and you want it to discuss it with them, write it down before the meeting,” he suggests.
It’s incredibly easy to feel like you need to be available 24/7 or do work stuff when you’re off the clock, thanks to technology. While every job is different in terms of work-life balance, try to set boundaries that are helpful for you and that still gel with your job. “The best thing to do is set a time if it’s possible. I realize that sometimes we all have to work overtime and nights, weekends, holidays, whatever, but as a whole, set a time when you shut down,” Heckman recommends. “Take Saturday off and go do something else. Take a night off, go hang with your non-work friends, and don’t talk about work. Find a hobby.”
You’re probably thinking, “What? How?!” And let me tell you, I feel the same way, too. I’m still working on separating my identity as Sarah, the managing editor, from Sarah, the human being. It’s so easy to tie your self-worth and who you are to your job.
“I learned something when I was a police officer from an old guy who’d been on the road forever,” Heckman recalls. “I was a rookie, very gung ho. And he said, ‘Listen, kid, being a cop is what you do—it’s not who you are.’ And I have tried to do that about every job. So what you do for a living should not keep you from having a life. When it’s time to be done, shut the technology down, put it aside, and have your life.”
Sticking to this mindset can take some time, but you can start by slowly separating work and your personal life by setting boundaries as we mentioned above. For me, this would be like when I get invited to work-related events in the evenings. Since I try not to overcommit, I prioritize seeing friends or family after work or just going home and relaxing on my couch.
Even with a packed schedule, you probably still have at least one minute to catch your breath during the workday. Heckman recommends learning some easy and quick breathing techniques to employ when you’re feeling especially overwhelmed or just throughout the day, whether you’re stressed or not.
“Your diet and nutrition play such an important role in the way you feel,” Heckman says. “You have to learn to rest and digest after you eat. Don’t eat at your desk while you’re working. Take a moment, take some time. Don’t rush through it.” You might not be able to have a leisurely meal every day but make an effort to do so if you can.
10. Get Moving
“Exercise should become part of your life, some sort of movement,” Heckman recommends. “I don’t care if it’s tai-chi, yoga, or meditation. I don’t care what you do. It’s just getting moving.” Being active can help release and relieve negative energy and feelings.
11. Prioritize Sleep
A lack of sleep can really screw everything up. “I know it’s easier said than done, but you got to get a good night’s sleep,” Heckman says. “Sleep is such an important part of managing stress and anxiety. You need to get into a routine. As you move towards your bedtime, practice letting go of the stress that you experienced today and get away from technology. Do the things that are calming and helpful to get a good night’s sleep.”
At work, you can seek out trusted coworkers that you can talk to and who can help you with projects or tasks when you’re overwhelmed.
But Harvard Health Publishing states, “Stress can be exacerbated when we spend time ruminating about the past, worrying about the future, or engaging in self-criticism. Mindfulness helps to train the brain to break these harmful habits.”
To stay mindful, you can practice meditation or mindfulness exercises.
Negative thoughts can infiltrate and poison your mind. It sounds pretty dramatic, but it’s true. And negativity can affect your performance because you might feel self-conscious or incapable. You might jump to negative conclusions, like thinking your boss hates you or you’re going to get fired without any evidence or signs. To avoid that, Harvard Health Publishing recommends taking these bad thoughts and “treat them as hypotheses instead of facts and consider other possibilities.”
15. Make a Schedule and Stick to It
Sometimes we can overcommit, and when we do so, we might not be able to do everything, or we might find ourselves losing sleep trying to get everything done. This goes back to setting boundaries and limits. The Mayo Clinic suggests making a list of family (or friend) events on a weekly calendar so you have a plan and know what you’re doing outside of work. I think this can be said for all your commitments, personal and work. If you have everything mapped out, you’ll know your bandwidth and be realistic about your availability.
Time is so valuable, so keeping track of how you’re spending your time and what’s being asked of you can empower you to say no to the things you can’t physically or mentally take on (within reason, of course).