According to a survey done by The American Institute of Stress involving a total of 800,000 workers in over 300 companies, the number of employees calling in sick because of stress tripled from 1996 to 2000. To make matters worse, an estimated one million workers are absent every day due to stress. The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work reports that over half of the 550 million working days lost annually in the U.S. from absenteeism are stress related and that one in five of all last-minute no-shows is due to job stress. Since the early '90s, Americans have been praising this overworked, overstressed lifestyle. Studies show that in 1999, more than 25 million Americans worked at least 49 hours a week, and 11 million of those said they worked more than 59 hours a week.
It's time for us to stop this vicious stress cycle at work. It's certainly easier said than done, considering that in many cases stress triggers are completely out of your control. I've been so stressed at a former job that it caused me to feel helpless and delusional: Maybe I'm overreacting? I questioned myself, and I kept my head down and did the work for almost a year, allowing stress to overshadow my happiness in and out of the workplace. In reality, I was being mistreated and needed to change my environment to save my mental state. I learned that it's never worth losing yourself in stress over work, as it does more internal and emotional damage in the long run.
We consulted top stress experts to share how to handle stress at the workplace. Sanam Hafeez, NYC-based licensed clinical psychologist; Christopher Calapai, osteopathic physician and stress expert; and Kelly Resendez, best-selling author of Big Voices and women's empowerment advocate share well-researched strategies and advice on ways to choose peace in and outside of the office.
There Are Countless Sources of Stress at Work
Sometimes it's nearly impossible to avoid the triggers of workplace stress, which can be the result of many different things. "Something simple like the computer not functioning properly or a paper jam in the printer can be enough to set someone off," explains Hafeez. "Usually people stress over meeting deadlines and generating expected results. When there are high expectations set by managers and bosses, it's normal for people to feel stressed. Other stressors such as the daily commute, staff turnover, interpersonal relationships with other workers, and a stressed home life are also common."
Calapai points out that a combination of these things can lead to a less effective performance at your job. "Whether the job yourself or specific tasks and responsibilities are stressful or the environment at the office or interaction with coworkers are stressful, all can become obstacles in achieving your work goals," explains Calapai.
Resendez goes on to elaborate on workplace stress from being mild to severe depending on the circumstances. "This includes feeling undervalued, being overwhelmed by your workload and how to manage your time, and being a victim of a hostile or unacceptable environment. Tasks or projects assigned may also require skills that an employee doesn't possess and leave them feeling like a failure," Resendez says.
Uncontrolled Stress at Work Takes a Toll on Your Body
"When we are stressed and don't have an outlet to release it properly, our health is affected," explains Hafeez. "We may feel run-down, catch colds, and even develop stomach ailments, headaches, and heart conditions. Stress takes a toll on the body. It also takes a toll on our mental well-being. When stressing, we may find it difficult to focus, we may become forgetful, and we also become short-tempered, which is disastrous in a work environment, especially when managing teams or dealing with customers."
Resendez also believes it's important to understand the physical effect stress can have on your body. "Stress causes our physical bodies to release cortisol, which is devastating to our physical sleep," says Resendez. "We can lose sleep and experience anxiety. An employee may be more likely to take sick days and lose productivity as a result of their stress. Depending on the severity, it can lead people to distract themselves with unhealthy options like alcohol or drugs. It can also devastate families if you are unable to control your emotions at home."
Now that we're aware of the common causes along with the potential dangers of uncontrolled stress, let's talk through actionable strategies you can do at work to get these feelings under control.
#1. Clearly Identify the Source of Stress
"Document what is occurring, what the options are to overcome it, and what parties are involved," suggests Resendez. "Once you have this, you can meet with anyone who can help you overcome the issue. If you have a co-worker harassing you, meeting with HR and allowing them to intervene would be an example. If it's something you need to work through, such as managing your time or projects better, you might start researching this online, taking online training courses, or hiring a business coach to help you. Be sure to identify your triggers that regularly produce the stress. I recommend using my Trigger Management Strategy to document what's happening throughout your day."
#2. Use All Your Vacation Time
"Use all of your vacation time, and if possible, spread them out quarterly," suggests Hafeez. "If trying to get a raise, consider also adding days off to the negotiation if money increase isn't doable. The USA lives to work, and unlike other countries, time off is culturally frowned upon. A break from work is needed to gain inspiration, clarity, and reconnect with yourself and family. Doing so connects us to the greater purpose of why we are working in the first place."
#3. Use Company Days Off to Your Advantage
"When the business is closed, think about how to use the time," says Hafeez. "Will it be to clear the garage freeing up the weekend? Or will you dedicate the day off to some well-needed downtime where you may want to check out a movie, catch up on reading, or rest? Perhaps you want to have a 'daycation' where you get up early and plan a day trip for a change of scenery. Look at the days off you're granted and plan what you'd like to do."
#4. Take Breaks Every Other Hour
"Set your alarm to sound, and allow yourself to get up, walk around, get water, stretch, go to the restroom, and say hi to your co-workers," says Hafeez. "Hunkering down in your office or cube only makes you feel isolated and disconnected."
Calapai explains the power of taking breaks as well. "Those people who have the opportunity to go for a walk or go to the gym during or after work should do it and see if the physical activity negates stressful responses," says Calapai.
#5. Eat Well
"So many people brag about how they didn't have time to eat," Hafeez brings up. "This isn't something to brag about. Not only is it unhealthy, but it sends the message that you have so much to do that you can't even eat. This is a message of stress and sends us into fight-or-flight mode. It's common for stressed-out workers to harm their adrenal glands. Make sure you eat lunch and healthy snacks throughout the day. Also, go out for lunch—even just to get fresh air—and if you bring lunch, eat your lunch out of your cube or office. Use lunchtime as time to connect with co-workers or just to enjoy a meal on your own."
#6. Practice Deep-Breathing Exercises
"When the email comes that makes your blood boil or a meeting turns into an hour of negativity with focus on problems, it's important to take deep breaths," explains Hafeez. "When we are quick to react, we elevate stress levels. When we take a second to count to ourselves and breathe deeply before we respond and react, we can change our state. Then we can offer a solution instead of magnify the problem."
Calapai also agrees with taking mental exercises throughout the day to shift your focus. "One technique involves taking a few minutes away from what's stressing you out, closing your eyes, and focusing on your favorite environment, vacation, or activities," suggests Calapai. "This can break the recurrent stress cycle when you focus your mind on things that are pleasurable. To break your stress cycle, this can be done for three to five minutes during the day at work."
#7. Practice Stress-Relieving Activities Outside of Work
"Meditation and exercises such as yoga, cycling or Spin, ecstatic dance, and kickboxing are all great ways to handle stress," recommends Hafeez. "Other good mind-clearing, stress-reducing habits are going for walks with family after dinner and turning off all technology after 8 p.m. to allow time to unwind before bedtime. Getting a solid, good night's sleep without watching the news before bed will help reduce stress."
Resendez continues, "Exercise is the best medicine for reducing stress besides removing the triggers that create the stress," she says. "Eating healthy and taking time to laugh and enjoy life will help offset any stress you feel at work. Journaling what feelings you are having at work will help as well. Find passion outside of work if you have to stay in your job for financial reasons."
#8. Remap Your Goals
"Create a vision, goals, and a plan to improve the quality of your career," suggests Resendez. "Often we are stressed because we don't feel like we are progressing. If we have an underlying passion or goal but haven't clearly defined it, we will feel stress."
#9. Give a Name to Your Emotions
"Rather than just feel stressed, document thoughts and emotions that create fear, anxiety, sadness, anger, etc., at work to better understand when they show up and how they impact you," explains Resendez. "Doing this gives you the space needed to have a plan for moving forward rather than just staying in this state. If we generalize, things can feel hopeless. Give yourself permission to feel certain things but not allow it to steal your productivity or distract you, which will make the problem worse."
#10. Increase and Prioritize Self-Care
"Increasing self-care during times of stress will help tremendously," says Resendez. "Identify things that create peace and relaxation such as yoga, walking, taking a bath, etc., that you can schedule more regularly. Create a morning ritual to prepare for your day. Take some quiet time before work to review 'I am' statements or a mantra that supports the mindset needed to reduce stress."
The next time you feel stress creeping into the office, instead of letting it overtake you, use this guidebook and put yourself first.