Numerous recent studies have identified the workplace as a primary and growing source of stress. If you are one of the millions of workers looking to reduce work-related stress, here are several practical strategies — from managing your schedule to changing your thought processes — that will lower not just stress but also your risk of the physical conditions and ailments that often result.
Too many workplace conversations and meetings end without a clear understanding of who is responsible for taking the next steps, and when. By clarifying the who, what, when, and how before ending a conversation or meeting, you prevent miscommunication, confusion, and missed deadlines. In situations where two or more sides cannot agree, clarifying who is responsible for making a final decision is necessary. And if a request of a co-worker or supervisor to provide information or take action on an issue is met with a vague and potentially dismissive statement such as “I’ll look into that later”, asking a follow up question such as, “When do you expect to know?” or, “Do you mind if I check back with you next Tuesday to see where things stand?” is a non-threatening way to achieve clear understanding, prompt a clear action, and promote greater accountability.
If someone makes your daily to-do list unmanageable by adding five items to your existing list of 10, don’t just assume that all 15 have to be completed by the end of the day without clarification from you supervisor. When more than one person requires your assistance at the same time, clarify the expected consequences associated with not responding as quickly as desired. Last, make sure you understand what is included in your job description. One of the biggest consequences of the recent “do more with less” trend is that restructuring the work environment commonly results in confusion about what everyone’s new job duties are.
One of the consequences of living in an age of 24/7 electronic communication is the increased interruptions during the workday. Consider the following strategies: One, try to dedicate two to three specific times during the day to respond to messages rather than falling into a trap of immediately responding when a new message enters your inbox. Two, let people know of a time later in the day/week you are available to provide assistance. Three, consider shutting your door or moving to a different location where you can focus on your work uninterrupted for an hour or two.
It is easy to skip the coffee break or turn the lunch hour into a work session in order to complete your work. But eventually that will exact a price physically and emotionally. Consider scheduling meetings that end five to ten minutes minutes before the hour to give you a short break at least once or twice during the day. Also, make a mental note to get up at least once every two hours to stretch your legs and arms and walk around the office can help re-energize the body and mind — you'll be surprised at how effective these brief refreshers can be.
According to Harvard psychologist and author Dan Gilbert, the key to happiness and resiliency is something inside each one of us that weighs about three pounds: our brain, which controls our attitude about stressful events. Most of us develop a more negative mode of thinking under stress. It’s part of how the brain is wired when the automatic fight or flight response is activated and the body releases stress hormones. But when we engage the part of the brain called the frontal lobe which controls logic and emotion, we can alter this response. Consider for a minute the following three statements:
- Change is stressful because I don’t like the fear of the unknown
- Making a mistake is stressful because I don’t like to feel stupid
- Working long hours is stressful because it prevents me from spending time with my family.
Now consider what happens when we alter our attitude and mode of thinking:
- Change is exciting because it allows me the opportunity to create something even better
- Making mistakes helps teach me an important life lesson about success – that it only comes through humility and persistence.
- Working long hours can be stressful, but it also allows me the opportunity to earn some extra money and enjoy a nice vacation with my family.
By maintaining a positive attitude, reflecting upon those things for which you are grateful, or focusing on the positive, stress can be lessened to a more manageable level.
While you may find temporary relief from watching TV, playing on their smartphone, or surfing the Internet, most people report that these strategies are largely ineffective in reducing their stress. In some situations, these activities actually contribute to insomnia because the light from electronic devices stimulates increased brain activity and alertness. Instead, try spending time outdoors, participating in physical exercise such as a walk, relaxing your muscles with a massage, deep breathing, or participating in a yoga class. These activities are rated by most individuals as highly effective in relaxing the body and counteracting the physical consequences of stress.
Too often workplace conversations are focused on finger pointing and laying blame. These conversations are both emotionally and physically exhausting, and generally don’t result in productive problem-solving or genuine solutions. If you find yourself caught up in the blame game, redirect the conversation by asking a few questions such as, “What can we learn from this mistake?” “What can I do to prevent this from occurring again?” and, “What is this next step we need to take to resolve this concern?”
Although this sounds easier said than done, we can be our own worst enemy by inserting ourselves into situations when it isn’t necessary or productive. Before agreeing to attend a meeting, find out if your participation is needed and required or just optional. If you have a hard time saying “no” or are routinely the first person to volunteer, respond by saying that you would prefer to give others the first opportunity to participate, or that you would prefer to attend as a last resort option.
It is one thing to have high standards, but it is a completely different thing when those standards are based upon unrealistic expectations. Pay attention to your self talk. Instead of thinking ‘I should have known,’ replace those words with more forgiving language such as, “I would have preferred to know.” Instead of beating yourself up over a mistake, tell yourself, “Everyone makes mistakes from time to time, and it isn’t the end of the world.” When you find yourself highly scrutinizing a specific detail of your work, ask yourself “will anyone really notice or care if I make additional changes?” If not, then don’t make the added changes.
Co-worker conflicts are frequently ignored in hopes they will go away, but they usually just get worse. Rather than wait for your co-worker to take the first step, seize the initiative by asking for an opportunity to clear the air. Start by expressing what you hope to achieve by having the conversation. Emphasize a mutual goal that both parties can agree upon such as achievement of a production goal, increased customer satisfaction, or reduced workplace tension. Then invite the other person to share their perception of the conflict or to offer a suggestion for solving the problem.
When developing practical skills that reduce job stress and increase your resilience, you will alleviate a host of secondary conditions and issues directly related to stress: insomnia, argumentativeness (with family and co-workers), difficulties with memory or concentration, and/or counterproductive behaviors such as increased alcohol or drug consumption. Like any new skill being developed, it takes practice and at least three serious attempts to demonstrate the skill before consistent results may be noticed. Stress is not a permanent or inevitable reality of the modern workforce -- reducing it requires discipline and perseverance. A relatively modest investment will pay huge dividends and make you better balanced, healthier and, quite simply, happier.
More expert advice about Managing Your Career as an Employee
Photo Credits: Sergey Nivens/bigstock.com; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas - Fotolia.com