Is your work stressing you out? If you find yourself in this category, you are certainly not alone! It seems that for most people in the work world, their professional obligations contribute to their stress levels. Read on for an overview of important things to know about the why, how, and what to do about your work-stress.

What Causes Work Stress?

In my discussions with clients, it seems that there are several usual subjects that increase their stress levels. They include:

1. Companies doing more with less

As organizations continue to streamline processes to manage their budgets, many of us are finding ourselves with increased workloads and being asked to do more with less.

2. The ubiquitous smartphone

While most of us can’t imagine life without these handy gadgets, they also have the unfortunate side effect of making us available 24 hours a day.  As a result, demands from work (via email) are more likely to intrude into our lives and make it more difficult to set boundaries.

3. Inboxes from hell

Because emails are incredibly easy to send, co-workers and clients can frequently send messages where face-to-face communication would be more effective.  Consequently, many professionals find their inboxes inundated with so many emails that they have a hard time keeping up.

4. A sense of urgency that rivals Usain Bolt’s

The pace in the corporate world is such that many employees are constantly under tight deadlines.  I have heard people express that they feel like they are “running on a hamster wheel” but that they don’t see any viable options for getting off.

5. Spinning too many plates in all areas of life

Trying to find a suitable balance between professional and personal obligations is an ongoing challenge for many people. Thus, some of us can become overwhelmed by all of our responsibilities, and the feeling that we should be doing a better job of managing it all.

The Behavioral Effects of Stress

Most of us tend to be at our worst under stress.  For example, when some of us are under stress, we become more irritable or terse, and sometimes may say things we later regret.  Others of us may be more prone to withdraw and isolate ourselves.  And, while some of us are able to keep it together at the office, our significant others or kids may suffer the results when we get home when they deal with our easily annoyed, hypervigilant, or less social self. I have worked with clients who have ruined their marriages as a result of getting overly caught up at work and either taking their stress out on their spouse or becoming so preoccupied with work, even when they were at home, that their families felt neglected.

Many of these behaviors can be attributed to our biology.  When we are under stress, our sympathetic nervous system (which is designed to activate to assist us in “flight or fight” situations) gets activated.  Some of the physiological symptoms associated with this are increased heart rate and breathing rate, increased muscle tension, decreased digestion, and dilated pupils.

In addition, our brains work differently at these times.  Activity in the frontal lobe and temporal lobe decrease.  The frontal lobe is responsible for what is known as “executive function” which includes activities such as planning, cognitive flexibility, abstract thinking, and being able to inhibit inappropriate actions.   Decreased executive function is the reason why we often say things we wouldn’t normally say or engage in maladaptive behaviors (e.g. excessive eating, drinking, spending, etc.) when under stress.  Two of the behaviors associated with the temporal lobe are speech and language.  Have you ever been so stressed out or overwhelmed that you couldn’t express yourself properly, no matter how much you tried?  That’s why!

In addition to the behavioral manifestations of stress, there are significant negative effects that stress can have on our bodies (I will address these in future posts).

How to Manage Your Stress

So now that you’ve acknowledge that perhaps you could benefit from doing something about your stress, what do you do about it?  Here are some suggestions for you:

1. Guard against being a workaholic

We are designed for balance, and as a result, working all the time generally works against most people. So, I encourage you to be very intentional about setting boundaries.  For example, for one of my clients who was constantly taking work home with him to the extent that it was negatively affecting his relationship and burning him out, we made a contract that he would not work at all from noon Saturday to noon Sunday.  I check in with him on that so that he is held accountable for what he has committed to.

2. Exercise regularly

I know from personal experience how much better I feel when I am working out regularly.  When you are busy, you may feel that you don’t have the time to fit in a workout, but I recommend you force yourself to find the time to do it at least a few times a week.  You can even trick yourself into it by contracting with yourself that if after doing five minutes of cardio activity you don’t feel like doing it any more, you can just stop.  What I find is that once people start exercising, they can make their way through 20-30 minutes of it, and they almost always feel better after it.

3.  Meditate

I recognize that the idea of meditation can be intimidating or unappealing to some people, but remember that you can start small.  Anyone can sit with their eyes closed and concentrate on their breath for five minutes a day.  (And if you don’t feel that you have 5 minutes a day, than that is even more reason to make the time). Meditation is called a discipline and a practice for a reason – it takes practice and discipline to get good at it.  however, the results are incredibly rewarding, and it is associated with reduced stress and anxiety as well as good outcomes for a host of physical issues.

4. Practice Gratitude

Sometimes when we are under stress, we can get excessively negative.  Although stress can make you less prone to want to practice gratitude, it is the perfect time to try a gratitude journal.  Research has shown that by taking the time at the end of the day to write down 3 things for which you are grateful, you will achieve greater happiness.

5.  Take Vacations

Again, when people are burning the candle at both ends, they sometimes feel they don’t have the luxury of taking a vacation, but if you find yourself in this camp, that is all the more reason to carve some time out to recharge  A burnt-out employee is no good to anyone, and skipping vacations are actually linked to greater risk of death!

Try out these strategies, and watch your sense of well-being improve!

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