Coping with Workplace Stress
Strategies to help you thrive at work
3/4 of workers believe they experience more job stress than a generation ago
1/4 of workers say their job is their #1 stressor
When you have a lot of work to do, taking some time to pause may seem counterproductive. However, breaks actually increase your productivity and help your stress levels.
After 90 minutes of intense focus, our brains need a break and the quality of our work starts to go down if we don’t take a rest. Taking short breaks throughout the workday with a longer lunch break in the middle will give your brain sufficient rest to push through your workload.
In addition to increased focus and stamina, taking breaks also help your memory. Taking breaks during the work day allows your brain to form neurological connections that help you retain information. They can also help with problem-solving and give you time to take a step back and re-evaluate your goals, renewing your motivation when you return to your desk.
Here are some tips to get the most out of your break:
- Set a break timer. Working in small, hyper-focused intervals has been found to be more productive than working for long stretches. Try working for 50 minutes, take a 5-10 minute break and repeat. Or you can try the Pomodoro technique – working in “sprints” of 25 minutes, followed by a 5 minute break. You can experiment with different time stretches to see what length of time you are most productive for. This website allows you to set an interval timer while you work.
- Change your environment. Getting outside and getting some sunlight is ideal, as there are countless health benefits to spending time in nature. However, sometimes the weather has other ideas, or you may only be taking a five minute break. In these cases, even just going to a different room or the kitchen to grab a snack will help give you a breather from your workspace to refocus.
- Move your body. Sitting for 8 hours a day is not only detrimental to your body, but it doesn’t do your brain any favors either. Any thing as simple as going for a short walk around King St or your neighborhood can help boost your mood and productivity. If you don’t have time for a walk, try standing up and holding a yoga pose, or do some jumping jacks to get your blood flowing.
- Be social. Get some coffee with a friend or get lunch with someone during your break. Social support has been found to act as a buffer for stress and is beneficial to your mental health.
Organizing your tasks and time
Organizing your tasks and planning out your day effectively is crucial when you’re dealing with the stress of a heavy workload. To plan out your tasks, first make a to-do list with all the items you need to get done, and then prioritize those tasks, ranking them by priority. What needs to get done and what can wait? Doing the highest priority tasks first will bring the most stress relief, as these tasks are typically the biggest stressors. When we procrastinate and save difficult tasks for last, the avoidance of the task creates more negative feelings that are only relieved once you start working.
You can organize your tasks with a list on pen and paper, or you can make a list in Outlook, as shown in the image on the right. The tasks in this example are color coded by type of task, and ordered by priority. Making this list not only helps you stay on task, but having a clear picture of exactly what you need to get done can make your workload seem much less daunting.
In addition to listing out your tasks, you also will want to turn your list into a course of action by scheduling out those tasks. Blocking of specific times for specific tasks will allow you to focus on one task at a time, and give yourself a better idea of how much time you need to complete all of your tasks. If needed, you can block off these times in your Outlook calendar as well and adjust the settings so you get a notification to remind you when it is time for an appointment or to switch tasks.
The example shown here turns the Outlook to-do list shown above into a course of action. Notice that the two highest priority tasks come first on the list, as these are the ones that most need to get done. You don’t have to make your schedule in Outlook, you can choose to use a planner notebook. However, it can be convenient to use Outlook because you have all of your meetings and appointments that were coordinated through email already blocked off for you in your schedule.
While planning out a schedule is important, it is also important to adjust deadlines and schedules when necessary. Sometimes if a task is taking too much or too little time, this schedule will need to be adjusted.
Making Lifestyle Changes
Making lifestyle changes is probably the most difficult coping strategy to apply, because it is so difficult to break out of old habits. However, making positive changes to your sleep, exercise, and nutrition routines can be extremely effective in counteracting chronic stress.
Improve your sleep
Getting 7-9 hours per night is no easy feat, but it’s essential for keeping stress levels down and productivity up. When we’re sleep deprived, we’re not only less alert, but also less capable of coping with stressful situations. You may find yourself in a sleep-stress cycle – when sleep deprivation leads to higher stress levels, and higher stress levels make it difficult to fall asleep. Turning off electronic devices 1 hour before going to sleep, and going to sleep at the same time every night can help break this cycle and get you back on track.
Move your body
Exercise is a great stress reliever. Regular participation in aerobic exercise triggers endorphins that help decrease stress, improve sleep, and stabilize your mood. If you don’t have time to hit the gym or want to start small, as little as five minutes of exercise a day can be beneficial in alleviating stress.
Here are some ideas of exercise you can do when there’s no time for the gym:
- Go on a 10-minute walk or run during a break
- Practice 15 minutes of yoga during lunch
- Do a 20 minute circuit workout before or after work
(If you type “20 minute workout” into the YouTube search bar, there are literally thousands of free workouts you can find!)
Improve your nutrition
Nutrition is also an important consideration during periods of stress. Because stress hinders your immune system, it’s important to consume enough fruits and vegetables to nourish your body with immune boosting vitamins. Limiting foods that cause your energy levels to crash, like sugar and caffeine, can also be beneficial in reducing stress levels, and stabilizing your mood. Additionally, proteins and healthy fats can help keep your blood sugar levels stable, leading to less mood swings and higher energy – leaving you equipped to cope with stress.
Changing your thought patterns
When it comes to stress, and really any situation, our perceptions create our reality. When you think negative thoughts, your situation becomes more stressful. The opposite happens when you think positively. The good news is that we can put in the effort to intentionally change our thought patterns and decrease our stress through cognitive restructuring.
Cognitive restructuring is when we identify, and then challenge, negative and stress inducing thoughts.
How can we apply cognitive restructuring at work?
When you find yourself feeling overwhelmed at work, be mindful of your thought process. Recognize when your thinking becomes negatively distorted.
Check yourself by asking things like:
- Is this thought an automatic thought? Why did my brain go there?
- What concrete evidence do I have in support of this thought? What evidence do I have against this thought?
- What is another way someone could perceive this situation?
Once you have asked these questions, reevaluate your original thought in a fair and balanced way.
Here is an example of how someone might use cognitive restructuring in the workplace:
I have so much work to do, there’s no way I can get it all done, I’m going to disappoint this client.
Now let’s restructure this thought to be positive, while realistic:
I have a lot of work to do, but this is a great opportunity to prove my quality of work to this client.
A simple change to the original, stress inducing thought can completely change one’s perception of the situation:
- Instead of being a chance to fail, it becomes an opportunity to succeed
- Rather than evoking fear, the thought now evokes excitement and motivation
- Instead of a downward spiral of negativity, it becomes a balanced, evidence-based statement
There are plenty of factors we can’t control, but we are in charge of our minds. The next time you’re feeling stressed, give yourself a check and correct when your thinking becomes negatively distorted.
Remember, “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.“ – William James