Today’s employees are expected to do more with less, which has become a major source of stress at work, said Vicki Hess, RN and author of SHIFT to Professional Paradise: 5 Steps to Less Stress, More Energy & Remarkable Results at Work.
Other sources of stress on the job include worries about performing well as demands rise and time diminishes, pressure to continuously be plugged in and squabbles with co-workers or disagreements with the boss, according to Hess and Terry Beehr, Ph.D, director of the Industrial/Organizational Program at Central Michigan University.
In fact, some jobs can affect your mental health so much so that unemployed people seem to fare better. According to recent research, people in a bad job — defined as job insecurity, sky-high demands or heavy workload, little control over workload and unfair pay — had either the same or worse mental health than unemployed individuals.
But while you might feel helpless and stressed at times, there are ways you can empower yourself and change your job situation for the better. Here are six ways to stress less about work.
1. Take care of yourself.
The problem with job stress is that it can make people sick, both psychologically and physically, according to Beehr, who studies job stress and satisfaction. So an effective way to stress less is to work on reducing this tension.
For one, you can seek professional help for your symptoms from doctors or psychologists, he said. Also, you can engage in activities that are relaxing to you, such as yoga, or anything that you really enjoy, such as meeting with friends, reading, watching TV or gardening, Beehr said. Of course, physical activities are a boon to your health — and can be protective. Being “in good physical strength” also “makes you somewhat more immune to effects of stress.”
2. Shift your mindset.
In her book, Hess talks about creating a Professional Paradise, which she views as a state of mind — not the perfect employer or paycheck. So it isn’t what actually happens at work but how we perceive events that matters.
She refers to any event that elicits a negative reaction, such as sadness or frustration, as a POW, and anything positive as a WOW. She divides POWs into external — such as criticism from the boss — and internal — such as beating yourself up (and does the same with WOWs). The goal is to “try to minimize the internal POWs, manage the external POWs and increase the internal WOWs,” Hess said.
Hess has developed a 5-step approach for just that, which she calls SHIFT. Here’s the breakdown:
- Stop and take a deep breath, an action that Hess said we just don’t do enough of. This not only helps calm you down, but prevents you from saying something you might regret.
- “Harness your harmful knee-jerk reactions,” which is essentially your fight or flight response. When something negative happens, some people mentally withdraw from the situation, while others go on the defensive and lash out. Another negative knee-jerk reaction is worry, Hess said. For instance, say your favorite supervisor typically dresses casually but today he’s wearing a suit. Your knee-jerk reaction is to assume that he’s interviewing for another job. Because knee-jerk reactions seem automatic, it’s often hard to pinpoint them. To recognize them, Hess suggested asking others. “If I don’t realize my knee-jerk is to be more controlling when I’m stressed, that’ll be hard for me to get a handle on that,” Hess said. So she asks her family to keep her in check. Asking co-workers is another option. When Hess worked at a hospital, she regularly talked to her director, which kept her up-to-date on company information. During staff meetings, she’d unwittingly tap her pencil out of boredom. Fortunately, one of Hess’s good friends told her, and she promptly stopped. Another easy way to spot patterns is to just observe your reactions when you’re stressed.
- “Identify and manage your negative emotions,” Hess said. Take a minute, and consider how you’re feeling. It also helps to “identify where these emotions are evidenced in your body” and figure out what helps you “in the heat of the moment,” whether that’s listening to your iPod or taking a walk.
- Find new options. To do that, Hess suggested “the Rule of Three.” Ask yourself these three questions: What has worked in the past? What would someone I admire do? What would someone objective do?
- Take one positive action. This could be as simple as finding the humor in a situation, Hess said. Consider, how can I look at this situation differently? If you’re overwhelmed with a project, a positive step is to make a list, breaking it down into manageable parts.
3. Resolve your concerns.
Pinpoint your sources of stress, and consider how you can resolve these concerns, Beehr suggested. For instance, if you’re stressed about a project, consider who could help to clarify the scope and required tasks. If it’s a conflict with a co-worker, think about what you can do to resolve it. Basically, the key is to take a problem-solving approach and try to fix what’s within your power.
4. Practice gratitude.
Hess suggested thinking about one thing you’re grateful for every day at work — even if it’s as simple as being thankful that your boss buys bottled water for the office. Every time something good happens at work, write it down. At the end of the day, you might be surprised how often good stuff actually happens. As Hess said, “we tend to remember the one POW instead of the 10 WOWs.” You can even have your co-workers share what they’re thankful for. Hess has seen managers do this at staff meetings.
On a related note, spread the love. Hess encouraged readers to do something nice for their co-workers, such as leaving them a treat.
5. Hang with a great crowd.
The people at your job can have a big impact on your level of satisfaction. Many workplaces have what Hess termed the “chain gang,” co-workers who are constantly stressed out and do a lot of complaining. Instead, choose to hang out with people who are supportive, relaxed and just fun to be around.
A great group of co-workers also can help with a heavy workload or just provide moral support. Interestingly, though, social support isn’t always helpful, according to Beehr’s research. “Sometimes people will help us when we don’t want it,” or their help implies that we’re inferior, he said.
Social support needs to be given freely — so there’s no obligation for the person to return the help — and from a peer perspective, not because you’re superior.
6. Reconnect with what you loved about your job.
Hess suggested asking yourself: “What is good about my job? How am I helping somebody?” Make the “connection to a strength of yours or a way in which you’re making a difference,” she said.
“Most people are more satisfied if they have a job that they see as meaningful and gives them the chance to use a lot of their skills that they value,” Beehr said. This is especially true if an individual uses their skills for an entire project, such as writing a report versus contributing just one paragraph, he added.
You also might find this list of tips helpful for decreasing stress in general. And, again, if you’re really struggling with the day to day, don’t hesitate to see a therapist.