Protecting ourselves from workplace stress

Mike has a work project due. He has already spent several days on it. The boss is expecting the finished results on his desk before Mike leaves for the night. It looks like Mike is going to miss another dinner with the family. In fact, he’ll be lucky if he makes it home before the kids go to bed tonight.

Julie works in customer service. She deals with unhappy customers all day, and many take out their frustrations on her. To make matters worse, her coworkers give her all of the worst cases. She is the newest employee, and isn’t part of their clique, yet. By the time Julie gets home each day, she struggles to find the energy to help her children with their homework.

What is stress?

A 2017 report by the American Psychological Association found that 61% of the population experiences stress related to the workplace. If you are feeling stressed about work, you are not alone.

Many of us can relate to the workplace pressures in the above examples. Most of us know what stress feels like. What is it, though that actually happens with stress?

Stress is a sensation that is caused by rising levels of cortisol. This cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands, and is used to raise an alarm in the brain. It works to initiate our flight-or-fight response, which gears us up to confront, or escape, danger. For some, this alarm is stuck in the “on” position. The stressed person is constantly in a state of being prepared for attack.

Stress and the body

Stress has evolved as a natural motivator, and can be useful in small doses. The effects of excessive stress on the body, however, are numerous. Stress has been linked to heart attacks, obesity, and insomnia. Headaches, frequent illnesses, and sexual dysfunction are just a few more of the symptoms that can be present during prolonged stress.

Stress and mental health

In addition to producing physical symptoms, stress can take a toll on our mental health. The feeling of constantly being on edge can result in a lack of attention span; increased irritability; forgetfulness; and substance abuse. Anxiety and depression are also often a symptom of stress.

Common work-related stressors

The most widely reported sources of prolonged stress at the workplace are found in the following list. Take a moment to consider how many of these pressures are affecting your life. Then, read on to learn some techniques you can use to reduce the impact:

  • Deadlines and Quotas
  • Bad Management
  • Coworkers
  • Poor Physical Environment

Coping strategies

Not many of us can afford to just up and leave our stressful jobs. What can we do when leaving is not an option? Let’s examine some tactics.

Deadlines and Quotas

Remember the admonition to “work smarter, not harder?” This adage applies when it comes to meeting deadlines. Remember that what you do in isolation is not observed by your boss. You may be burning the midnight oil, but the boss is only around to see what you do in the office. Make sure that you are visibly observed as going full-throttle with the project. A boss who sees an employee working hard is more likely to be gracious when it comes to extending deadlines. Communication can go a long way here, as well. Keep your boss updated on the daily progress, and you may find yourself under less pressure to take your work home.

Bad Management

Answering to a manager who does not take important factors into consideration is no fun. In this situation, a change of perspective is in order. Once we become aware of our situation, it can be beneficial to lower our expectations. If we already know that our boss is not going to listen to our input, we can go in armed with this knowledge. Simply accepting that things will be mismanaged can go a long way toward relieving the frustration. It can even become a little fun, watching the predictable disaster unfold as we simply go with the flow!

Negative Coworkers

For some, the negative vibes associated with things like favoritism, gossiping, and slacking can suck the life right out of the office. For those who find themselves drained by these interactions, it can be useful to remember that we can choose our friends, but not our coworkers. Remember that we can choose to tune out the negativity, though. Save your thoughts for getting the work tasks done, and save your emotions for your loved ones at home.

Poor Physical Environment

Sitting in one position all day can make the body feel stressed. Similarly, a lack of pure light – like from the sun – can change the chemical composition within the body, and can result in a sense of depression.

Some changes that can be made to the physical environment include adding a standing desk, or bringing in a natural-light lamp. In addition, studies have found that taking a short break to go outside – for even five minutes – can increase productivity, overall.

Take care of yourself

When it comes to managing workplace stress, self-care is critical. Just as the rule for saving money is to pay yourself, first, the rule for managing stress is to love yourself, first. Make sure that you are spending a small amount of time, each day, doing something that you enjoy. Go for a jog, do some yoga, read a book, or take a hot bath.

Don’t forget that sick time can be applied to mental woes, as well, so don’t be afraid to use your time to take a mental health day. In the case of managing work-life balance, make sure to look into the laws surrounding the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA.) These laws protect us when we need to take time off of work to tend to our loved ones.

Dr. Jeff Nalin, PsyD is an award-winning licensed Clinical Psychologist and a Certified Chemical Dependency Intervention Specialist. Dr. Nalin is the Founder and Chief Clinical Director at Paradigm Malibu Treatment Center with locations in both Malibu and San Francisco. Dr. Nalin was instrumental in the development of the treatment component of Los Angeles County’s first Juvenile Drug Court, which now serves as a national model.