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Stress at Work

How to Deal with Job and Workplace Stress

Stress at Work

While some workplace stress is normal, excessive stress can interfere with your productivity and performance—and impact your physical and emotional health. Often, your ability to deal with stress can mean the difference between success and failure at work. You can’t control everything in your work environment, but that doesn’t mean you’re powerless—even when you’re stuck in a difficult situation. Whatever your work demands or ambitions, there are steps you can take to protect yourself from the damaging effects of stress and improve your job satisfaction.  

Understanding stress at work

Stress isn’t always bad. Stress within your comfort zone can help you stay focused, energetic, and able to meet new challenges in the workplace. Stress is what keeps you on your toes during a presentation or alert to prevent accidents or costly mistakes at work. But in today’s hectic world, the workplace can often seem like an emotional roller coaster. Long hours, tight deadlines, and ever increasing demands can leave you feeling worried, uncertain, and overwhelmed by stress.

When stress exceeds your comfort zone, it stops being helpful and can start causing major damage to your mind and body as well as your job satisfaction. But no matter what you do for a living, or how stressful your job is, there are plenty of things you can do to reduce your overall stress levels and regain a sense of control at work.

Stress at work warning signs

When you feel overwhelmed at work, you lose confidence and may become angry, irritable, or withdrawn. Other signs and symptoms of excessive stress at work include:  

  • Feeling anxious, irritable, or depressed
  • Apathy, loss of interest in work
  • Problems sleeping
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Muscle tension or headaches
  • Stomach problems
  • Social withdrawal
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Using alcohol or drugs to cope

Common causes of excessive work stress

  • Fear of being laid off
  • More overtime due to staff cutbacks
  • Pressure to perform to meet rising expectations but with no increase in job satisfaction
  • Pressure to work at optimum levels—all the time!

Stress at work coping tip 1: Beat stress by initiating positive relationships

Social contact is nature’s antidote to stress. Since the face and heart are wired together in the brain, talking face to face with a good listener can help to quickly calm your nervous system and relieve stress. Of course, you may not have a close buddy at work, but you can take steps to be more sociable with your coworkers. When you take a break, for example, instead of directing your attention to your smart phone or tablet, try engaging your colleagues.  

  • Simply sharing your thoughts and feelings with another person can help reduce stress. Talking over a problem with someone who is both supportive and empathetic can be a great way to let off steam and help you become calm and focused.
  • The other person doesn’t have to “fix” your problems; they just have to be a good listener.
  • Developing friendships with some of your co-workers can help buffer you from the negative effects of stress. Remember to listen to them and offer support when they are in need as well.
  • As well as increasing social contact at work, having a strong network of supportive friends and family members is extremely important to managing stress in all areas of your life. On the flip side, the more lonely and isolated you are, the greater your vulnerability to stress.
  • If you don’t feel that you have anyone to turn to—at work or in your free time—it’s never too late to build new friendships. Meet new people with common interests by taking a class or joining a club, or by volunteering your time. As well as being a great way to expand your social network, being helpful to others—especially those who are appreciative—delivers immense pleasure and can help to significantly reduce stress.

Stress at work coping tip 2: Get moving

Regular exercise is a powerful stress reliever.  

  • Aerobic exercise—activity that raises your heart rate and makes you sweat—is a hugely effective way to lift your mood, increase energy, sharpen focus, and relax both the mind and body. Try walking, dancing, swimming, or playing ping pong with your kids.
  • As you move, instead of continuing to focus on your thoughts, focus on your body and how it feels as you exercise. As well as maximizing stress relief, adding this mindfulness element can help your nervous system become “unstuck” if you’ve experienced trauma.
  • For best results, try to get at least 30 minutes of activity on most days. If it’s easier to fit into your schedule, break up the activity into two or three shorter segments.
  • When stress is mounting at work, try to take a quick break and move away from the stressful situation. Take a stroll outside the workplace if possible. Physical movement can help you regain your balance.

Stress at work coping tip 3: Eat well

Your food choices can have a huge impact on how you feel during the work day. Eating small, frequent and healthy meals, for example, can help your body maintain an even level of blood sugar, keeping your energy and focus up, and avoiding mood swings. Low blood sugar, on the other hand, can make you feel anxious and irritable, while eating too much can make you lethargic.

  • Minimize sugar and refined carbs. You may crave sugary snacks, baked goods, or comfort foods such as pasta or French fries, but these “feel-good” foods quickly lead to a crash in mood and energy.
  • Reduce your intake of foods that can adversely affect your mood, such as caffeine, alcohol, trans fats, and foods with high levels of chemical preservatives or hormones.
  • Eat more Omega-3 fatty acids to give your mood a boost. The best sources are fatty fish (salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, sardines), seaweed, flaxseed, and walnuts. 
  • Avoid nicotine. Smoking when you're feeling stressed may seem calming, but nicotine is a powerful stimulant, leading to higher, not lower, levels of anxiety.
  • Drink alcohol in moderation. Alcohol temporarily reduces worry, but too much can cause anxiety as it wears off.

Stress at work coping tip 4: Get enough sleep

Not only can stress and worry can cause insomnia, but a lack of sleep can leave you vulnerable to even more stress. When you're well-rested, it's much easier to keep your emotional balance, a key factor in coping with job and workplace stress.

  • Try to improve the quality of your sleep by keeping a regular sleep schedule and aiming for 8 hours a night.
  • Avoid stimulating activity and stressful situations before bedtime such as catching up on work.
  • Turn off screens one hour before bedtime. The light emitted from TV, tablets, smartphones, and computers suppresses your body’s production of melatonin and can severely disrupt your sleep. Instead, focus on quiet, soothing activities, such as reading or listening to soft music, while keeping lights low.

Stress and shift work

Working night, early morning, or rotating shifts can impact your quality sleep, which in turn can affect productivity and performance and leave you more vulnerable to stress.

  • Adjust your sleep-wake cycle by exposing yourself to bright light when you wake up at night, using bright lamps or daylight-simulation bulbs in your workplace, and then wearing dark glasses on your journey home to block out sunlight and encourage sleepiness.
  • Limit the number of night or irregular shifts you work in a row to prevent sleep deprivation mounting up.
  • Avoid frequently rotating shifts so you can maintain the same sleep schedule.
  • Eliminate noise and light from your bedroom during the day. Use blackout curtains or a sleep mask, turn off the phone, and use ear plugs or a soothing sound machine to block out daytime noise.

Stress at work coping tip 5: Prioritize and organize

  • When job and workplace stress threatens to overwhelm you, there are simple, practical steps you can take to regain control over the situation. Create a balanced schedule. All work and no play is a recipe for burnout. Try to find a balance between work and family life, social activities and solitary pursuits, daily responsibilities and downtime.
  • Leave earlier in the morning. Even 10-15 minutes can make the difference between frantically rushing and having time to ease into your day. Don’t add to your stress levels by running late.
  • Plan regular breaks. Make sure to take short breaks throughout the day to take a walk or chat to a friendly face. Also try to get away from your desk or work station for lunch. It will help you relax and recharge and be more, not less, productive.

Task management tips for reducing job stress

  • Prioritize tasks. Tackle high-priority tasks first. If you have something particularly unpleasant to do, get it over with early. The rest of your day will be more pleasant as a result.
  • Break projects into small steps. If a large project seems overwhelming, focus on one manageable step at a time, rather than taking on everything at once.
  • Delegate responsibility. You don’t have to do it all yourself. Let go of the desire to control every little step. You’ll be letting go of unnecessary stress in the process.
  • Be willing to compromise. Sometimes, if you can both bend a little at work, you’ll be able to find a happy middle ground that reduces the stress levels for everyone.

Stress at work coping tip 6: Break bad habits

Many of us make job stress worse with negative thoughts and behavior. If you can turn around these self-defeating habits, you’ll find employer-imposed stress easier to handle.

  • Resist perfectionism. When you set unrealistic goals for yourself, you’re setting yourself up to fall short. Aim to do your best, no one can ask for more than that.
  • Flip your negative thinking. Try to think positively about your work, avoid negative-thinking co-workers, and pat yourself on the back about small accomplishments, even if no one else does.
  • Don’t try to control the uncontrollable. Many things at work are beyond our control—particularly the behavior of other people. Rather than stressing out over them, focus on the things you can control such as the way you choose to react to problems. 
  • Look for humor in the situation. When used appropriately, humor is a great way to relieve stress in the workplace. When you or those around you start taking things too seriously, find a way to lighten the mood by sharing a joke or funny story.

Boost your ability to stay on task

If you’re having trouble following through with these self-help tips to reduce stress at work, HelpGuide’s free emotional intelligence toolkit can help.

  • Learn how to quickly reduce stress
  • Learn why, when it comes to satisfaction and success at work, emotional intelligence is so important
  • Manage troublesome thoughts and feelings
  • Motivate yourself to take the steps that can relieve stress at work—and in other areas of your life
  • Improve your relationships at work and home
  • Increase your overall health and happiness

How managers or employers can reduce stress at work

Managers can act as positive role models. If you can remain calm in stressful situations, it’s much easier for your employees to follow suit.

There are also a number of organizational changes that you can make to reduce workplace stress.

These include:

Improve communication

One of the best ways to improve communication and reduce stress is to listen attentively to an employee in a calm, face-to-face setting.

  • You’ll hear the subtle intonations in someone’s voice that tell you how that employee is really feeling.
  • You’ll make that employee feel heard.
  • You’ll experience the face-to face interaction that lowers stress for both of you.

Consult your employees

  • Share information with employees to reduce uncertainty about their jobs and futures.
  • Give workers opportunities to participate in decisions that affect their jobs.
  • Be sure the workload is suitable to employees’ abilities and resources; avoid unrealistic deadlines.
  • Show that individual workers are valued.
  • Offer rewards and incentives.
  • Provide opportunities for career development.
  • Promote an “entrepreneurial” work climate that gives employees more control over their work.

Cultivate a friendly social climate

  • Provide opportunities for social interaction among employees.
  • Establish a zero-tolerance policy for harassment.
  • Make management actions consistent with organizational values.

If you want powerful social and emotional skills that effectively reduce stress, read FEELING LOVED.

Learn more »

More help for stress

Resources and references

General information about stress at work

STRESS… At Work – Highlights current knowledge about the causes of stress at work and outlines steps that can be taken to prevent it. (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health)

Stress at Work– Advisory booklet offers help and advice for anyone dealing with job and workplace stress. (Acas)

Workplace Stress – Describes the signs, causes, and effects of stress in general and on the job, and how management and employees can deal with workplace stress. (Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety)

Stress in the Workplace: A Costly Epidemic – Delineates the causes and costs of workplace stress and also includes ideas for coping with stress on the job. Includes warning signs of stress (to the left of the article). (Fairleigh Dickinson University)

Managing and reducing job stress

Stress Management – Document by England’s Chartered Management Institute covers job stress management and quick stress reduction tips. (businessballs.com)

Managing Job Stress: 10 Strategies for Coping and Thriving at Work – From a career advice and job-search site, describing stress management techniques for the workplace. (Quintessential Careers)

Stress in the Workplace – Workplace stress from the employee’s point of view; gives suggestions for gaining control over some aspects of one’s job. (American Psychological Association)

Work stress tips for employers and managers

Reducing Occupational Stress – Introductory guide for managers and supervisors on how to make changes in the workplace to reduce stress. (Center for Social Epidemiology: Unhealthy Work)

7 Ways Employers Can Reduce Stress in the Workplace – Discusses simple tips for how employers can help keep the workplace free of excessive stress for themselves and their employees. (Business Review USA)

What other readers are saying

“The information regarding stress is very good. I have read it over and over many times and it is helping me realize what stress is and how to manage it and to improve how I perform my management responsibilities.” ~ Illinois

Authors: Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., Melinda Smith, M.A., Lawrence Robinson, and Robert Segal, M.A. Last updated: June 2016.