How To Reduce Stress At Work
The first thing to know about stress is: it’s not your fault.
Yes, there is such a thing as an exaggerated stress response, and you may have one. So pay attention if you seem to be more often or more easily upset or argumentative than your co-workers, or if you get feedback that you’re difficult to work with, or that people are reluctant to approach you. These are legitimate concerns about appropriate response to stress that you will want to address with behavioral changes, and perhaps with professional help.
Stress itself, though usually refers to conditions created by an objective condition imposed from outside – the “stressor.” According to the National Institute for Workplace Safety and Health (NIOSH), this happens in the workplace, “when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker.”
This is not the kind of extra push sometimes needed at work, where additional effort results in greater accomplishment or better mastery, followed by a relaxing sense of satisfaction. The job stress that makes people sick – and it does so more often than even stress from finances or family – is the day-in, day-out mismatch that can cause many of the following symptoms:
• Headaches (including migraines and vertigo)
• Back pain and neck pain
• Concentration loss
• Sleepless nights
• Tumult in the gut
• Heart palpitations
• Short temper
• Deteriorating personal relationships
• And on-the-job injury
The body recognizes stress as something it has to respond to quickly and decisively, and goes into a protective mode, which raises heart rate and respiration, sharpens the senses, and tenses the muscles for action: fight or flight, as the response pattern is often known. This is handy in the short term, and when fighting or fleeing is both possible and effective, as it has been for much of human history. Of course, in the typical modern workplace, neither response is satisfactory. And continuous stress keeps the body constantly on edge, creating at least wear, tear and fatigue, and possibly compromising the immune system and/or inciting chronic low-grade inflammation, each of which invites chronic disease.
The good news about this physical response is that it is largely physically reversible, at least in the short term:
• Exercise does a lot to discharge stress – outside the workplace, this can be regular participation in sport or exercise; in the workplace, modest physical activity like standing and stretching periodically, straightening the spine and rolling the shoulders help to discharge stress.
• Ergonomic stress can be addressed by some of the same techniques, although the most critically important measures involve adapting worker conditions to the body and the range of motion of the worker, not the other way around.
• Stress management programs offered by many employers, directly or through their health plan, teach both how to recognize stress and its sources, the range of workable and inappropriate stress responses, and methods of coping and correction.
So how did we get from “It’s not your fault” to “These are the things you should do”? Well, let’s be practical. Management is invested in how things are, even when things are bad. They may be stressed, too, and effectively, if not intentionally, charged to make sure that everyone else is. So it may be that your best option is to take whatever personal steps you can while you can look around for a less stressful situation. Perhaps that’s the department down the hall that seems to have such a different atmosphere from yours, another company, or another industry entirely.
Of course, it does make sense to address the external causes of stress, from bad workstation ergonomics to unreasonable workload expectations to constantly shifting and late-announced deadlines. Research suggests that longer term, this is the most effective strategy to reduce workplace stress and the low morale, absenteeism, sickness and injury it fosters. To address objective stressors effectively – which may mean confronting not just your local management but an entire corporate culture – you don’t want to be making your points sounding like a hysterical wreck. You want to be the coolest cucumber in the vegetable patch.
And while you’re saving the workplace, remember:
• Be clear.
• Be polite.
• Be firm.
• Cut management a little slack. They’re probably under a lot of stress.