How are you feeling right now? Calm? Burned out? Somewhere in between? Unfortunately, many of us go through most of our day in a cloud of work-related stress. In fact, the American Institute of Stress found that 40 percent of employees said their jobs were very or extremely stressful.
But it’s just been a busy week, right? No job could ever be completely stress-free (except for maybe nap-testing mattresses). While a few stressful days here and there don’t pose an incredible threat, those few days can easily turn into weeks or even months. And when work-related stress becomes a permanent part of your day, several other areas of your life suffer as well.
The Far-Reaching Effects of Employee Stress
Stress is much more than a passing feeling. Extreme stress leaves its mark physically, mentally, and emotionally on employees—and it often impacts more than a single stressed-out individual. Here are just a few of the negative effects of high stress in the workplace.
Research across the board has linked high stress with numerous health problems like coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, weight gain, headaches, digestive issues, depression, anxiety, and more. Even your immune system takes a hit. According to one study in 1998, employees who experienced work-related stress lasting longer than one month had three times the risk of catching a cold—and this risk increased five-fold after three months of stress.
Have you ever found yourself lying awake at night because your brain just wouldn’t shut off? Work-related stress can steal valuable sleep time away from you by the hour. And when you’re poorly rested, it becomes even more difficult to handle stress at work. Sleep-deprived employees reported 23 percent reduced concentration as well as 18 percent reduced memory throughout the day.
When stress is weighing you down, it’s tough to work at your highest level. Stress decreases your motivation, productivity, focus, and even attendance. The Global Benefit Attitudes Survey published in 2016 found that the more stressed an employee became, the more days of work they missed. Low levels of stress led to an average 2.6 absent days a year, while high stress levels bumped that number up to 4.1 days.
Probably the most common and most immediate risk of prolonged employee stress is burnout, which is defined as “an individual’s response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors within the workplace.” Employee burnout can lead to all of the negative effects mentioned above, plus cynicism, social withdrawal, and active disengagement in the office. Learning how to deal with stress at work now is key to preventing a more serious condition like burnout in the future.
How to Handle Stress at Work
So…how do we do that exactly? Manage stress at work? It’s an easy thing to write, but a monster to tackle in real life, especially if that stress has become a normal part of our everyday lives.
But it’s time to break the cycle. And the good news is that there’s something you can do today—right now, in fact—to start moving in a healthier direction. Choose something off the list to try, then go do it.
#1 Identify your stressors.
If you hope to learn how to deal with stress at work, you need to know what is causing that stress in the first place. It may stem from a specific task, a coworker, a manager, work conditions, or any number of things.
Try this activity from Harvard Business Review: track how you spend your time for a week, including what you do, with whom you do it, and how you feel during each block of time. After a while, you may start to see trends emerge around certain activities or people where your stress spikes. Once you know your triggers, you can take steps to limit your exposure to these things and increase your exposure to those things that energize and motivate you.
#2 Prioritize what actually matters.
When you’re stuck in the trees, it’s easy to lose sight of the forest, right? Sometimes all you need to do is take a step back and see things for what they really are. Not every item on your to-do list needs to carry the same weight, and it’s okay to say no or delegate other tasks that are less important. My old friend from graduate school used to tell me, “You have to shoot the alligator that’s closest to the boat.”
Decide what matters to you, both at work and in your personal life, write a list, block out time, then get to work. Instead of stressing about the twenty projects coming next week, you can focus on accomplishing the next goal.
#3 Build a support group at work.
Developing friendships at work is a bit like tethering driftwood together to make a raft. Floating on your own is fine, but you’ll feel a lot stronger if you know you have people to turn to. Even if you tend to keep your feelings to yourself, “it’s important to have that outlet so you know you can freak the heck out if you need to,” says Justin Menkes, a C-suite talent evaluation expert and the author of Better Under Pressure: How Great Leaders Bring Out the Best in Themselves and Others.
Positive social interaction at work, even if it has nothing to do with venting, can also help break the cycle. One study found that, to have a thriving day, individuals need six hours of social time. When someone has zero social time, they have a 50/50 chance of having a good or bad day, with each hour of social interaction increasing their chances of having a good day.
#4 Disconnect and recharge after work.
When it’s time to step away from the office and go home, you should do exactly that. Emails and assignments can wait until tomorrow in almost every case. And if you expect to recharge your batteries, you need to stop using them for a few hours.
But it’s not enough to just disconnect from work-related stress. Stress can show up in our personal lives as well—it just might be wearing a different mask. Like your aunt posting fiery political messages on social media or your friend complaining about their bad day. Engaging with these things isn’t bad by itself, but if you jump from one kind of stress during your workday to another kind of stress at home, you’re not giving yourself a chance to truly recover.
#5 Take time off.
Of course, the easiest way to kick employee stress out of your life is to get away for a while. For some employees, the idea of going on a vacation might be more stressful than the idea of staying at work. Research from Glassdoor showed that the average American employee who was eligible for PTO only used 54 percent of their available time in the last year.
But giving yourself that break is important, and it can benefit your entire organization. One company experimented with a mandatory vacation schedule: seven weeks on, one week off. To make it a true vacation, the company warned employees that they would not get paid for their time off if they interacted with the office in any way (email, chat, etc.). After just 12 weeks, they found 33 percent greater creativity, 25 percent higher levels of happiness, and 13 percent increased productivity.
We’ve found similar benefits here at BambooHR as a result of our paid paid vacation policy. So what are you waiting for? Start planning your next vacation, whether it’s a long weekend in the mountains or a week in Paris.
Breaking the Stress Cycle
When you take time to take care of yourself, whether that’s by prioritizing your to-do list or putting your phone away for 15 minutes of meditation, work stress melts back down to a manageable size. It might no go away entirely (unless perhaps you plan to live as a monk in the far reaches of the Himalayas), but you’ll be up to the task.
Do have any other ideas or habits to keep the stress monster at bay? Let me know in the comments below!