On-the-Job Stress Tips

February 27, 2007

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Stress at work is normal, even healthy. When the stress becomes too great, however, or when it goes unmanaged for too long, it can be harmful to both productivity and health, negatively affecting not only the individual, but also business. Here are some usable tips to stymie career-related stress.

"It's easy to look at stress as a personal issue and, of course, its effect on individuals can be very damaging," says UK-based Investors in People director Nicola Clark. "However, stress is also bad for business, affecting morale and motivation amongst the wider workforce, and potentially leading to increased absenteeism — all factors which impact on an organization's productivity and ultimately its bottom line."

Stress, along with depression and family crisis, ranks among the top three workplace problems for employee assistance professionals, according to the National Mental Health Association. Meanwhile, the American Institute of Stress and the Centers for Disease Control have both reported that up to 90 percent of all illnesses are due to stress.

It used to be said that getting a job you love was the endgame for avoiding work stress. But the truth is that every job, paid or unpaid, has moments of stress. Whether it is responsibility without authority, presentations or power struggles, too much to do, personality clashes, office gossip, or working leaner and meaner, the workplace is fertile breeding ground for stress. Big issues and small issues, alike, momentary blow-ups or festering unspoken tensions — all can cause on-the-job stress, which can build and build and build… .

In her book, Stress Management for Busy People, author Carol Turkington maintains, "Most people underestimate the amount of stress they encounter in their daily lives." She offers these tips on reducing stress to manageable levels (via CareerBuilder):

1) Identify where your stress is coming from. Is it the deadlines? Unnecessary meetings? Balance between work and household responsibilities? Pinpointing the source of your stress is the first step to combating it.

2) Recognize what you can and cannot change. Some jobs are inherently stressful. But if you make yourself crazy with the little things like, say, dealing with rush hour, simply leave slightly later or earlier and save yourself some grief.

3) Drop those unrealistic expectations. Wearing a cape to work does not make you a superhero (trust us, we know). So don't try to be one. Setting unrealistic goals only dooms you to failure, which fuels your stress levels. Split those large, seemingly Herculean goals into smaller, more reachable goals.

4) Think positively. Convincing yourself that you miss more than you hit, that today's going to be the worst day since yesterday, is only causing internal stress and again setting you up for failure.

5) Learn time management techniques. If you write down your tasks somewhere, you don't have the stress of keeping it and dozens of other tasks in your brain. A "to-do" list with prioritized duties allows you to hone in on the most urgent tasks.

6) Take a break. You need to rejuvenate physically, mentally and even emotionally. So take a few moments to stretch your legs, stare out the window, take a short walk or simply zone out.

7) Be social, but not too social. "No matter how monotonous your job or how close you are to being laid off, social support from work colleagues will help lower your stress levels," Alison Motluk recently wrote at New Scientist. After all, nothing brings coworkers closer together than a shared disdain for the boss or another coworker. That having been said, sociability to the point of not getting anything done is stressful — to you and to others who depend on you getting your work done.

8) Eliminate distractions. If you're under an extreme deadline, close your office door and let your phone calls go to voicemail to deter interruptions. The average working person faces more interruptions today than ever before, due in no small part to new communication technology (instant messaging, online music at your desk, etc.). Fortunately, many of the people who brought such disruptive devices and technologies into the workplace (e.g., Microsoft) are developing ways to help you cope.

9) Exercise. Take a regularly scheduled walk, go to the nearby Y for a game of racquetball with a coworker or swim a few laps, or practice yoga during your lunch hour. Take advantage of your office's gym if it offers one. (Or try one of these.)

10) Learn relaxation techniques (meditate). Get a massage. Practice breathing exercises. Learn meditation; while some Buddhist monasteries have online meditation timers, Mac's Dashboard widget does the same thing. And remember that laughter, too, has been clinically proven to reduce stress.

11) Get help (medicate). If nothing you try works, talk to somebody: a counselor or a therapist, your spouse or a buddy. Simply talking it out can alleviate the overwhelming feeling caused by too much stress. And because high amounts of stress can lead to physical ailments, some people benefit from medical treatment.

Each of those tips entails that you, essentially, take control.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of stress is psychological and, in some ways, self-generated: the inability to "switch it off." That is, being able to forget about work after hours. Symptoms include sleeping with your CrackBerry BlackBerry or cell phone and compulsively checking your work e-mail from home after business hours. New Scientist's diagnosis is that much of this was birthed by bosses who use "global competitiveness" as an excuse to keep their employees on the job 24/7. The truth is that burnout is no better for the business than it is for the person. So-called "psychological detachment" has been associated with less fatigue, more positive mood and fewer days off work. Turn off your BlackBerry once in a while — just to prove to yourself you can do it. Or join a 12-step program.

Earlier: Top 10 Workplace Stresses and Irritations

Resources

Ignore workplace stress at your peril, bosses warned Investors in People, Jan. 11, 2006

Six steps to a stress-free career by Alison Motluk New Scientist, Feb. 8, 2007

Beat Work-Related Stress CareerBuilder.com

Stress at Work Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)

I've seen the future: it's a hamster wheel The Telegraph, Sept. 19, 2006

Cure designed for email addicts by Tom Harvey The Sun, Feb. 20, 2007

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