Stress Management In The Workplace

Portrait of worried and desperate woman

Why people experience stress

Stress is a natural, physical response to our perceptions of a stimulus. It has an evolutionary purpose; our need to protect ourselves and the innate ‘flight or fight’ aspect of our nervous system. When we were battling for survival, stress is what released the adrenaline that let us fight. So, although most of us don’t have to battle our way into the office each morning, the response to stimuli and the stress that results still exist.

That stimulus could be something physical, such as stubbing your toe, or emotional, such as the fear of losing your job or being embarrassed in the workplace. But not all sources of stress are negative stimuli. Some sources of stress are actually happy events. For example, getting promoted into a new position is a positive event, but it can add pressure to increase your work hours or the quality of your work, resulting in additional stress.

Learning to Manage Job Stress

The good thing to know about job stress is that you can learn to manage it so that it does not become a serious problem. Some ideas you can employ include:

• Taking responsibility for how you experience stress
• Taking steps to limit the impacts of stress on your health
• Identifying your ‘stress points’ or areas in which you are vulnerable to stress
• Learning to improve your interpersonal and communication skills to reduce stress in your relationships.

Warning Signs of Excessive Stress at Work

How can you know whether or not you are experiencing just a bad day or an excessive amount of stress? There are some warning signs. If you find that your feelings about work, your tasks, or the people you work with are deteriorating and that those feelings occur more than just sporadically, you may be under excessive stress and need to take some proactive steps to reduce your stress level. More warning signs of excessive stress in the workplace may include:

• Constant anxiety
• Regular irritability
• Apathy
• Loss of interest in work
• Loss of concentration
• Muscle tension
• Social withdrawal
• Loss of sex drive
• Use of alcohol or drugs to cope

To respond to these symptoms, you need to equip yourself with tools to deal with and prevent excessive stress.

Self-Care Methods for Reducing Stress

Stress causes fatigue and other symptoms which may make you just want to curl up in bed and hide when you get out of work. You may not feel that you have the time or energy to take good care of yourself. However, taking care of yourself is imperative if you want to combat stress in your life. Not only does it feel good when you are doing good things for yourself, but it is also a way to take responsibility for yourself and your actions. If you know that you can impact your stress level by exercising, eating well, and getting enough sleep, then doing so is a way to take control over a situation that might otherwise leave you feeling helpless. You can end up feeling empowered rather than overstressed. Plus, the better you feel, the better prepared you are to deal with the next stressor that comes your way.

Every Bit Helps

When you are looking for ways to improve your self-care, you don’t have to make an entire lifestyle overhaul. Eventually, you might feel that you need to change a number of different habits in your life. But at first, even small changes can make you feel a bit better. Positive changes also tend to lead into each other. For example, if you start exercising, you are likely to want to eat better as well. And as you start to feel better, the reward of feeling good will help motivate you to keep doing more things to feel even better. So it doesn’t matter where you start – you just need to pick one area and begin improving the way that you take care of yourself.

Exercise

Besides improving your physical fitness level, exercise can also help to reduce your stress level. There are several reasons for why exercise can help you better deal with stress as well. First, exercise can lead to a release of endorphins, or ‘feel-good’ chemicals into the bloodstream. These chemicals have the effect of relaxing the body and are associated with feelings of pleasure.

Second, research shows that exercise may help the brain to better deal with stress. People who exercise regularly are proven to have lower anxiety and depression rates than people who don’t. Scientists believe that in part, this fact is due to the relationship between neurochemicals and stress. Some of the current research is showing that Norepinephrine, a neuromodulator, is believed to help the brain deal with stress in a more effective way. Exercise is shown to increase the brain’s production of norepinephrine. In fact, it appears that norepinephrine plays a role in releasing and modulating the other neurochemicals that are directly involved in the body’s stress response.

Third, there is some evidence that exercise is a way for your body to practice responding to stress. The theory is that exercise requires the same systems in the body to respond as are involved in responding to stress. For example, your cardiovascular system, renal system, and muscular system are all involved when you exercise and when you experience stress. It is possible that exercise is a kind of ‘dress rehearsal’ for these systems to practice working together. If this theory is accurate, then it makes sense that the more sedentary we are, the less able our bodies are to respond to significant stress.

So how much exercise is enough to lift your mood and give your body the practice time that it needs? The general consensus is that our bodies need a minimum of 30 minutes of heart-pounding activity on most days. The activity doesn’t have to take place all at one time. Instead, you can break it up into two fifteen-minute segments or three ten-minute segments.

Healthy Eating

Providing your body with appropriate nutrition is important for making the body run efficiently – including the body’s ability to respond to stress. One important step is to keep your blood sugar at an even level throughout the day. Low blood sugar can lead to anxiety and irritability, while high blood sugar will lead to a crash that can result in low energy and fatigue. Following are some general tips for healthy eating.

Plan for Success

Make sure that your eating plan is just that – a well thought-out plan. You should make changes gradually so that you don’t overwhelm yourself and get frustrated or attempt to abandon your plan soon after you’ve started. Keep your plan simple so that it is easy to follow. Don’t drive yourself crazy counting calories or every nutritional aspect of the food you are eating. Instead, focus on making healthy choices and enjoying foods you like in moderation.

How You Eat

Besides what you eat, you want to think about how you eat as well. If you eat too fast, eat beyond the point of satisfaction, or eat on the run, you are engaging in poor eating habits – no matter what food choices you are making. Here are some suggestions for healthy eating behaviours:

  • Try to eat with other people rather than in front of the television or computer. That way you are focusing on others and enjoying their company rather than mindlessly eating.
  • Chew your food thoroughly and slowly, giving yourself the time to enjoy the tastes and flavours of your food. If you have a hard time doing this, then try putting your fork down between bites.
  • Sometimes we aren’t able to distinguish true hunger. Before you eat, try drinking a glass of water. You might actually have been thirsty rather than hungry. Pay attention to when you reach the point of being satisfied with the amount of food you have eaten. In fact, try to stop before you reach true fullness.

Fruits and Vegetables

Yes, we’ve all heard it before. We need to include a variety of fruits and vegetables in our diets in order to receive adequate nutrition for our body’s needs. Additionally, they are low in calories, high in fibre, and rich in antioxidants. So, in addition to helping you to remain well-nourished and ready to fight off stress, fruits and vegetables can also directly help to protect you from diseases such as cancer. Some tips for adding fruits and vegetables to your diet are:

  • Pick bright, deeply coloured produce and be sure to pick an array of different colours in order to get a variety of nutrients
  • Eat naturally sweet fruits and vegetables if you have a sweet tooth, which can help to reduce your cravings for sugar.
  • Avoid fruit juices or at least dilute them with water
  • Avoid fruits canned in syrup, which is just a form of sugar
  • Avoid fried vegetables and fatty sauces

Additional Nutritional Tips

In addition to the information above, there are some more things you can do to improve your nutrition and overall health. They include:

  • Drinking at least eight glasses of water per day. Our bodies are about 75% water and we need it to keep our systems running properly.
  • Avoid caffeinated beverages or take them in moderation.
  • Eat whole grains and avoid simple carbohydrates.
  • Avoid unhealthy fats such as saturated fats and trans fats.
  • Eat lean protein such as fish, poultry, and vegetable proteins.
  • Add calcium and Vitamin D to keep bones strong.
  • Limit salt and sodium to 2,300 mg per day.
  • Avoid processed or pre-packaged foods that are full of additives and preservatives.
  • Drink alcohol in moderation.
  • Eliminate nicotine.

Get Plenty of Sleep

Getting enough rest is vital to controlling the impact that stress has on your health. Everyone’s sleep cycle is slightly different, but most adults require seven to eight hours of restful sleep per night. Stress and anxiety often interfere with sleep, which in turn will worsen the person’s level of stress. Lack of sleep affects your ability to manage your stress level, while getting enough sleep leaves you refreshed and more able to cope with your job and any stressors that you might face.

If you find that you have trouble with insomnia, there are several tools that you could try to help fall asleep. These include:

• Meditation
• Breathing exercises
• A soothing cup of herbal tea
• Listening to music
• Taking a bath
• Reading

Things to avoid if you want to be able to sleep well include:

• Nicotine or caffeine after the afternoon
• Exercising at night
• Television in the bedroom
• Eating in bed
• Work or other stressful activities in bed

If you have problems getting to sleep, the goal should be to transform your bedroom into a refuge. You can train your body to expect sleep when you climb into bed if you limit your activities in the bedroom to those conducive to sleep.

Changing Your Focus

For many of us, our daily job becomes our daily grind. Work can seem to overwhelm the day and the week if we aren’t careful. That makes sense when you consider the fact that most of us are either getting ready for work or commuting to work for much longer than just the eight hours a day that we are paid for. But if we can learn to ‘turn off’ work outside of work hours and concentrate on life in those off hours, we can do a great deal to manage our stress levels. Here are some suggestions on how to help you change your focus from work back to your life:

  • When you get ready in the mornings, treat that time as preparation for your day, not just for work.
  • During your commute, do something just for yourself and not work related. If you are driving, listen to some favorite music or a book on CD. If you are taking the train, read a novel or do a crossword puzzle.
  • Take the breaks that you are allowed to take. Use the time to relax and be sure that you don’t think or talk about work.
  • Drink plenty of hydrating liquid during the day. Dehydration is a common reason that people feel fatigued.
  • Consciously leave work behind at work and use the commute home to transition back to your life. Make it a general rule that you won’t talk about work problems at home. Instead, focus on your family, friends, or outside interests.

Plan for Relaxation

For many of us, relaxation doesn’t just happen. We come home from work to a busy household, chores to do, or children who need help with homework and preparation for bed. However, you can fight stress by treating relaxation as a necessary and vital part of every day. Just like you make time in the day to brush your teeth or fix a meal for your family, you should plan some form of relaxation into every day.

By nurturing yourself in some way every day, you can recharge your emotional and physical stress defences. The small amount of time that it takes to nurture yourself every day will be repaid to you in a calmer outlook and a more productive work-day.

You don’t have to spend an hour everyday relaxing, either. For some of us, that is simply not possible. However, you should plan something every day that is fun, relaxing, and just for you. Some examples include:

• Going for a walk around the block
• Playing with your pets
• Listening to music
• Singing or dancing
• Taking a bath
• Getting a massage
• Watching a TV comedy
• Reading an enjoyable book
• Having a conversation with a friend
• Daydreaming

You can come up with your own list of activities that you consider nurturing – it will be different for different people. Then plan some variety of those activities into your life as often as possible.

Stress, as we discussed, is a natural bodily response and we experience a lot of it in today’s busy world. We hope the ideas discussed here will help you build your resilience and achieve greater results in your day-to-day work.

Thanks again

Mark Williams

Head of Training and Development

MTD Training | Management Blog | Image courtesy of Big Stock Photo

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