Chronic work stress can have an affect on a person’s entire life and a lot of workers in the United States experience it. The American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence found that, in 2018, 35% of working Americans reported experiencing chronic work stress. On top of that, most respondents said their employers don’t provide adequate resources to address this issue. Because of that, employees are largely on their own to figure out how to best manage work-related stress. This guide provides helpful tips not only on how to deal with stress, but also how to identify its source. If work has you stressed out, read on to get expert advice on managing and lowering your stress levels.
Professional development coach, Joayne Larson, sees identifying the source of workplace stress as an important part of addressing it. She believes that stress can be distilled down to basic neurological social responses. Thanks to neuroscientist, Dr. David Rock, Co-founder of NeuroLeadership Institute, there’s a simple “brain-based model” that can be used to identify the sources of stress through a handy acronym: SCARF. His theory is based on five social triggers — Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness — which he believes are at the root of both stress and the sense of reward people experience. By identifying the SCARF triggers that are set off, one can gain a good sense of the causes of stress. The five triggers are also interconnected, so it may not be one, but a combination.
Dr. David Rock describes status as being related to importance and seniority. In the case of the work environment, lack of status or an uncertainty about one’s status can cause stress. For example:
According to Dr. Rock, humans need to feel a sense of certainty about their role and their place within an environment, which is related to our need for patterns. “Our brains are hard-wired to fill in with the negative,” professional development coach, Joayne Larson adds. So, while the answer to one’s stress might not be as dire as the worries make it seem, the lack of knowing is stressful. For example, if you think you said something to offend a colleague, the period of time not knowing whether you did or not — the uncertainty — caused you stress. Uncertainty within the workplace can come out in a few different ways:
In short, autonomy is about having control over one’s own work and work environment. By having choices, whether about work schedule, the method of completing a task or generally executing a job or project without being micromanaged, is important to just about everyone. Ways lack of autonomy can cause stress at work includes:
“We like to be in connection with other people,” says Joayne Larson. It’s a simple concept, but this is something that applies to every aspect of life, including work. Meaningful relationships make us feel a part of a larger group and when a worker has a challenging relationship at work — be it with a boss or co-worker — this causes a great deal of stress. If it’s with a boss, this could also mean that the worker feels their status is threatened. With a co-worker, it could mean that the outcome of a team project is compromised leading to a lack of certainty or autonomy. Some causes of relatedness stress includes:
We want to make sure we are receiving our fair share both at work and in life. If an employee doesn’t believe their work is looked at through the same lens as their colleagues or that they aren’t being compensated equitably, their sense of fairness is threatened. Some examples of this stress related to fairness includes:
Stress is normal and healthy when experienced in moderate amounts. We all know the racing heart, the sweaty palms, the butterflies in the stomach when preparing for a presentation or a big event. This response is caused by stress hormones sent out by the brain’s hypothalamus. As a Healthline article on stress describes, this hormone causes your body to go into the “fight or flight” response. It’s a hormone that leads to our survival in emergencies and can help us power through a challenging situation. However, when it’s experienced regularly over a long period of time, stress can become an unhealthy response and may cause serious health problems.
Taken in isolation, the following physical, mental and behavioral symptoms aren’t typically a big deal. However, when they are experienced over a long period of time without abating, there’s a strong chance these symptoms are due to chronic stress and should not be ignored.
Whether experienced by themselves or with other symptoms, these may be signs of a weakened immune systems. According to the American Psychological Association, the stress hormone decreases the effectiveness of the immune system which could result in more frequent colds, chronic low energy and more skin breakouts.
“When the body is stressed, muscles tense up,” the American Psychological Association states simply. When muscles tense up over a long period of time due to stress, a person can experience chronic pain both through frequent headaches, jaw pain from clenching the face muscles and general muscle tension in the body. Some areas of the body may experience more pain than others. Being aware of where those tension points are can help you identify whether pain is due to a hard workout or if it’s due to chronic stress (e.g., shoulder pain from constant tensing up vs. calf muscle pain from a long run).
Chronic stress-related stomach aches and gastrointestinal issues go beyond just butterflies in the stomach. Harvard Medical School’s Mental Health Letter references the “brain-gut axis” that is affected when stress hormones are triggered. Similar to the immune response, the fight or flight response can slow down the digestive process. While this can happen in isolated cases (e.g., you’re preparing for a speech and the nerves cause your appetite to decrease), when it happens over a prolonged period of time from stress, it could cause persistent and chronic gastrointestinal problems.
The National Sleep Foundation says that stress can sometimes be at the root of persistent insomnia. It’s normal to experience the occasional sleepless night thinking about your “to do” list or worrying about something going on at work. Like all stress, this is normal. But when insomnia becomes a regular occurrence, there’s a strong likelihood that it could be due to stress. Lack of sleep from insomnia can also exacerbate some of the problems related to immune responses.
Harvard Medical School notes that heart palpitations can come out of nowhere then disappear just as quickly. Sometimes it’s a fluke as it happens to everyone on occasion. But if it becomes a regular occurrence, it could be a cause for concern. Stress can cause frequent heart palpitations. While it could be stress-related, the cause of palpitations might also be caused by other behavioral issues (which could also be stress-related) including low blood sugar, dehydration or excessive caffeine. Frequent and ongoing heart palpitations should be treated seriously.
What these symptoms essentially mean is a decrease in cognitive function, which could be directly linked to stress. According to Counseling Today, studies have found that stress impacts cognitive functioning, causing occasional memory or recall issues and an inability to concentrate on tasks. Like any other stress symptom, if these occur every once in awhile, there’s likely no cause for concern. However, constantly having difficulty focusing at work or a pattern of making poor choices that impact performance, there may be cause for concern.
Everyone has highs and lows, it’s a part of being human. But if someone has frequent and sudden mood swings, regular bouts of loneliness or feelings of constant worry, there’s a strong chance these are stress-induced and should be addressed.
Periods of busyness can crop up often in the workplace but it’s often balanced by slower, calmer periods. However, if work never slows down and the thought of going to work feels too overwhelming, this could be a sign that you’re stressed out.
Familiar foods are often a source of comfort in times of stress. And there will be moments where a scoop of ice cream or a cookie is called for. However, relying on comfort foods can, over time, be an unhealthy coping mechanism that can lead to eating too much (such as snacking constantly throughout the day and feeling over-full after meals) or eating unhealthy foods.
Like food, consuming alcohol in moderation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But if you’re drinking excessively on the weekends or evenings after work regularly or drug use starts to become a habit, this could be a warning sign of unhealthy stress-related coping mechanisms. While it may feel like a temporary escape, higher consumption of alcohol and/or drug use actually increases stress and can also exacerbate other negative health impacts.
Stress and anxiety often have similar symptoms and are referenced interchangeably. While there is an overlap between the two — and chronic stress could lead to anxiety — it’s important to differentiate the two because solutions are quite different.
The Huffington Post reports stress often comes from external situations such as too much to do at work or problematic relationships in the office. Stress caused by such external factors can often be managed once the source is identified.
Anxiety, on the other hand, comes from something deeper. According to The Huffington Post, the root of anxiety can be phobias or fears. In other words, what differentiates anxiety from stress is that anxiety can be crippling and the person experiencing it can feel helpless. Joayne Larson notes that severe anxiety can become clinical and bigger and as a result, it’s important to seek help from a therapist.
Now that you’re familiar with the most common symptoms of stress, the following expert tips can help you bring workplace stress down to a healthy level and keep it there.
As simple as this sounds, it can be harder to figure out from where the stress is coming without sitting down to examine it. Revisit the previously mentioned SCARF model and take the time to identify what might be stressing you out. “The positive way to find a solution is to make space for it,” explains Larson. “Put a name on those feelings because then it gives you more power and control; otherwise the stress has power over you.”
“Emotional intelligence is a huge way to reduce stress,” says Larson. “Knowing where your emotion is, where it’s coming from, and how to control it helps.” A way to do this, she recommends, is by taking a personality test such as Myers-Briggs or StrengthsFinder which are objective measures of personality types. “A lot of interpersonal stress can be because of a conflict between personality types,” says Larson, and knowing your own personality helps you understand how to better relate to others. Additionally, Larson says understanding your strengths can help you advocate for the kind of work where you’ll flourish or know when to ask for help when tasked with something not in your wheelhouse.
There are a couple of ways to go about this, the first is to find that physical release while at work and the other is to build in types of physical releases outside of work. Both have important outcomes on work-related stress.
Physical movement at work: While it’s not necessarily new information, the federal government released a recommendation in late 2018 (the first time in 10 years to do so) to emphasize that Americans of all ages should move as much as they can as often as they can throughout the day. This is, perhaps, in response to the increasing amount of time we sit at our desks working on computers. Being active for at least 22 minutes a day, every day, can have huge physical health benefits for a minimal amount of effort. The bottom line is to build in some time every day to get up from your desk and move around. Set a calendar notification to go outside and walk around the block or to do some stretches in your cubicle or office (Forbes gives tips on the 10 best exercises to do at your desk).
Physical movement in life/outside of work: Larson recommends a physical release that is most appropriate for you. This doesn’t necessarily need to be exercise, but it should help relax your body and brain. For some it could be going for a run, taking an aerobics class or doing yoga, for others, it’s a taking bath after work, reading or being in nature. What Larson suggests is to identify what physical release is most helpful to you and build that into your schedule in a manageable way. Start with having one weekend afternoon or one night a week dedicated to that release and then build more in as needed.
Larson emphasizes that having people in your life who will support you and be there to talk to is important for everyone, extroverts and introverts alike. Make sure you have a friend that’s always there when you’re feeling stressed out. While everyone processes differently, making a phone call to someone who might understand can help release stress. They may also help you think through solutions.
According to Project Time Off, 52% of American employees had unused vacation days at the end of 2017. Whether American workers feel internal or external pressure to leave their vacation benefits on the table, not taking rest time has an effect on stress. Inc. describes the health benefits of taking time off work, chief among them, stress reduction. However while on vacation, make sure to turn off everything work related and communicate to colleagues, clients and supervisors before you go that you’ll be offline during that period. There’s also no need to leave town or even go away for a long time. It could be as short and easy as a weekend staycation. Whatever the time off looks like, keep away from anything work-related the entire vacation.
In other words, avoid multitasking and plan out your work day according to how your body and brain function best at different times of the day. “We get a shot of dopamine when an email or text comes in,” says Larson. So she suggests turning off those notifications at certain times because it’s not always easy for your brain to constantly switch and multitask. Daniel Pink’s book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, is rooted in the concept that the time of day is related to when to do our best. In an interview with NPR, he summarizes the concept that we have three phases of the day: peak, trough and recovery. Most people are productive in the morning as their peak time (at least those who are morning people) which is better for analytical work, then do more administrative work during the “trough” period. Because of this, he suggests planning out the day according to those cycles.
Once you’ve recognized the cause of your stress, there’s oftentimes an action that needs to take place to resolve it. Larson suggests starting that change by doing research on how to go about it. If it’s lack of autonomy, an inflexible work schedule or unhappiness around salary that’s causing stress, research alternative work schedules or salary tiers for similar positions to make a proposal to your supervisor. And, for some, the solution may be changing the job or workplace altogether. In all cases, it’s going to take some research and effort to make that change. For someone who realizes the workplace they’re in isn’t tenable, they need to make sure they research jobs in work environments that are different from what’s causing stress in the first place. For someone who wants to ask for a raise or a different work schedule, research should go into why those requests are justified and deserved. Larson emphasizes that doing that research is as much a part of the process as changing the situation. “Once you’re involved in the planning process,” she says, “you have the confidence to advocate for it.”
Simple as it is, it’s one of the most important elements to staying healthy. The American Psychological Association notes sleep allows our brains to recharge and our bodies to rest. Not having enough sleep can cloud judgment and increase stress. While every adult has different sleep needs, the National Sleep Foundation recommends adults sleep seven to nine hours a night. Make a habit of building that into your schedule by anticipating the time you have to wake up and setting an evening reminder for yourself to start getting ready for bed eight to nine hours before you need to wake up. This might also require creating a healthy sleep routine to get you to fall asleep faster and to sleep better. The National Sleep Foundation has several tips, among them is to put those screens away before bedtime and don’t do anything, like exercise, that’ll make it difficult to fall asleep.
Sometimes dealing with stress is overwhelming and finding a professional development coach or a counselor with an objective perspective of your life can help walk you through activities in order to get where you want to be. Having someone like Joayne Larson help you name the stress and give you long-term tools for managing stress in any job can sometimes be necessary.
Many companies prioritize mental and emotional health that go beyond what insurance covers. As a result, many offer benefits such as fitness reimbursements, on-site massages, opportunities for career coaching and mental health benefits that go towards counseling. Most companies’ HR departments have resources about these benefits. LearnHowToBecome.org also has a helpful guide on Prioritizing Your Mental Health at Work, which offers well-being strategies to implement into the work environment.
The following are a few mobile apps that can help you manage and decrease stress due to work and/or other external factors.
Breathing has long been a documented stress reliever. This app provides detailed information on the effects of stress, along with instructions for diaphragmatic breathing.
Happify offers science-based games and exercises to overcome negative thoughts, help reduce stress and improve well-being.
Headspace helps you “reframe stress.” Through guided meditations, the goal of this app is to help you find calm and balance so you can focus on the things that matter most.
As previously mentioned, understanding the source(s) of stress is crucial for managing it. This app tracks everything that may affect how you feel throughout the day so that you can better understand your emotions, including stress, and how to address them.
If you’re in need of someone to talk to, 7 cups offers free, 24/7 anonymous support and counseling from trained active listeners.