All evidence points to the fact that workplace stress is an epidemic, and it’s only continuing to worsen. According to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 29 and 40 percent of Americans are disproprotionately stressed at work. The effects of that stress are far-reaching and differ in severity. Some health consequences are relatively benign, such as colds and flus, while others, like heart disease and meabolic syndrome, can be much more serious.
Unfortunately, it’s an almost impossible task to find a low-stress job. It’s much more realistic to make lifestyle changes and adopt effective coping mechanisms. Here are nine stress-management techniques for you to try.
1. Start your day off right.
As a busy executive or employee, mornings can be a flurry of activity. Many people arrive at the office with already high stress levels after scrambling to get the kids nourished and off to school, walking and feeding the dogs, dodging traffic, combating road rage or gulping down coffee in lieu of a more nourishing alternative. This is a recipe for disaster that can trigger a downward spiral.
How you start your day matters. When you arrive at work stressed, you become more reactive to stress throughout the day. Make sure you wake up and have a nourishing breakfast, full of whole grains and fiber. Research has shown that eating breakfast boosts memory and concentration and decreases levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol. One study performed by UK-based Mindlab Sussex Innovation Centre found that people who eat a proper breakfast experience 89 percent less anxiety and stress than those who don’t. In addition to a nutritional breakfast, it’s also important to embrace a positive attitude. Research has shown that a positive outlook can help with stress management. You’ll find that the inevitable stress of the workplace will roll off your back with more ease.
2. Get organized.
After you’ve arrived at the office, planning and organization should be your first priorities, even if you’re a naturally disorganized person. You can use a to-do list or other tactics to help you avoid unexpected roadblocks. It’s also important to ensure that your physical environment is in order. One study by researchers at Harvard University found that students who functioned in a clutter-free workspace were able to complete their work steadily for 7.5 minutes longer than students surrounded by cluttered. The study ultimately concluded that an untidy work environment can “undermine people’s persistence in completing tasks.” So, avoid the negative effects of clutter. An organized approach is a powerful antidote to stress.
3. Forget multitasking.
Multitasking was once heralded as a prime way to maximize time and get more accomplished. It didn’t take long before people realized that simultaneously looking through their desk drawer, speaking on the phone and answering email caused their speed and accuracy (not to mention sanity) to plummet. There’s a certain kind of frazzled feeling that comes from splitting one’s focus that doesn’t work well for most people. Rather than multitasking, try an alternative strategy known as chunking. This involves breaking up your day into chunks of time that are devoted to specific tasks. Place those chunks in your work calendar, and hit only one chunk at a time. This strategy will help you avoid getting embroiled in interruption, leading to a reduction in your overall stress levels.
4. Get comfortable.
Throughout the day, it’s easy to get so bogged down that you don’t realize how uncomfortable you are. When you spend most of your waking hours in an uncomfortable chair, you’ll quickly find yourself with a strained back and, worse still, you’ll be more reactive to stress because of it. Even small disturbances such as office noise can be distracting and cause low-grade frustration. Do what you can to ensure that your workspace is your sanctuary.
5. Be clear on requirements.
Now that you’re physically comfortable at work, you need to ensure you’re mentally at ease. This involves developing a clear understanding of your job’s requirements. If you’re unsure as to what’s expected of you, or if the requirements keep changing with little notice, you’ll likely find yourself on the path to burnout and should confer with your manager to review expectations and strategies. This can relieve stress for both of you.
6. Walk at lunch.
Getting comfortable also involves moving your body. It’s easy to fall into the temptation of eating at your desk, but this is a recipe for disaster. One study found that workers who take daily lunch breaks have higher levels of job satisfaction and are more likely to be an active member of their company. Social interaction is key to reducing your stress level.
Lunch is also a prime time to get some exercise. Take a walk or go for a short run, and consider exercise as one of your five “fingers” to wave goodbye to stress. Physical activity triggers the release of endorphins, the “feel-good hormones” in our brains, and is a powerful stress repellant.
7. Avoid conflict.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in office politics, but because interpersonal conflict takes a toll on your physical and emotional health, it’s often in your best interest to avoid it as much as possible. There are several strategies you can employ: Avoid gossip; refrain from sharing too many personal opinions about religion and politics; try to steer clear of colorful office humor; and make a point of avoiding those people at work who don’t work well with others. If conflict finds you anyway, learn how to deal with it appropriately. This involves developing your listening and emotional-intelligence skills.
Active listening, which entails stepping inside another person’s shoes and trying to see things from their perspective, is especially important. By doing so, you’ll gain others’ rust and a better understanding of their point of view, making it easier to find a mutually beneficial solution.
8. Keep perfectionism in check.
Perfectionists are especially prone to multitasking. The constant desire to please often causes them to take on too much. While being a high achiever can help you feel good about yourself and excel at work, being a perfectionist can drive you and the people around you a little nuts, especially in busy, fast-paced jobs.
To overcome this habit, keep a diary of all your perfectionist tendencies and evaluate them. Next, do a cost-benefit analysis to discover the extent to which perfectionism is impairing your success. This will help you reframe your mindset. Instead of striving for perfection, strive to just do your best and then congratulate yourself on the effort. Your results will actually improve and you’ll be much less stressed at work.
9. Listen to music on the drive home.
You’ve made it through the work day and conquered your stress. Keep up the momentum by listening to your favorite music on the drive home, helping ensure you’re less stressed and more prepared to interact with the people in your personal life.
Managing stress from dawn to dusk can be challenging. Fortunately, with a strategy in place, you can conquer the day and avoid falling victim to high stress levels.
Nadine Greiner, Ph.D. is a San Francisco-based executive coach, HR consultant and speaker. She believes that the world needs great leaders, and has dedicated her career to helping them. Her book, Stress-less Leadership: How to lead in Business and Life, was published by Entrepreneur Press.