Tips to De-Stress at Work
The content in this guide is provided for general information only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have questions about any medical matter, you should consult your doctor or other professional healthcare provider.
Let’s face it – work is stressful. Between tight deadlines, timely meetings and challenging projects, you might find yourself continually on the verge of a breakdown. Don’t freak out. While it might seem nearly impossible to shake the feeling, there are a number of tricks and tips that you can take advantage of to relax, refocus and rejuvenate yourself while you’re at work. With a clear mind and a refreshed attitude, you’ll be able to conquer all of those seemingly difficult tasks with renewed energy and determination. This guide contains helpful pointers and techniques about how to manage all that unwanted workplace stress. In the coming pages, you’ll find a slew of topics to get you on your way to a stress-free work setting.
Symptoms of Stress
Stress is a normal reaction to changes or challenges in your life that has physical and emotional components. Stressors can include deadlines, pressure to excel, public speaking, unpleasant situations and people and even major changes that are generally considered to be “good” like getting a promotion. When confronted with a stressor, the body and mind react in a way that is designed to give you extra energy and alertness. However, when stress is frequent and ongoing, it can cause physical and mental health problems and can negatively impact your performance, effectiveness and relationships at work.
Symptoms of stress include:
- Aches and pains
- Chest pain
- Racing heart
- Exhaustion or insomnia
- Headaches, dizziness or shaking
- High blood pressure
- Muscle tension
- Digestive problems
- Weak immune system
- Emotional and mental
- Panic attacks
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Lashing out at others
- Overeating or developing an eating disorder
- Using drugs
- Other compulsive behaviors
Identify and Deal with Your Stress Triggers
If you experience feelings of stress and anxiety related to your job, you’re not alone. Nearly eight out of 10 Americans struggle with some form of stress in the workplace, stemming from surprisingly common occurrences that are often referred to as “triggers.” Stress triggers can present themselves in many shapes and forms, and can often go unidentified. To help maintain a healthy mindset during the workday, it’s important to understand how to get to the bottom of what’s causing your stress and to proactively address it before it gets worse. By identifying your stress triggers, you’ll be able to combat each one in an organized and efficient manner, which will eventually help you prevent them from affecting your performance at work as well as your mood and overall wellness.
One of the most common stress triggers that people face in the workplace is uncertainty. The COVID pandemic has worsened job insecurity, with only a little over half of the American workers feeling secure in their jobs at the end of 2020 compared to nearly two-thirds the previous year. For women, this can be an especially significant trigger when poised to take maternity leave. Worrying over job security can be a major distraction. While you may not have control over job cuts and layoffs, there are some things you can do to help eliminate these thoughts and instead remain focused on the tasks at hand.
- Talk with your supervisor about your worries. Voice your concerns and don’t be afraid to be honest. Your supervisor might be able to offer you insight or a boost of confidence if your concerns turn out to be unfounded.
- Maintain an updated resume and online profile. Even if you are happy with your current job, it’s always a good idea to be prepared. You should always tweak your resume in a timely manner to reflect your current job status, title, accomplishments and more. Being organized and prepared for the unexpected is a huge help in combating workplace stress.
- Find a mentor. A mentor is an experienced person in your field, and may be someone either inside your company or outside of it. A mentor can coach you on how to succeed in your job and may have contacts at other companies in case you need to start looking for a new opportunity.
- Always have a backup plan. If you were to lose your job tomorrow, do you know what you would do? Even if it’s just a list of company names, references and phone numbers, it’s a head-start for planning for the unexpected. Don’t get caught off guard – have a plan B!
Americans have become accustomed to working long hours and meeting wild deadlines. The stereotypical 9-to-5 job has grown into an 8-to-6, plus the occasional 16-hour workday and even some weekends. For most people, work never stops so neither does the stress. Even after they get home, many workers still find themselves replying to emails or answering work calls on their mobile phones. If employees have been laid off at your workplace, you may be expected to pick up additional responsibilities.
Overload is another common stress trigger that can come from unrealistic expectations, impossible deadlines or understaffed workforces. Jumping into a tough project headfirst might set you apart from your colleagues, but it can also result in undesirable consequences and negative feedback from the higher-ups. To prevent work overload,
- Have realistic expectations. You might think you can tackle a tough assignment in a day, when in reality, it would be entirely reasonable for it to take you three or four. Chances are, your boss will be much more pleased with quality over speed.
- Ask for help. If your boss gives you a project that you cannot realistically complete by the deadline, speak up and ask to have coworkers or outside contractors assigned to help you with it.
- Take it one project at a time. Don’t try to impress your superiors by volunteering for more projects that will leave you jumping from one to another without actually completing any. Again, quality is generally preferred over a rushed and sloppy completion.
- Take a personal day once in a while. Believe it or not, many companies allow their employees to use the occasional sick day for their own enjoyment. Smart bosses understand that a happy, stress-free employee is a good employee.
- Ask your boss for some flexibility. If you are stressed because of personal obligations like having to pick up your kids at school at a certain time, ask your boss if you can come in earlier and leave earlier so your kids aren’t the last ones waiting to be picked up.
Another major contributor to workplace stress is the relationship that employees have with their colleagues, bosses and clients. Many jobs require face-to-face contact with people on a daily basis, which demands professionalism and courteousness. Rocky relationships between employees and their superiors can put a lot of extra pressure and stress on the employee. Butting heads with colleagues can lead to contention, which serves as a distraction from your work. In order to maintain seamless relationships with those around you, heed the following advice.
- Be open and communicate effectively. Oftentimes, disagreements in the workplace stem from misunderstandings. If you feel you are being treated unfairly, speak up and have a discussion with the parties involved.
- Put personal issues aside. Both you and your colleagues should have the same goals in mind, which are the goals of the company for which you work. You don’t have to agree with personal opinions; in fact, you don’t even have to discuss them.
- Avoid gossip. If you have an issue with another employee, don’t discuss it with the entire office. Instead, try to resolve the issue directly with the person involved. If that’s not feasible, take it to your supervisor and make it clear that you wish to keep any discussion on the topic as confidential as possible.
- If necessary, report bad behavior. If you are being persistently insulted, belittled or yelled at and it is interfering with your work, you may be able to stop the behavior by confronting the offender or talking to your boss. If the behavior focuses on your race, ethnicity, sex, age or genetics, this kind of harassment is illegal and you can make a formal complaint to management or to the human resources department.
Establish a Healthy Office Routine
Part of living a healthy life is creating a routine or schedule that keeps you organized and on track. While you may be struggling with other things in your life that leave you feeling powerless, establishing a routine can offer you some peace of mind and a sense of control.
We’ve all had those crazy Monday mornings. You ran out of coffee. Traffic is a nightmare. The kids are late for school. Whatever surprises you might run into on your way to work, be sure that you have a steady routine to look forward to when you walk in the office door. Although many might not see work as a place of solace, it certainly doesn’t have to be a place of chaos. In fact, a fixed office routine can provide the comfort that comes with knowing what to expect.
It Starts at Home
Of course, an office routine often begins at home before you even set foot in the office. Set your alarm early enough so as to avoid feeling rushed. One of the worst ways to start a morning is to rush through the door without your coffee, lunch or sanity. It often sets a bad tone for the rest of your day. Wake up at least one hour before you have to leave, if not more. That way, if something unexpected comes up, you’ve factored in some extra time to handle it.
Eat breakfast! Studies have shown that employees who eat a healthy breakfast perform better throughout the day. By waking up nice and early, you’ll have time to enjoy eggs and toast or cereal.
A major distraction at work is hunger. To avoid the risk of missing lunch because of tight deadlines, back-to-back meetings or a nonstop stream of customers – pack your lunch and a healthy snack the night before. You’ll save yourself a whole lot of time (and money!) by putting together your lunch before you go to bed. Whether you’re packing leftovers or a sandwich, it makes your morning a breeze when all you have to do is grab it and go.
Set the Mood
Use your commute time to set the mood for your day. Listen to your favorite radio morning show, blast a playlist of upbeat music or listen to a funny or uplifting podcast. If you work from home, take about a half-hour before you begin work to take a walk around your neighborhood. Being outside in nature has been shown to have a calming effect.
Follow a Schedule and Take Regular Breaks
A major key to establishing a routine is starting daily behaviors. Visit the same drive-thru for your morning coffee fix. Try to park in the same spot each day. Listen to your favorite radio talk show or music genre every morning. Repeated behaviors like these will get your body into a rhythm and help you ease yourself into the workday.
Set a timer for important breaks throughout the day. It should go off around the same time each day. For example, if you get to work at 9 a.m., set an alarm to take a walk around the office for 11 a.m. Not only will it motivate you to get your work done before it sounds, it will help break up your day into manageable increments.
Along with timing your breaks, you can also set aside time to stretch. Stretching at your desk helps alleviate physical aches and pains and can also ease your stress levels. Try to perform the stretches at the same time each day to further enforce the idea of a steady routine.
Some places of work allow you to take your lunch break at the same time each day. Others may be more fast-paced and therefore allow you to eat at the time that best works for you that day. Generally, you should try to eat your lunch at the same time each day. This will help prevent you from going too long without eating (and getting hangry) and will also act as a natural way to break up your day.
If you can, go outside for some fresh air at least once a day. A change of scenery does wonders for your motivation levels and mental health, plus it gives you a chance to escape the confines of your office walls and take a deep breath. Looking at a computer screen for hours on end can tire you out quickly, not to mention the detrimental effects it can have on your vision. When you feel your eyes start to ache or dry up, step outside for a few minutes to let them rest.
Keep a Calendar and Make Notes
Keep a calendar at your desk or on your computer so that you can keep track of important dates, deadlines and upcoming meetings. When using a computer, you can also set it to give you reminders to help you avoid procrastinating or getting taken by surprise. Looking at your calendar at the start and end of your day is a great way to make sure you’re staying on track. There’s nothing worse than trying to juggle numerous dates in your head, so grab a pen or keyboard and write them down!
Deep Breathing Techniques
Have you ever heard someone tell you to “just breathe” when you find yourself in a stressful situation? As it turns out, breathing can be a huge help in trying to relax and refocus at work. Just as when we experience stress, our body reacts by breathing quickly and shallowly, we can reverse the process with slow, deep breathing.
There are many factors that can cause you to feel stress at work, but performing breathing exercises can do wonders to alleviate it. These techniques are quick and easy and can be done right at your desk at work. Fight fatigue or stress by trying these deep breathing techniques, which will have you feeling rejuvenated, refocused and re-energized in no time.
Breathing plays an integral role in all aspects of our daily activities, from physical activity to mental strength. During the busy workday, it is crucial to pause and take the time to feed your body with the oxygen it needs, which can be done through timed breathing techniques. Force yourself to take a few minutes to relax – you’ll feel refreshed and ready to get back to your work tasks.
To perform a timed breathing exercise, it’s best to be sitting down in a chair with your back straight and your arms resting at your sides. Take a slow, deep breath in through your nose, lasting for approximately four seconds. Once your belly is expanded, hold it for a count of seven seconds. Then, slowly breathe out through your mouth for eight seconds, until you feel your lungs are empty. Repeat it as many times as necessary. This exercise allows your lungs to get to full capacity, which funnels more oxygen into the body, leading to a sense of calm. You don’t need any extra time or equipment – simply perform this technique while you work for a boost of energy and mental clarity.
Many people do not breathe properly. Yes, your lungs are important, but your diaphragm does the heavy lifting by playing a crucial role in pushing oxygen out to the rest of your body. Fatigue can result from too much shallow breathing, which is a decrease in the movement of the diaphragm. Abdominal breathing is designed to decrease your breathing rate in order to lessen the energy needed to breathe. To perform this exercise, sit upright on a chair. If you’ve never done abdominal breathing before, it can be helpful to place one hand on your chest and the other hand on your belly. That way, you can feel the areas of your body that are being used the most and make the necessary adjustments. Take a deep breath in through your nose and be sure that your belly inflates more than your chest. By doing this, your lungs get to “stretch.” Aim for six to ten deep breaths per minute for up to 10 minutes per day to help alleviate stress and get the oxygen flowing to your muscles.
Another breathing technique that you can do right at your desk focuses on the stimulation of the diaphragm. Rather than pouring yourself another cup of coffee, try some bellows breathing. In this exercise, you’ll focus on taking quick, short breaths that are designed to increase alertness and raise energy levels. Inhale and exhale through your nose at a rapid pace, aiming for three cycles per second. The breaths should be as short as possible to guarantee quick movement in the diaphragm. If you’ve never done bellows breathing before, limit this technique to roughly 15 or 20 seconds on your first try, eventually increasing your time up to one minute.
Physical exhaustion leads to mental exhaustion, and unfortunately, many employed Americans know this far too well. Although it may not feel that rigorous, sitting at a desk for long hours is not only bad for your posture and physique, but for your brain and performance at work. Some countries, like Japan, understand the need for employees to take part in physical activities throughout the workday to combat this. Many Japanese corporations allot time during the workday for guided physical activity. While our country has not quite caught on to this trend, there are ways that you can fight fatigue while you’re at the office with minimal disruption to your daily work output.
Sitting at a desk in the same position for long periods of time can cause back pain and put a strain on your neck. In order to battle these effects, you can perform simple stretches at your desk. This desk stretches target specific areas of your body, like your shoulders, neck and back. Always keep in mind that while stretching may at times cause discomfort, it should never cause pain; therefore, if any of the following desks stretches hurt, stop immediately and consider consulting your primary care physician.
Lower Back Stretch
Health experts now say that if you are confined to a desk for the majority of the day, you should make a conscious effort to stand up and take a short walk every hour. In addition to this, you should also consider stretching your lower back before you stand up. A rotation stretch will help alleviate some of the pressure along your lumbar and thoracic spine. To perform a lower back rotation stretch, sit in your chair with both feet firmly on the ground. Twist your upper body to one side, using the side of the chair as support with your hands. Hold this position for up to 20 seconds before returning to the starting position and targeting the opposite side.
You might spend a few hours typing at your computer before you notice the awkward dip of your neck as you strain to see the screen. Neck pain is extremely common, especially in employees who spend long hours in the same position. Stretching the muscles in your neck and shoulders are vital to the prevention and treatment of these aches and pains. While sitting in your chair with both feet flat on the ground, grab the seat of the chair with your right hand and tilt your head sideways. Your left ear should nearly touch your left shoulder. You’ll feel the stretch working on the opposite side; hold this position for about 10 seconds and repeat it on the other side.
Another common side effect of working at a desk for the duration of your workweek is pain in your wrists and arms. This can be due to a number of things, including typing or gripping. To prevent or ease the pain, perform a wrist flexor stretch. While sitting in your chair, extend your left arm in front of you, keeping it at shoulder height and your elbow straight. Use your right arm to grab your left hand and pull it back toward your body until you feel a stretch in your forearm. Then, bend your wrist the opposite way so it points toward the ground until you feel a stretch on the top of your arm.
Your gluteus muscles aid in walking, running and performing essential tasks. To keep these muscles from getting too stiff, it is important to stretch. The glute stretch is another easy exercise that helps fight the side effects of a desk job. Sit in your chair with both feet on the ground. Keeping your left foot firmly on the ground, bring your right ankle up over your left knee. Rest your right ankle on top of your left knee and slowly lean forward, keeping your back as straight as possible. While you lean forward, place your hand on your right knee and gently push down for a more complete stretch. Follow through with the opposite ankle and knee.
Other Stress-Busting Moves
There are other physical moves you can use to relieve stress other than stretching. Here are some of them.
Are you feeling the physical effects of a lack of energy? If you sit at a desk for eight hours a day, it’s almost expected that you’ll feel tired and slow after the coffee wears off. When this feeling hits you, try the progressive relaxation exercise, which targets each muscle group and combines tensing with deep breathing. Start with your lower body, contracting the muscles in your feet and toes while you inhale through your nose for up to five seconds. As you relax your muscles, exhale slowly through your mouth for five seconds. Continue to move up your body repeating with each muscle group until you feel refreshed and relaxed.
When we feel embarrassed, shy, sad or exhausted, we express that through our bodies by hanging our head, crossing our arms, slumping our shoulders and making our body compact and small. By moving our bodies in the opposite way, we send a message to our brain that we feel powerful, confident and happy (even if we don’t feel that way at all, at first). These ways of using our bodies are called power poses. Try these at your desk, in the hallway or in the bathroom at work when you are feeling nervous or stressed:
- Wonder Woman – Stand like the superhero, looking straight ahead, chin slightly lifted with both hands on your hips and your feet hip distance apart.
- Victory – Stand up and put your arms above your head in a V shape like you just won an Olympic gold medal
- Hands behind head – Either stand with feet hip width apart and put both hands behind your head with your elbows out or put your hands behind your head like that while sitting and put your feet up on your desk (this is best if you have your own office with a door)
If you are unable to do the full power pose, sit or stand with your chest out, shoulders back and chin slightly lifted. Make sure you are not slumping, leaning or holding your hands close to your body.
Another stress body hack is smiling. When you smile, there is a chemical reaction in the brain that releases “feel good” hormones that actually make you happier and reduce stress. Again, you don’t have to be happy to use this stress reduction strategy; “fake it ‘til you make it.” In addition to helping you directly, smiling makes others in your workplace feel happy and more likely to be nice to you.
Meditation and Mantras
Because work is often a major stressor in many people’s lives, it is important to take the necessary steps to preserve one’s mental health. Meditation is a great way to fight stress and unlock your full potential. Oftentimes, employees are placed under enormous stress by their bosses and colleagues; this can lead to unhealthy thoughts or behaviors. Meditation focuses on getting to the root of stress and anxiety through calming exercises.
Mantras are similar to meditation in the sense that they exist to assist people with de-stressing and achieving clarity. A mantra is often a sound, word or phrase that is repeated (aloud or in your head) over and over again during meditation. The repetition of a mantra helps you concentrate only on the meditation and block out any internal or external forms of distraction.
Americans lead busy lives, there’s no question about that. It can be hard to find the time to fit in meditation during a hectic workday. However, devoting time to focus on yourself should always be prioritized. Not only will it help you gain insight and mental clarity, but it will also improve your performance at work because you will understand how to focus on the tasks at hand.
When you’re performing a task at work, do you feel so overwhelmed that you feel like you’re doing ten things at once? This is called multitasking and it takes away from your productivity and causes you to make mistakes. Multitasking has become business as usual, but meditation and mantras can help fight its productivity-killing effects.
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Not all meditation requires you to sit cross-legged and chant the clichéd “OM” until you’re blue in the face. In fact, there are many ways you can experience the benefits of meditation without disrupting your regular workday.
You might have been meditating for a long time without even realizing it. Each time you lose yourself in thought, you are meditating. The focus, though, is not thinking about just anything; you should make a conscious effort to be aware of your surroundings. Being grounded can help you focus on your next task and keep you from slipping into a robotic frame of mind.
Mantras often have to do with reminding yourself of where you are, physically or spiritually. Each time you drink water, think about how grateful you are for that clean refreshing liquid. When you sit down at your desk, surrounded by nature, say “thank you” under your breath to remind yourself of the small pleasures in life that offer you peace and solace. As you walk to your meeting where you’ll be presenting on a new idea, repeat over and over how confident you are and you’ll feel yourself start to blossom.
Not everyone has the luxury of spending quiet time alone for hours on end. However, just because you lead a busy life does not mean you are exempt from spending time on yourself. You can take advantage of meditation and mantras every day at work by focusing on being present, being mindful and being grounded in the things you do. If you do all three of those things, you’ll unlock new levels of achievement you may never have thought possible.
Surround Yourself with Beauty
Meditation places a premium on nature and stresses the importance of being one with the earth. Your white-walled cubicle might not come close to the great outdoors, but who says you can’t bring a little piece of nature to your desk? Purchase some small plants and create your own terrarium or Zen rock garden. Bring in small pieces of wood with which to surround yourself. On your lunch break, take a walk to a nearby park. You can also decorate your work area with beautiful pictures of nature scenes, animals or photos of your friends and family. Looking at them can put a smile on your face.
In addition to looking at beautiful things, good smells have the ability to relax us. While lit candles are usually frowned upon in the workplace, you can get a small scent diffuser and fragrance oil to lightly scent your surroundings. Make sure it’s set to the lowest setting so it doesn’t bother others who may not have the same taste in fragrance as you. Fragrances that are considered to be relaxing include lavender, green tea, vanilla, lemon and jasmine but you can use any fragrance that you find pleasant.
If you aren’t able to scent your environment, you might want to use perfume or cologne for your own enjoyment. Be sure to check office policy first; some organizations have rules about fragrance.
With a beautiful looking and smelling environment, you’ll be meditating each time you step foot in your office, which can relax and clear your mind.
Using Workplace Wellness Resources
More and more employers are recognizing that providing their employees with wellness resources to reduce stress more than pays for itself in improved productivity, lower staff turnover rates and less absenteeism including sick days. Utilizing free or low-cost wellness resources provided by your company can make a big difference in your stress levels. A study by Medikeeper found that after companies introduced wellness programs, the number of employees reporting the lowest stress level increased by 58% and the number reporting the highest stress decreased by 39%. Ask your boss or human resources department about employer-provided wellness programs such as:
- On-site fitness classes or gym
- Employee assistance programs (confidential mental health resources to help employees cope with personal and work challenges)
- Relaxation opportunities like break rooms or meditation aras
- Company recreational sports leagues and company-sponsored social events like picnics or trips to see professional local sporting events
- Flexible scheduling/telecommuting