Lately it seems like we’re hearing a lot about how stressed people are at work. According to the International Labor Organization, workers in developing and developed countries across the world are feeling increased strain in the workplace.
I also hear a lot about on-the-job stress when I’m coaching my clients. And, unfortunately, when they talk about it, they often express a sense of helplessness and resignation. Although they recognize that they should do something about it, they often feel that they can’t do anything about it. Sure, they would love to go to yoga classes, get massages, or go on extended vacations, but they just don’t see how they can make the time to focus on self-care.
Can you relate? Here’s Where to Start
The reality is, stress from the workplace can come from a number of different sources. So, instead of attempting a one-size-fits-all approach to cope with it, begin by conducting a stress inventory. To do this, simply create an exhaustive (no pun intended) list of all of the things about your work that stress you out.
Then, beside each stressor, write down as many ideas as you can think of that could help you to deal with it. Don’t worry if you can’t do anything about some of them immediately (e.g. an irregular work schedule or lengthy commute). By attending to the stressors that you can address, you’ll be empowering yourself to take a stand for your well-being.
Need some help coming up with your list of stressors? Here are some of the common culprits, along with some ideas about what to do about them.
1. Heavy Workload
If you’re like many professionals, your main stressor is the sheer amount of work that you have to do. Between meetings, emails, projects, and other demands, it can feel like you’re swimming upstream to keep up with it all.
If you can relate to this, start by paying attention to how you use your time. Are you really managing it as effectively as you could?
When I ask them to track how they’re using their time, many of my clients are shocked to discover that they’re not actually as efficient as they think they are. In fact, one of the biggest threats to their productivity is their habit of constantly interrupting themselves to multi-task.
Here’s a common scenario: You start writing a report. A few minutes in, you notice an email notification. So, you open it, and begin responding. Mid-email, you remember that you need to pick up bananas at the grocery store, so you open your task list app to make a note of it. While you’re on your phone, you notice a text from your best friend. After finding the appropriate witty GIF to reply, you go back to your report.
Sound familiar at all?
Admittedly, some interruptions are unavoidable. However, by tightening up how you approach your work and how you manage your time, you can enhance your efficiency and get more done. So, develop your time management skills and, if you’re in a position in which you can do so, make sure you’re delegating enough, so that you can further manage your workload.
When you manage your time well, you’ll get your work done in less time. And, when you feel less overwhelmed, your stress level will decrease.
2. Conflict with Co-Workers
If, like most of us, you’re in a job in which you work with other people, you have plenty of opportunities for interpersonal conflict. Whether it’s a critical boss, a dismissive colleague, or peers who make unreasonable last minute demands, your relationships can easily contribute to your stress level.
If you’re someone who hates conflict, you might choose to stay silent about your concerns. However, while this may keep things calm on the surface, on the inside, you may be silently seething with resentment, gritting your teeth, and allowing your stress to eat away at you. A better solution? Commit to learning how to manage conflict and be appropriately assertive. Then, aim to have constructive conversations with the people around you. After all, if you’re not speaking up about your concerns, others may have no idea about what’s going on with you.
If, on the other hand, you’re someone who comes across as argumentative or aggressive, it’s possible that your style may be contributing to your interpersonal difficulties. To upgrade your interactions, develop your emotional intelligence, work on becoming a better listener, and place more of an emphasis on connecting with others. Your improved relationships will not only lessen your stress level, they’ll likely also make you a more effective worker.
3. Your Values Are a Mismatch to Your Company’s Values
You’re competitive and ambitious, but your department is all about collaboration. Or, perhaps you’re motivated by the impact your actions have on society, but your organization is primarily focused on financial gain. If your values are in conflict with the culture of your workplace, you could be fighting an uphill battle.
If you find yourself experiencing this sort of mismatch, start by brainstorming ways to exercise more of your values in the workplace. For example, if giving back is important to you, see if you can get a group of people together to engage in volunteer work. Or, if connecting with others is one of your core values, be intentional about socializing with your colleagues. These sorts of actions can help you to bring a sense of meaning back to your job, and might lessen your stress levels.
However, keep in mind that research shows that if there is too much of a misalignment between your personal values and that of your organization, your risk for burnout increases. Therefore, if there’s too much of a mismatch, you might want to look for work at an organization that’s a better cultural fit for you.
4. You Don’t Have Enough Autonomy
Studies have shown that a lack of autonomy, or not having control over decisions that affect your job, is a leading source of work stress that can affect everything from your job satisfaction to your health. If you feel that you have inadequate autonomy in your job, consider talking your boss about ways that you might be able to have more say at work.
Perhaps you could lead an initiative that’s of interest to you. Perhaps you could influence changes in processes that affect your day-to-day work. Or, perhaps you could talk your boss into allowing you to telecommute every so often. While you’ll obviously need to take the nature of your job into account, there are likely ways that you can have more influence over your work environment. And, with a greater sense of control, your sense of well-being may just increase.
5. You Don’t Give Yourself a Chance to Disconnect
Many clients that I work with talk about how email and mobile devices are a double-edged sword. On one hand, they give you more flexibility so that, theoretically, you can work wherever and whenever you want. However, because you’re always accessible, your employer may have higher expectations about how available you should be at all times. As a result, digital devices can become a major stressor that can interfere with your ability to disconnect and recharge outside of work.
Although there are some fields in which you may need to be on-call at all times, for most of us, that isn’t a necessity. Therefore, if you are stressed out by being available around the clock, experiment by setting some limits for yourself. Commit to stop checking work emails after a certain time each day. Don’t sleep with your phone next to your bed. Consider having a conversation with your boss about expectations for responding after hours.
By taking steps to allow yourself to disconnect fully, you’ll likely feel greater autonomy. In turn, this will help you to manage your stress.
6. Your Mindset Contributes to Your Stress
Have you ever noticed how people’s reactions to seemingly stressful situations differ? For example, while one person may feel overwhelmed by work responsibilities, his colleague is able to take it in stride. What’s the difference? It may just have to do with perspective.
In one study, when researchers told participants to think of stress arousal as something that could maximize their performance, they felt more confident and less anxious in pressure-packed situations. In addition, the study participants didn’t experience typical negative physiological reactions in response to stress.
By focusing on how stressful situations may actually help you to grow, you can channel your thoughts in constructive ways. And, if that sounds like too much of a tall order, then developing a mindfulness practice might help you. As you become more mindful, you’ll find that you’ll become more aware of the thoughts that may be contributing to your stress. And, with that awareness, you’ll put yourself in a better position to take a step back, reappraise the situation, and decrease your negative reactions.
Finally, as you’re doing what you can to deal with stressors in the workplace, don’t forget to focus on self-care. Exercise. Eat a balanced diet. Get adequate sleep. Meditate. Treat yourself with compassion. Recognize that self-care isn’t a luxury – it’s a necessity for a well-balanced life. So, give yourself full permission to recharge when you need to do so. You’ll not only better manage your stress, you’ll become more productive in the long-run.
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Whenever I’ve been out to eat at a restaurant recently, I’ve noticed families, couples, and coworkers alike all glued to their phones during a meal. No, this isn’t uncommon, but stopping to really notice these people forgoing in-person communication for their phones has a powerful effect. Specifically, it’s gotten me thinking about the psychological dangers of 24-7 accessibility, and the way it’s shifted our expectations in both personal and professional contexts. Now that smartphones enable us to have constant, efficient and ongoing forms of communication with literally everyone we know, we are now always at anyone’s beck and call. The benefits are clear, but the downsides sometimes feel even clearer.
In their article, “Extended Work Availability and Its Relation With Start-of-Day Mood and Cortisol,” psychologists Jan Dettmers et. al cited research showing that technological advances such as smartphones and mobile internet access have made it easier for people to take their work home with them, resulting in larger workloads, more hours worked and increased expectations from employers (not to mention increased levels of stress hormones among employees). In other words, it’s not just that employees feel like they should be accountable to their work emails, but also that employers are expecting to reach their employees 24-7. But smartphones or not, 24-7 accessibility is not the definition of a “full-time” job.
In my own work with executives (who are arguably in the “boss” role in most contexts), I’ve heard a wide range of mixed feelings about the technology that allows them to stay connected with work, even when they are out of the office. On one hand, many who spend most of their days in meetings or on the road simply appreciate being able to get on their phone in the evenings to read company-wide emails, respond to urgent messages, and catch up with the statuses of certain projects. Others, especially those who receive a lot of emails or are particularly anxious, characterize constant smartphone use as an unfortunate obligation—a behavior that can stem from defensiveness, a fear of their potential to be paralyzed with overwhelm.
But then, there are also the individuals driven by a sense of urgency, who actually like the rush of being the first to know and respond to developments in the workplace. Still others have expressed that incessant smartphone-checking has become a compulsive, bad habit. One woman with whom I’ve worked has even likened her “OCD email refreshing” to an old habit of cigarette smoking—an unproductive, but automatic response to free-floating anxiety.
But the effects of constant phone-checking can be more pernicious than just mild malaise. Research suggests that extended availability and the associated blurring of the boundaries between work and home can have a measurably negative effect on well-being. It has been shown to affect physical health by affecting the stress hormone cortisol (which, when present in high levels, correlates with heart disease, diabetes and other chronic illness). Resentments can build when employees don’t perceive themselves as having control over their availability, and can easily contribute to both internal and interpersonal conflicts. And not only does this accessibility cause stress in and of itself, but it can also interfere with one’s ability to recover from the stress of specific work-projects; the absence of clear boundaries between “work” and “life” preclude some people from being able to adequately compartmentalize their work-related stressors.
Still, based on my own experience of working with clients over the years, it’s important to note that not everyone finds extended availability stressful. In fact, some find it energizing—and research supports this with somewhat counterintuitive findings. Those who expect work-life and home-life to be separate have been found to experience more stress when they use their phones for work matters outside of work hours, as they are forced to confront the disappointment of unmet expectations. However, those who plainly expect that they will bring some work home with them end up experiencing less stress the more they used their smartphones for work outside of the office, perhaps because they were maintaining their expectations, and thus staved off any worry about falling down on the job.
Either way, the key is being aware of if your stress triggers are related to email and what your expectations have to do with it. If you’re someone who knows that you find excessive smartphone use stressful, you’ll likely want to be more intentional about finding ways to detach outside of work hours. Here are a few ways to get started:
1. Get clear on your boss’ expectations around availability
Over the years, I’ve worked with quite a few leaders who actively emphasize their respect of boundaries to their employees. Still, what tends to happen is that employees respond to their boss’ behavior, rather than their words. So if their boss ends up writing an email after hours or on the weekend, that communicates a strong signal regardless. As a result, employees may internalize the expectation that they should also be working outside of standard hours.
If, as an employee, you find yourself in a situation in which your boss communicates a respect for boundaries with words but not with actions, find a time to address it directly. Point out the disconnect, and try to clarify expectations. Then, if your boss gives you the message that he or she legitimately doesn’t expect you to always be available, believe him or her and give yourself permission to go off-line. Period.
With that said, I’ve worked with many bosses who simply aren’t aware that they are communicating mixed messages by sending emails at all hours of the night and weekends even as they say they don’t expect their employees to respond outside of office hours. If you’re a boss who isn’t practicing what you preach in this regard, a simple fix that I’ve seen work for various clients is to save your emails to draft and send them in the morning, so as not to create confusion for your employees.
2. Unplug for small stretches of time, and schedule them if need be.
If you don’t have to be available 24-7, but do need to check messages periodically, set aside times during which you can be sure to unplug. For example, if you’re working out but use your phone to listen to music, turn off your notifications so you will be uninterrupted as you take this deliberate time for self-care. Or, if you’re having dinner with your loved ones, keep your phone in your purse – not sitting face-up beside your dinner plate. Rest assured that you’ll still be able to get to your messages later, and you’ll be a whole lot less likely to stir up emotions or conflict.
3. Limit smartphone use for business before bed.
The blue light that’s emitted from electronic devices has been shown to impair sleep by affecting our levels of melatonin, a hormone that helps control our sleep and wake cycles. And it appears that using your electronic devices for work before bed ups the ante in terms of the potential negative effects. A study out of Michigan State University found that people who used their smartphones for work purposes after 9pm were less engaged and more tired at work the next day. And the adverse effects of smartphone-use was far worse than those from watching TV, working on a laptop, or using a tablet. Although moving your phone might not be a viable option if your job necessitates that kind of availability (e.g. you are an on-call physician or IT professional), honor the times you are able to be “off-duty.” If and when you do have a night when your phone doesn’t need to be right beside you before bed, set a boundary for yourself, and put it elsewhere.
Whether it’s technology, food, or any other potentially addictive (but necessary) aspect of life, these behaviors are usually most harmful when you feel like you can’t control them. The most powerful trick is finding even the smallest ways with which you can give yourself some semblance of control, helping you feel as though your off-hours are your own, and that your accessibility can only be monitored by you, and you alone.
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The Vietnamese Zen Monk Thich Nhat Hanh said, “We humans have lost the wisdom of genuinely resting and relaxing.”
There are perhaps few environments where this rings truer than in the work world. Ironically, though, most professionals have heard time and time again that “work/life balance” is positive, and burnout isn’t—both for health and for productivity. Yet in my work as a consultant and corporate psychologist, I find that most high-achievers are resistant to the prospect of scheduling breaks during the day.
Recently, I had a coaching session with a talented but hyper-stressed retail director who I’ll call Stephanie. In addition to having a busy job and raising her kids, she was also in the midst of getting her MBA. After hearing her talk about how burnt out she felt as a result of all of her myriad responsibilities, I asked her to give me a simple description of what her day-to-day life was like. They were, she told me, a whirlwind of back-to-back meetings and calls. Lunch wasn’t a given, but when she did eat, she was usually doing something else simultaneously—answering emails, checking things off her to do list. After a commute (luckily hers wasn’t too long), she either went to class, or tended to her kids, before studying or getting work done that she hadn’t been able to attend to during the day because of non-stop meetings.
I asked if she ever took breaks to rest and recharge.
“Occasionally,” she explained, “But I always feel guilty—like I’m being lazy if I do it.”
I don’t know that “lazy” would be the first word that came to mind for anyone listening to Stephanie describe her day, yet it occurs to me that this self-assessment isn’t rational, albeit very common. In my work, I come across countless individuals who, despite intellectually knowing that a bit of rest might do them some good, cling to the notion that more work always means more productivity. But that is simply not the case—not scientifically, or intuitively. Let me explain.
If Stephanie’s perspective resonates with you, let me provide you with a bit of scientific research that might help you change your mind, even if you don’t need much convincing.
1. Breaks help you to refocus and perform tasks more effectively.
While “grinding” it out—just getting something done—might seem like the best approach when you’re strapped for time and stressed out, research suggests that singularly focusing for too long on a given task leads to being less effective at it. This phenomenon occurs because when we are presented with an unchanging stimulus for too long, the brain stops registering it. This is why, for example, you may not notice a certain odor when in the presence of it for a sustained period of time, or why you don’t tend to consciously feel your clothes on your body unless you purposefully bring your awareness to them.
In the study on this subject, participants were asked to complete a computer task for an hour. One group was given two brief breaks during the study in which they did a diversionary tasks; whereas the other groups in the study were not given such breaks. The researchers found that performance declined in the groups who were not given breaks; however, the group who had breaks showed no such decline. The lead investigator concluded that prolonged attention to a single task to reduce performance across time.
2. Breaks can increase your sense of satisfaction on the job.
In a study out of Baylor, researchers studied the effects of taking breaks in the workplace—and defined breaks to include everything from lunch breaks to socializing with coworkers, to checking non-work email. They found that employees who took what they considered “better” breaks (e.g. breaks taken earlier in the day and spent doing something “enjoyable”) reported greater job satisfaction, and even better health. The researchers also suggested that taking more short breaks throughout the day resulted in better outcomes than fewer, longer breaks. Put in layman’s terms, stepping away from your work for a well-deserved break increases your perspective, and better conditions you to recognize the parts of your job you do like.
3. Breaks can increase your job performance
In their HBR article “Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time, Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy explain that our bodies work based on ultradian rhythms —90 – 120 minute cycles that are characterized by high energy at the beginning, and low energy at the end. Our body typically gives us signals that it would like us to recharge (e.g. feeling restless, tired, or hungry), but many of us have trained ourselves to ignore these signs and to continue working.
But there is a reason our bodies give us signals. In Schwartz and McCarthy’s study of employees at 12 Wachovia banks, they found that encouraging employees to focus on intermittent recovery by having them take breaks (including power naps, going for walks, listening to music, etc.) led to a two-thirds increase in the number of employees who reported feeling more productive and better connected with their clients and customers. In addition, the group who took breaks showed a 13% greater increase in year-over-year loan revenue and a 20% greater increase in deposits compared to a control group.
So what happened to my client Stephanie? I encouraged her to experiment with taking breaks; after all, I reasoned with her, she could always go back to her current lifestyle of working around the clock if she found that prioritizing her quality of life led to a decline in her overall productivity. So, she took control of her calendar and made giving herself short breaks throughout the day a priority. She also gave herself a cutoff time during the evening after which she wouldn’t work.
The result? Let’s just say she decided not to go back to her previous lifestyle. Not only has her new schedule encouraged her to be more efficient with her allotted work-time, she also has much more energy when she is working and has found that she’s much less overwhelmed.
If you don’t take enough breaks, I encourage you to take a similar experiment to see how it affects your performance. You might just be pleasantly surprised—and remember that you can always just start by trying it out.
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