Effective Ways to Manage Stress at Work

The statistics on stress in our modern society is quite sobering. Results from a Gallup survey in 2017 reported that 8 in 10 Americans are afflicted by stress. Most notably, 80% of working people reported feeling stressed on the job with half expressing a need for help with managing stress. Furthermore, 65% reported that workplace stress has caused difficulties and more than 10% described stress as having a major effect on their lives.

Stress, especially in the workplace, is something most everyone has experienced. Here are some practical ways to effectively cope and manage our stress when it comes to our work.

Develop a mindfulness practice

 Mindfulness is more than a buzz word these days. The literature and evidence around the effectiveness of practicing mindfulness to relieve stress, anxiety, and depression, among other things, is hard to ignore. In practicing mindfulness, people have begun to see how helpful it can be to devote time in their day, to bringing their attention to experiences occurring in the present moment. Essentially, mindfulness is the process of observing and being present with your thoughts, feelings, and experiences in a purposeful and non-judgmental way.

Start your day off with 5-10 minutes of a mindfulness practice or exercise. Guided mindfulness meditation exercises and apps are widely available these days, with most of them being free. My personal favorite are the Headspace and Calm apps.

Headspace: Android, iOS | Calm: Android, iOS

You can also consider practicing without an app, by devoting some time in your day to noticing and following your breath, allowing any thoughts, feelings, or sensations to come and go, returning your attention back to your breath when you notice yourself getting distracted. This practice may be difficult to get into on your own initially which is why I would recommend a guided practice if you are just starting off.

I usually recommend to my clients that they start off their morning with a mindfulness practice, before they get out of bed and go about their morning routine. For those who feel a bit more rushed in the morning, especially those who hit that snooze button repeatedly, I recommend implementing a mindful transition. For example, this may mean sitting in your car and doing a deep breathing practice before going into work, particularly to calm any nerves or anxiety in your body as you prepare to start the work day. I have recommended mindful transition as a practice for coming home as well, especially if there are a lot of things, like kids or chores, that demand your attention when you get home from work. Having a mindfulness practice before bedtime can also be helpful to transition yourself to sleep more effectively.

Set boundaries

The number one rule is, don't take on more than you can handle. It's okay to delegate, assert yourself, and say "no" when you feel overwhelmed by all that needs to get done.  Yes, this may be easier said than done, but if you can take the small step of being aware to do this, you can effectively make some changes to the way you work.

Organization is also important here. Create a list of your tasks and prioritize the ones that need your immediate attention. Make an effort to do each task one at a time, mindfully, rather than multi-tasking, i.e. jumping between tasks to tasks. I know that many jobs may require you to multi-task and it's sometimes unavoidable. I would recommend at least paying attention to the various tasks that are pulling your attention and prioritizing again what's most important rather than getting continually distracted by non-important and non-urgent things.

Take your breaks as given to you or give yourself permission to take a break, especially if you have been sitting at your desk for too long. Get up, get out -- take a walk, get a drink, a snack, or just some fresh air.  Use this also as an opportunity to practice mindfulness. Notice the smell of the air, the leaves on a tree, the taste of the drink or snack that you are having.  Shifting your attention from your work-oriented mind to being in the moment as you are taking a break can help you feel a bit more refreshed and rejuvenated, even if it's just for that moment. This includes eating lunches away from your desks. As mentioned earlier, part of practicing mindfulness, includes doing one thing at a time mindfully. When you are eating, just eat, notice your food (its taste, texture, smell, etc), rather than eating in front the computer screen or with your smartphone in hand.

Practice self-compassion

Let's face it, we are our own worst critic. It's a fact that when things are difficult, we are the ones who get down on ourselves the most and neglect the things we can do to recharge or de-stress. This includes things like taking breaks (as discussed above), exercising, even eating for nourishment. A lot of people can attest to skipping their lunches because they were caught up with work or simply did not have the time for it. Allow yourself the compassion and understanding to step away from your work as needed to nourish yourself throughout the day.

Self-compassion is the notion of being kind to yourself in the same way you would be to a friend, family member, or a colleague whom you care about. It entails being kindhearted and understanding towards ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than pushing the painful feelings away or being critical of ourselves. Remember that mindfulness is a non-judgmental and receptive mind state, in which one observes thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they are without trying to suppress or deny them. We cannot possibly ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time.

Keep perfectionism in check

These days, perfectionism seems to be embedded into our DNA. Striving for perfectionism is especially reinforced when we are around very similar, high-achieving peers or colleagues. No wonder we have a mass epidemic around stress and anxiety in our society today. Practicing self-compassion requires you to recognize that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing difficulties is inevitable, i.e., pain is inevitable and experiencing it is part of what it means to be human.

The very definition of being "human" means that one is mortal, vulnerable, and imperfect. Thus, self-compassion requires us to be gentle with ourselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of our expectations or ideals. Let's face it, we cannot always be or get exactly what we want. When this reality is denied or fought against, suffering increases in the form of stress, frustration, and self-criticism. When this reality is accepted with sympathy and kindness, greater calmness and emotional well-being is experienced.

Practice gratitude

Having a gratitude practice is probably another thing you have may have heard about. Practicing gratitude, like mindfulness, can have significant positive effects on your mental and emotional well-being. There is strong scientific evidence that a daily gratitude practice can have long-standing changes and effects on the brain, essentially "re-wiring" your brain to take notice of the things that you are grateful for and that are going well rather than focusing on the negatives and things that are not going well.

I usually recommend to my clients that they end their day by jotting down at least three things that went well for them that day, things that brought a smile to their face, or things that they are grateful for. The challenge here is to have three new things every day, so no repeats. At the end of the week, ideally there are at least 21 things to which you can reflect back on that you feel good about. Additionally, I usually recommend to my clients sharing their daily gratitude with a partner or friend, and maybe even have it be a joint, shared thing that they do together with their loved ones.

Want more? Check out these wonderful TEDtalks on all the things discussed above:

Andy Puddicombe: All it takes is 10 mindful minutes

Shawn Achor: The happy secret to better work

Kristin Neff: The space between self-esteem and self compassion