What is Workplace Stress?
Unemployment in the United States is at an all-time low. And while Americans are working longer and harder, concerns about job stress are increasing amongst employees, especially in the white-collar sector. About 63% of Americans are currently part of the labor force, and according to a recent Gallup study of nearly 73,000 employees, 23% of them say they feel burned out at work often or always.
Although work is inherently stressful, long-term stress is now common in most workplaces across the country. In the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Stress in America report, work is cited as a source of stress by a majority of Americans.
The term “burnout” was first coined in the 1970s by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. It referred to stress and exhaustion felt by those in high-pressure jobs, like nursing and medicine.
And while today that may be attributed as being “part of the job” for many people, ignoring its effects or not identifying them can cost productivity and career plans.
Fortunately, awareness of stressors at work are on the rise, and employees are finding ways to cope with stress without compromising their productivity.
Causes of Stress in the Workplace
Think about your last work week. You worked hard and may have been congratulated for it as well, but you’re left with an overwhelming feeling. Now, if you multiply the number of days you felt like that in a week you may get more than a few taxing days a month.
Common workplace stressors include:
- Low salaries
- Excessive workloads
- Lack of certainty in job-related decisions
- Unclear performance goals or conflicting demands
- Little to no opportunities for growth
Although you can’t always avoid tensions that happen in the workplace, understanding the causes of work stress can serve as a step towards progress.
How Does Your Body React to Work Stress?
Unfortunately, our stress levels don’t only rise because of critical situations. Small events like traffic jams, looming deadlines, and work schedules can sneak up on us and trigger a lot of stress hormones that produce severe psychological changes in our body.
When daily events become repetitive, they can take a toll on our well-being and contribute to problems such as:
- High blood pressure
- Weakened immune system (e.g., digestive issues, bronchitis, skin infections)
- Muscle tension (e.g., sudden stress makes muscles tense up as a defense mechanism)
- Short temper
- Difficulty concentrating
In fact, other health conditions that arise after years of work stress can include depression, heart disease and obesity. These complications can develop through time if stress isn’t treated promptly. One moment of self-reflection can guarantee well-being in the future.
Moods caused by stress can be described biologically as well. When we feel stressed out our gland, the organ responsible for balancing our hormonal levels is pumping a stress hormone through our body.
Feeling your heart pound sometimes? That’s the adrenaline coming from the gland. When oxytocin is released in the stress response, it is motivating you to seek support.
“Your biological stress response is nudging you to tell someone how you feel, instead of bottling it up,” explains psychologist Kelly McGonigal in a TED talk where she discusses the benefits of embracing stress. “When life is difficult your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you.”
This happens because oxytocin also acts on your body. It works as an anti-inflammatory and helps heart cells regenerate and heal from stress-induced damage. “The cool thing is that all of these benefits of oxytocin are enhanced by social contact and social support.”
Strategies for Managing Stress in the Workplace
There are many techniques that help manage job-related stress and weaken the triggers that bring it to the surface. With the help of a qualified psychologist or a wellness professional, we can develop appropriate coping strategies. Here are steps that employees can begin to incorporate into their daily schedule.
Make the Most of Work Breaks
When was the last time you sat quietly and did nothing but breathe and think? The APA recommends stressed employees take slow, deep breaths throughout the day until they feel their body un-clench. Taking a few minutes of personal time during a busy day can be refreshing and help someone get back to work with a more relaxed demeanor.
Track Your Stressors
Make notes of the moments throughout the day that make you feel more alert or anxious than usual. Work settings, for example, can create physical stress because of lack of privacy, noise or poor lighting. Once you identify them, it becomes easier to alter the conditions or adapt to them accordingly. If employees think their environment is dangerous rather than stress-inducing, they can contact the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a federal agency that monitors work environments.
If You’re Frustrated, Walk It Out
After a frustrating moment at your desk or after a work phone call, walk away from the situation. Practice the breathing exercise and handle the situation later when you have calmed down.
Set Realistic Goals For Yourself and Others
In addition to identifying frustrating situations and setting them aside, work on your time management skills – especially if you tend to feel under pressure at work. For example, work with colleagues to set realistic expectations and deadlines. You can also prepare a list of tasks and rank their priority. Finally, try to protect your time and break down big projects into smaller steps.
Having a support system is the “number one protective factor” against stress, according to Florida Tech Psychology Instructor Natalie Fala:
“When we have a lot of stress going on, we often tend to isolate or avoid. What you should do is probably the exact opposite. Be around people who are your cheerleaders, who build you up, who say kind things to you. Definitely be around them because they’ll provide a buffer to stress.”
Talk to Your Supervisor
How you feel at work will have an impact on your productivity, so keeping an open conversation with your supervisor about promoting well-being in the workplace is useful for you and your co-workers, the APA advises.
Rather than thinking about it as a list of things that are lacking in the office, the dialogue can turn into an effective plan for managing daily stressors you’ve identified. This plan can include assigning more meaningful tasks or clarifying your job responsibilities.
When you reduce stress at work, you can become more productive and make better decisions that have a positive impact on your performance goals. Use your knowledge of the effects of stress to take control of your mental health and feel good during your morning commute. Your heart will thank you.