For most of us, some level of stress is an inevitable part of life, especially in the workplace. Feeling pressure to meet a looming deadline, or feeling extra motivated to perform during a presentation, are commonly shared experiences for many of us in the workforce. At times, a little stress may feel energizing and motivating; on occasion even sparking increased growth and productivity. Given that most of us spend so much of our lives at work, it makes sense that work-related stress is a common experience.
So when does work-related stress become too much? First, it’s important to consider what causes it. Work-related stress can result from mounting expectations, decreasing resources, and minimal support from supervisors and colleagues. The stress can be further amplified when we feel a lack of control over our workloads, and we start feeling micromanaged in our daily work processes. When stress becomes chronic, we run the risk of feeling overwhelmed – our physical and emotional well-being often paying the price.
Often times, symptoms of work stress follow us home long after we have left the office. While signs of chronic stress can look different for everyone, they often include:
- Digestive issues
- Difficulties sleeping
- Racing thoughts
- Increased worries
- Inability to focus/ concentrate
- Feeling overwhelmed or unable to cope
Getting Back on Track
Learning to cope and manage stress at work begins by checking in with ourselves physically, emotionally, and mentally. Once we have identified what our needs are, we can start making the necessary changes to improve our overall wellbeing. Here are four key areas to consider:
One of the most important pieces for managing and coping with work stress centers on our mindset. Constant pressures, looming deadlines and unrealistic expectations, can all make us feel as though we need to be Superman. We find ourselves working double the hours at twice the intensity, with the intention of achieving our own or our work’s definition of “successful”. Take a moment to sit with and normalize the fact that you are not invincible. Sometimes we get overwhelmed, we feel tired, and burnout ensues. Simply acknowledging this helps us accept any feelings of guilt and shame that arise when we feel work expectations have stretched us thin. What we actually need is more self-compassion, coupled with some healthy boundary setting. It’s also important to take a moment and objectively identify the specific ways our work environment is taking a toll on our health, without beating ourselves up in the process. We can then engage in more helpful problem solving, ultimately setting the stage for healthy coping.
Learning how to calm our nervous systems and slow racing thoughts can greatly impact our ability to manage difficult emotions and work place pressures. Taking the time to explore what activities feel relaxing and restorative can substantially improve our ability to disconnect from work, helping us leave difficult experiences and pressures at the office. For some, this might look like going for a run or taking the dog for a walk. For others, spending some time alone reading a book or visiting a coffee shop might fit best. That goal is to find activities that feel relaxing, and then actually allowing ourselves time to practice them. This is an important part of increasing our capacity to recharge and tackle rising pressures from our jobs.
Change vs. Acceptance.
Psychologist Dr. Marsha Linehan describes how we typically have four options when faced with a problem: we can solve the problem; we can change how we feel about it; we can accept it; we can choose to stay miserable. While Linehan’s words may be harsh, there is some truth in this sentiment. When work pressures are overwhelming, communicating our concerns with supervisors and administration is an important piece in recovering from, and managing the discomfort. Openly discussing concerns with management and brainstorming ideas often results in seemingly insurmountable problems being rectified. At the very least, it can help us regain feelings of control and mastery in situations where we often feel untethered, and overwhelmed. Of course, in most jobs, it’s inevitable that there are specific pressures or situations that we may be unable to change. While it may be tempting to attempt forcing a change in said situations, we need to consider what will serve us best in the long term. Sometimes the best decision is to accept things as they are, and practice being at peace with the things we cannot control.
Connecting and spending quality time with those we are closest to can mitigate some of the outcomes of work stress. Having people in our corner who listen to and support us facilitates the processing of difficult emotions. It also helps with working through challenging narratives and negative self-talk associated with stress. For some people, Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) may offer helpful, free resources, to assist with stress in the short-term. If the stress has become chronic in nature, seeing a counsellor can help in working through and managing the stressors more effectively.
N., McCormack & C., Cotter. (2013). Managing burnout in the workplace: A guide for information professionals. Chandos Publishing: Cambridge, UK.
C., Swenson & M., Linehan. (2018). DBT principles in action: Acceptance, change and dialectics. The Guildford Press: New York, NY.