It’s hard to imagine a world without stress. Factor in a global pandemic like COVID-19 and we can all say we’ve felt the impacts of anxiety. Most of us experience stress so often, we don’t even realize we’re feeling it. From managing at-home day-to-day responsibilities, caring for family and friends, doing our best to live a purposeful life — the everyday to-dos can pile up. Outside of our personal duties, work — and work stress — are unavoidable.

In a professional setting (especially for those of us new to remote work), many of us may not know how to address this tension while being able to do our job. This has a direct impact on our well-being.

While a stress-free work environment would be ideal, it’s just not likely in today’s workplace. The American Institute of Stress says 83% of workers in the United States are affected by work-related stress. As job demands become heavier, employee health is top of mind for the entire workforce. So how do we know when we’re under stress at work and what can we do to prepare ourselves to cope effectively? We’ll explore everything there is to know about stress levels to equip you with the ultimate toolkit for stress management.

Breaking down stress in the workplace

Before we can walk through techniques to address and manage work stress, let’s explore the definition of stress and how it applies to the workplace — whether in-office or dialing into work from home. We can learn the discern between positive and negative stress, as well as understand what’s happening in the body when we feel a stress response.

What causes workplace stress?

The definition of stress we like to return to is from Richard Lazarus, PhD:

“Stress arises when individuals perceive that they cannot adequately cope with the demands being made on them, or with threats to their well-being.”
Richard Lazarus, PhD

So a lot of the stress we experience has to do with our perceptions, and if we believe we can manage what’s in front of us. The good news is, we can change our perceptions!

The CDC defines job stress as ‘the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker. Job stress can lead to poor health and even injury.' Does this mean if we feel stress in the workplace we aren’t fit for our role or we’re doing something wrong? Absolutely not. This challenging feeling can be caused by misunderstanding, miscommunication or just a general misalignment in expectations.

What does stress feel like?

As mentioned, stress is so common in day-to-day life that we may not even feel it building. The body’s natural response to a stressful situation is to prepare itself for protection – and quickly.

The American Institute of Stress says that physically, someone coping with stress may feel dizzy, have a racing heart, a headache or even fatigue. Psychological tellers include nervousness, quickness to anger, irritability or a lack of energy. Left untreated, negative stress can lead to serious mental and physical health concerns.

Signs of stress

So how can stress manifest in the workplace? Have you ever had a pit in your stomach logging into your Monday morning stand-up? Or perhaps you feel the urge to cry at every Friday team meeting. Ever snapped at a co-worker for not completing a task? Or, just imagining all the to-dos for the next project have you wanting to give up before you start. These feelings of overwhelm, irritability and general disease could all be symptoms of work stress.

How to use work stress to your advantage

Not all stress is bad stress. In fact, stress can be a motivator — especially in the workplace. Can you imagine a time at work when you felt uneasy about a deadline? Now think about a time when you were about to present a well-prepared speech. The common thread is stress. Let’s explore different types of stress.

Know the difference between types of stress

Good stress is manageable. Control is an important factor in stress. The aim is to feel capable and informed about our bodies and mind. Positive stress, eustress, can improve work performance and focus —though it's important to keep an eye on stress levels. On the other hand, negative stress, distress, leaves us feeling helpless. This type of stress can actually harm work performance and have long-lasting negative effects, such as a diminished personal life, weakened immune system, impaired decision-making and other health problems. This is the type of stress we watch for and learn to cope with.

Understand your limits

Stress looks different for everyone. What causes you distress at work may not be the same trigger as for your co-worker or boss. It’s essential to check in with yourself to start understanding when you feel stress. In doing so, you’re much more likely to control the situation before it becomes unmanageable.

Techniques to cope with workplace stressors

Let’s explore ways to manage stress in a work environment. We’ve talked about different types of stress, so let’s break down ways to flip our experience and perspective. Just as what causes stress for one person may not cause stress for another, these ideas for care can vary for each individual.

Physical strategies for work stress

Often in stressful situations, it’s hard to get out of one’s mind. Meaning, when you’re stressed, it’s often all you can think about. Physical activity can move the focus off your mind and into your body. Rolling out your mat for a yoga class or clipping into a spin bike are great ways to pump some endorphins into your body and negate stress. Fitness isn’t always accessible — especially in the middle of a workday. While they may seem short-term, try these physical strategies to alleviate stress at work:

  • Take a walk around the building (or around the block if you’re working from home)
  • Step away from a challenging conversation
  • Take your lunch break away from your desk
  • Close your eyes at your desk and take three big, deep breaths
  • Grab a 5-minute break and find the closest set of stairs

Always consult a health care professional before starting a new physical routine, especially when dealing with increased levels of stress.

A mental plan for stress at work

When it comes to handling work stress, mental preparedness is key. Using mindfulness [add link to mindfulness post] is an easy, free and effective way to combat tension and disease in a work environment. Mindfulness is simply being aware of your thoughts. If you’re tuned into your thought patterns, it’s not difficult to spot when you’re feeling the effects of stress. As you notice these thoughts, consider taking a time-out to try one of these suggestions:

  • Write down what’s bothering you to get thoughts out of your head and onto paper
  • Find a quiet room and listen to a podcast on your favorite subject
  • Schedule time in your workday every day for a mental health check-in
  • Find a trusted community or peer in the workplace — connection is important for mental health
  • Seek out a human resources team member to talk through any issues

And to up-level your mental health, consider these techniques for self-care. Regular practices of self-care and work-life balance are vital. These can increase your threshold for stress and allow you to dissolve established stress:

  • Consider mindful meditation (try a drop-in class, a YouTube video, or download an app)
  • Learn a relaxing breathing technique
  • Get a massage
  • Try acupuncture
  • Spend time with someone you care about for social support
  • Foster a healthy home life environment

Another way to boost mental health and decrease negative stress is being kind to yourself — however that looks for you. Read this article for examples of how people like you practice self-kindness.

Learn your resources

It’s always a good idea to find your support system. Even before stress occurs, knowing what (and who) you can turn to is a comfort in itself. Having a network of like-minded peers, supportive family or trusted mentors is fantastic. But sometimes our friends, family and acquaintances can only assist so much. Therapy is an effective way to deal with work stress and is often covered as part of an employee’s insurance or benefits. Therapists are educated and accredited professionals who are equipped to improve symptoms of stress.

Learning how to identify stress in the workplace is the first step in ensuring success for yourself in the office. When you know what to look for, you’re more likely to be able to manage work stress. When we understand that some forms of stress are beneficial for work performance, we can pivot our experience.

It’s empowering to feel in control of our mental health. By seeking out understanding and equipping ourselves with resources, we can thrive in the workplace. Take charge of work stress and book a consult today at Two Chairs.

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If you or someone you know is seeking mental health care, you can reach out to our Care Coordination team at [email protected] or by phone at 415.202.5159.

If you or someone you know is experiencing an emergency or crisis and needs immediate help, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. Additional resources can be found here.