Work stress is causing a lot of workers to toss and turn at night, according to a new study by global staffing firm Accountemps. In fact, 44% of respondents said they lose sleep over work-related issues either very often or somewhat often. So, what’s keeping them awake?
50% are overwhelmed with work volume/hours
48% can’t get a business problem out of their head
20% have at least one strained coworker relationship
18% are worried about losing their job
16% have a nightmare boss
7% listed another reason
“As business demands increase, so do employee workloads,” according to Karen Warren, district president for Accountemps, a Robert Half company. “Stress on the job can cause a domino effect, and might prevent workers from getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per night.”
It’s a view shared by Jayne Mattson, senior vice president at Keystone Associates. “Everyone has challenges they are facing in their job,” she explains. “Workloads have increased with less resources to do the work, telecommuting is common so having hallway conversations to resolve issues is not an option, and employees are working longer hours.”
By bedtime, Mattson says many employees are still thinking about work. They can’t shut their brain off, and instead mull over a deadline, a situation with a coworker, or something they need to do when they go to work the next day. “However, bedtime is for sleeping and thinking is for being awake,” Mattson says. “That sounds so simple and it isn’t for many.”
The dangers of work stressors following employees home
Some level of work-related stress is normal, and it’s no surprise that these concerns don’t stop when you leave the workplace. Even if you’re not physically working on a project after hours, it’s likely that you’re still thinking about it, according to Stacey Engle, EVP at Fierce Conversations. “Most of us spend half our waking hours at the office, so it isn’t surprising that at times this carries over to our personal lives,” Engle says. “Some amount of work stress at home isn’t a call for concern.” However, when it starts negatively affecting your relationships, sleep, and other commitments, it’s a problem.
Mayo Clinic advises adults to get 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night, and even if you feel that you’re “well rested” without following these recommendations, research reveals that this is not the case, and your performance will be negatively affected – especially when you need to perform complex mental tasks.
Warren agrees with the recommendations, and explains, “It is difficult to perform at your full potential if you are always tired at work.” She says that failing to get enough sleep can cause a variety of problems, from reduced concentration and reaction times to decreased memory and poor judgment.
In fact, Warren says respondents in another Robert Half survey admitted to – or heard of others – making the following work-related mistakes due to a lack of sleep:
- Deleted a project that took 1,000 hours to put together
- Fell asleep in front of the boss during a presentation
- Accidentally paid everyone twice
- Talked about a client thinking the phone was on mute . . . it wasn’t
- Ordered 500 more computers than were needed
- Exposed executive compensation to the entire firm
Another study, this one by Erik Gonzalez-Mulé, Ph.D., assistant professor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resources in the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, provides even more alarming results of work-related stress. “Those in high-stress jobs with little control over their workflow die younger or are less healthy than those who have more flexibility and discretion in their jobs and are able to set their own goals as part of their employment,” Gonzalez-Mulé tells Fairygodboss.
You might think that he’s referring to firemen, police officers, air traffic controllers, and those with jobs that we routinely view as high-stress occupations. However, Gonzalez-Mulé says his study included workers in a variety of professions, from sales people to executives to farm workers. “What we found was that stressful work, in terms of having a large workload, high concentration demands, and time pressure, results in an increased likelihood of death when paired with low control over the work.”
By “control,” he referring to the worker’s ability to prioritize their tasks, set their own goals, and decide how they get to do their work.
Avoid/reduce workplace stress
The good news is that there are ways to mitigate your stress levels. There’s no one-size fits-all solution, so our experts provide a variety of options. “While it’s not always easy, try to check your work stressors at the door when you get home,” advises Warren. “If you need to check emails after hours, set boundaries, such as a time limit, so you don’t spend the rest of your evening focused on work tasks.”
She believes that it’s important to take breaks at work instead of intently focusing on finishing the task – especially if you’re feeling fatigued. “Pushing through to get work done isn’t effective if you’re tired, “Warren warns. “The occasional break can you help you feel recharged when you return to your desk.”
Also, if fatigue is affecting your work, she recommends talking to your manager about prioritizing your workload.
Engle is also a believer in acknowledging your stress and sharing this information when necessary. “One key to handling stress is to know when it is catching up with you, and having the skills to manage it,” she says. “This may mean communicating with your manager that your workload is too high, or having that difficult conversation with a co-worker you’ve been putting off.”
Recognizing what triggers your stress allows you to mitigate it through conversation, according to Engle. “Even if the action isn’t immediately taken, the mere fact that you’ve addressed it head-on lowers the power it has on you, relieving at least some of the anxiety associated with it.”
A FlexJobs survey reveals that only 30% of respondents are satisfied with their work-life balance, and 37% of respondents are stressed by their level of work-life balance. “Stress and work often go hand in hand, leading to many challenges,” according to Rachel Jay at FlexJobs. However, she tells Fairygodboss that flexible work can help workers avoid such high stress levels. “Flexible work typically leads to increased job satisfaction, more control over your schedule, the ability to easily handle personal tasks, and a less distracting work environment.”
In fact, another FlexJobs survey reveals that 78% of respondents believe they would be healthier and 86% felt they would be less stressed with flexible work.
This is consistent with the findings of Gonzalez-Mulé’s team. Even if employees can’t work from home, having some degree of control and flexibility produces a positive result. “We also found that having high control can make stress beneficial by reducing the likelihood of death,” he says. “We believe this is because stress can have an ‘activating’ effect that causes us to work harder and pursue difficult goals that, when paired with high control, allows people the resources to achieve those goals.”
Gonzalez-Mulé compares it to trying to learn a new sport. “It can be difficult and time consuming, but you have total control over how to go about doing it, so the process is likely to be fun and energizing rather than miserable and taxing.”
However, not all employees are afforded a high level of control and flexibility. For these workers, Mattson offers the following four tips:
#1: Write down your “to dos” for the day (knowing you will have many interruptions) and prioritize 1, 2 and 3 as must do/need to do/don’t want to lose sight of. This will help you get the work out of your head and onto paper. At the end of the day, cross out what you’ve done and revise the list for next day.
#2: Decide what’s stopping you from completing your priority items: is it a certain co-worker, meetings, managing staff, processes that aren’t working that require additional time. If you don’t stop and look at what you are doing, how are you ever going to change?
#3: Communicate, communicate, and communicate, to your manager what you have on your plate, and when someone asks you to do something that adds to your list, respond with “before I say ‘yes,’ let me see what else I have on my priority list that I can move to help you,” or “I am currently working on a project that is on a tight deadline so is this a priority?”
#4: Lastly and most importantly, practice self-care: you are the priority to care for first. During your lunch time, remove yourself from your office environment. Giving yourself that time to recharge will allow you to take a deep breath, let go of the morning frustrations and return ready to tackle the afternoon.
Personal reflection is crucial for avoiding/relieving stress. Dr. Susan Smith Kuczmarski, cofounder of Kuczmarski Innovation, and co-author of “Lifting People Up: The Power of Recognition,” tells Fairygodboss that listening to yourself can result in greater self-awareness.
She provides seven ways to listen to your inner voice:
- Rise early, take a long walk and fuel the “self” with exercise, nature and reading.
- Reduce stress by reminding yourself you don’t need to make everything perfect.
- Be present and positive.
- Catch the sunrise, take a swim or hike a mountain at some point during the week—just get outside.
- Find energy from spending meaningful time with family or a close friend.
- Use healthy food, music, and travel to fuel renewal.
- Reach outwards to do some community service work.\
Terri Williams is a business, higher ed, tech, and finance journalist with bylines at The Economist, USA Today, Yahoo, U.S. News & World Report, About.com (dotdash), Realtor.com, and Business.com. Follow her on Twitter @Territoryone.