We've all been there — a coworker doesn't do something quite right, a client is being extra demanding, a boss is riding us hard to meet a deadline... the workplace is filled with all sorts of stressful situations.
While many of these situations aren't fully under our control, our reactions to them certainly are. But, how can we stay cool when the situation's getting hot in the office?
Read on for seven tips for managing workplace stress so you can keep calm and carry on when the going gets rough.
1. Plan your day.
Personally, I find that having a plan for each day helps keep me focused and operating at maximal efficiency. Knowing what I need to get done, and then executing on it keeps me on task. In a recent Inc. article, Harvard Business School professor Francesa Gino recommended visualization during your commute. Set your plan and goals for the day, including the three most important tasks you need to accomplish.
Aside from helping structure the workday, having a plan helps you be realistic about what you can accomplish each day. This helps avoid overcommitment and burnout. In First Round Review's "Practical Frameworks for Beating Burnout," Roli Saxena observes, “Stress is usually the result of many little things you think you can handle and then all of a sudden it all hits you.”
2. Identify your stressors.
Take some time to figure out what sets your stress response off. If it's something you can control, take steps to eliminate or mitigate it (but remember, there is good stress, too).
For example, I find it stressful to work on highly detailed work in high-traffic environments with too much noise. When I know I need to work on detail-oriented work, I retreat to a quiet environment or, if that's not possible, put headphones on to create a quiet working environment.
The American Psychological Association (APA) suggests tracking your stressors by keeping a journal for a week or two to identify which situations create the most stress and how you respond to them. The APA suggests recording your thoughts, feelings and information about the environment, including the people and circumstances involved, the physical setting and how you reacted. Taking notes may help you find patterns among your stressors and your reactions to them so you can re-calibrate your responses.
3. Avoid multitasking.
Multitasking — especially with communication tools — has a tendency to break our concentration, making it harder to be efficient and effective at the task at hand. It can slow you down during the day, creating a vicious cycle where every task takes longer than it would have otherwise, making your already-full to do list feel increasingly insurmountable.
In an article in the journal "Academy of Management Discoveries," Christoph Riedl, assistant professor of information systems and network science at the D'Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University, and Anita Williams Woolley, associate professor of organizational behavior and strategy at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University, argue that "bursty communication," in which teams communicate in "bursts" of rapid message exchanges during periods of high activity and otherwise have long periods of silence, is more effective than constant communication, which saps team members' focus for their actual work tasks.
4. Consciously alter your responses.
For many people, the natural response to stress is to self-soothe with fast food, alcohol or other unhealthy choices. Instead of doing this, do your best to make healthy choices when your stress levels rise.
The APA suggests exercise, hobbies and engaging in your favorite activities as healthy alternative forms of stress relief. So, when things get crazy at work, don't forget to reach for a healthy snack, go for a quick run, make time to read or pursue other things that help you relax without putting additional stress on your body via unhealthy choices.
5. Set and maintain boundaries to protect time off.
In today's digital world, it's easy to feel pressure to feel available 24/7, but this isn't sustainable in the long run.
Establishing clear work-life boundaries for yourself, such as:
- refrain from checking email from home in the evening
- refrain from answering the phone during dinner
- leave your work phone outside the bedroom when you go to sleep
Self-imposed rules can help establish clear "off" hours so you can recharge and build necessary distance between your work and personal lives.
This is especially important for people in the "greedy" professions, such as consulting, law, and finance, where the pressure to be "on" can sometimes feel omnipresent — but in reality, always being on actually makes you less effective overall, because you aren't giving your brain the break it needs to recharge.
6. Recharge and relax.
Consciously making time for meditation, deep breathing exercises or mindfulness exercises can help reduce stress. These low-key activities can be practiced anywhere to help you decompress.
The Mayo Clinic notes, "Spending even a few minutes in meditation can restore your calm and inner peace." In a 2014 "JAMA Internal Medicine" article, a team of Johns Hopkins University researchers suggested that mindfulness meditation can also help ease psychological stresses such as anxiety, depression and pain. This doesn't have to be an extended exercise, either — walking to a slightly farther-than-usual lunch spot could do the trick.
You have to eat, anyway, so why not use your lunch break as a way to exercise mindfulness while en route to filling your stomach?
7. Reach out for support.
If things get to be too much, don't be afraid to ask for support from others. This could take a number of forms, including having an open conversation with your boss to come up with an effective plan for managing the stressors you've identified; looking into stress management resources through your employer's employee assistance program (EAP) if it has one; talking to a psychologist to help you better manage stress and change unhealthy behavior; or seeking coworkers' support with projects if they're too overwhelming to complete on your own.
Using these tips, you'll be well on your way to mastering your workplace stress and making sure that it doesn't get in the way of your effectiveness, mood and productivity. You — not your stressors — will be the master of your days.