Written by Emily Howard
Imagine it’s Friday and you’re feeling excited for the weekend, laughing with your coworkers… At least until your boss comes to you saying that a critical deadline has been moved up and he needs an assignment completed by the end of the day. Anxiety starts to tickle your mind and your stress levels quadruple in a matter of minutes. Workplace anxiety can come out of nowhere dramatically impact one’s belief in his or her ability to complete designated tasks or achieve a certain level of performance. Subsequently, it affects one’s efficiency, quality of work, and overall mental health can even suffer as a result. Most of us have been in difficult and frustrating situations at work and is easy to fold under the pressure, but it’s important to remember that mental health is just as important as physiological health.
I am certainly guilty of falling victim to workplace stressors, even as I prepared to write this article earlier this week while balancing other responsibilities. However, after researching and talking to coworkers, I’ve compiled a list of simple ways to combat workplace stress, boost your productivity, and foster good mental health.
Take a Break
The demand of some positions can make a person feel like they have no time for a break, and studies have found that only one out of five employees takes an actual lunch break (leaving their desk and assignments for 30 minutes). However, working until you’re blurry-eyed every day is likely going to make you disgruntled and dissatisfied with your job. Incorporating breaks into your daily routine can help cut down on exhaustion and even boost your productivity.
When you take these breaks is important, though. Taking periodic breaks while you are still feeling productive and zealous is more beneficial than after you are already mentally depleted. Studies have found that early breaks (before total exhaustion) are restorative, and foster better concentration and motivation. Moreover, breaks can reduce the anxiety employees feel from working too long AND the physical side-effects of mental exhaustion: headaches, back aches, eyestrain, etc.
Acknowledge Your Stressors
Stress at work can make it seem like everything is spinning out of control when, in reality, it can be pinpointed to one, or a few, specific things. Stopping to identify the actual stressors versus the perceived stressors can help you regain control over your emotions and promote objectivity when devising a plan to tackle stressful tasks and situations.
Another aspect of acknowledging your stressors is determining if it’s self-imposed. That is, are you psyching yourself out over a simple task because of fear of what someone might think or you have been procrastinating and now you’re nearly out of time? A way to combat this is to boost your confidence.
Claude Steele’s Self-Affirmation Theory hypothesizes that people are motivated to maintain “self-integrity” and that self-affirmation can buffer against threats to that integrity. What is self-affirmation, though? In simple terms, it is purposefully thinking positively about yourself and your abilities. In turn, it will increase something called self-efficacy, which is your personal belief in your abilities to succeed, and improving your work ethic, too.
Start the Day by Prioritizing
Coming into work without a clear picture of what the day is going to consist of is a major stressor for me, and many others, too. It’s something that I struggled with in college and that I made a conscious decision to change when I got into my career.
Eliminating this stress is fairly simple if you take the time to do it. Reserve the first 15-20 minutes of your day to jot down your daily priorities so you can visually see what needs to be done. Starting the day like this will give you a “map” for the day and eliminate stressful uncertainty. Here are some questions to ask yourself when making your list:
-What is due today?
-What is due this week?
-What did I not finish yesterday?
To get ahead of the game, you can also consult your supervisor in the morning to see if they have any new or urgent assignments for you. (Bonus: this will impress your boss!)
Clean Up/Declutter Your Workspace
Decluttering your workspace kind of goes hand in hand with prioritizing your day. You’ve decluttered your mind, so now it’s time to tackle the physical
space. Having a messy desk might not seem like it could be a stressor for you, but it can subconsciously disrupt train of thought and reduce productivity. It can also be an unfortunate tool for procrastinating assignments, telling yourself that you can’t work until it’s alleviated.
While you’re mulling over your daily priorities at the start of the day, try to straighten up your desk so you’re starting the day completely clutter-free (or as close as you can get). In doing so, you’re priming your day for focus rather than anxiety.
Redirect Your Thoughts
Stemming off the Self Affirmation Theory mentioned earlier, Steele suggests an anxiety reduction technique called “Implementation Intention” which involves planning “if-then” scenarios when you feel anxious thoughts creeping in. For example: If criticism of your writing stresses you out, then think about the times your writing was praised. You could also try to completely shift your focus from the situation at hand to something that makes your happy, like going to the beach or playing your favorite sport! Studies have found that quickly reorienting your thoughts and self-affirming reduces anxiety almost immediately.
Dramatic spikes in blood pressure frequently accompany stressful work days, so a good practice is to consciously take several deep breaths to diffuse the anxious feelings. Ready to learn some interesting science behind this? It involves the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), which work in tandem with one another.
The SNS, in layman’s terms, is like a knee-jerk reaction to various stimuli. For instance, if your boss sends you a vague “come to my office” email, you might start to feel panicky and your stomach might flutter with nerves, which is the SNS triggering the adrenal glands. Deep breathing, though, activates the PSNS which works to inhibit the SNS’s quick response. You can think of the PSNS like adding aloe to a burn; it might not completely make the feeling go away, but it will start to make it feel better.
I also like to refer to this as “yoga breathing” because during highly stressful work days, I find myself breathing deeply and repeating my yoga mantra in my head: “In with the good, out with the bad.” You might have tried this and are thinking, “this doesn’t work!” That might be the case because you’re still surrounded by the stressor triggering the anxiety. Try to physically remove yourself from the situation or pair deep breathing with another technique like redirecting your thoughts.
Part of my research for this article included asking coworkers and friends what stress-relieving technique they used at work and the majority said they try to exercise. There’s good reason for that, too! Exercise releases chemicals in the brain called endorphins which are also known as the “happy” hormone.
It’s not always easy to fit this into a work day, but even if you’re only able to get up and take a walk, it’s going to be beneficial. It removes you from any stressful stimuli present in your workspace and gives you a chance to collect your thoughts before returning to work. Even exercising after work will help dissipate any residual stress before the next work day.