Stress has become synonymous with the American workplace, along with long hours, tight deadlines and high expectations. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, workplace stress is a systemic issue that most employees encounter on a daily basis, citing research that work issues are more strongly associated with health problems than any other stressor, including financial and family concerns. And those health effects are staggering – from increased likelihood of heart attacks to higher incidents of chronic pain.
Elizabeth Lombardo, a psychologist who’s worked with celebrities such as Shaquille O'Neal and wrote the book “Better than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love,” suggest stressed-out workers consider ways they can help themselves.
“A lot of people think they have no control over their stress – that it’s all their job, their boss or their company causing it,” she explains. “But a lot of it has to do with how you react to and manage that stress.”
Here are some expert tips on how to make your day at the office a little less hectic:
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Don’t be the martyr
“You’re not winning any award for being exhausted,” says Lombardo, noting that the body needs proper nutrition, sleep and down time to be mindful and present throughout the day. “A lot of people actually thrive on pushing themselves to the limits at work, but taking care of yourself is actually the best way to perform most effectively.”
Look for signs
Full-blown panic attacks typically don’t come out of the blue. Rather, they gradually build with time. Lombardo suggests taking regular inventory of how you feel from a rating of zero to 10, with zero being no stress and 10 being the highest stress. While few people are going to maintain a zero, especially in the workplace, they should take note once they reach a 6 or 7 and look for ways to reduce stress.
Make a list of stress reducers
It’s likely that you can think of a million stress-relieving methods when you don’t need them, but once you’re at a 6 or 7 on Lombardo’s scale, the part of your brain that remembers becomes virtually inaccessible. To remind yourself in the heat of the moment, keep a list of calming activities on your phone or desk to help get you back to balance. While listening to classical music may work for one person, taking a quick walk to the bathroom may be the best bet for another. The point is to get yourself more relaxed before your stress escalates to the point of no return.
Control what you can
According to Sharon Melnick, a business psychologist who provides stress-management training to corporate employees and the author of “Success under Stress,” studies show that feeling a lack of control is the biggest contributor to workplace stress. Whether that’s risk of a layoff, unclear project guidelines or an ambiguous career path, feeling out of control activates the stress reaction in most people. The key, Melnick says, is to “think about it as self management, not stress management. There’s so much more that you can do if you focus on what you can control instead of what you can’t.”
When you’re feeling stressed, try this breathing technique from Melnick: Breathe in through your mouth as though you’re sipping through a straw, and then breathe out through your nose. The sipping action creates a cooling inhaled breath that can help get you out of what she deems “emotional hijack” and provide a “pause button to put you into that bigger picture mindset.”
Set your own limits
Work-life expert Samantha Ettus sees many people still committed to the idea that companies should provide the boundaries between our personal and professional lives. “That’s an old-school way of thinking. We need to set our own limits. And while we may have a difficult boss, it’s up to us to figure out how to manage it.” That means establishing a clear time you go home on most nights, barring an emergency or a deadline.
“When you have a predictable schedule at work, people will typically understand and respect those boundaries,” she says, noting that even the incredibly successful (and busy) TV producer and writer Shonda Rhimes won’t return emails after 7:00 pm each night. “If she can turn it off, so can you.”