Stamp out workplace stressors ... ASAP!
By Stacey Stapleton
Anyone who's ever worked for a difficult boss, with backbiting colleagues, or struggled under an unrealistic workload understands the debilitating effects of workplace stress.
They probably also understand how job stress can infiltrate every other aspect of life, causing rifts in marriages and disrupting an otherwise cohesive family. In fact, a recent study conducted by the American Psychological Association found that half of those surveyed said their job was a major cause of stress. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are many techniques that can help you avoid and cope with stress on the job so that it doesn’t compromise your lifestyle or your health. Forward-thinking employers are even learning new ways to make work environments better for their employees, minimizing insurance and disability costs in the process.
It’s not all in your head
When we’re stressed our bodies respond as if they are in danger, producing hormones that increase heart and respiratory rates, often referred to as the fight-or-flight response. While some stress can be positive, pushing us to do our best or react quickly when necessary, it can also be harmful if the problem becomes chronic or lasts for a long period of time. Explains Rosalind Dorlen, PsyD, ABPP, a clinical psychologist in Summit and a member of the Allied Medical Staff at Overlook Hospital, “Prolonged stress affects three major systems in the body: cardiovascular, resulting in increased heart rate and blood pressure; muscular skeletal, resulting in back and neck problems; and psychological, resulting in anxiety and sleep disorders.” But Dorlen adds that prior to the onset of these health issues, there are usually warning signs that your stress level may be too high. These include headaches, upset stomach, back pain, sleep disruptions, loss of concentration, low morale, irritability, and decreased libido. If you already suffer from conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or heart disease, stress can make these problems worse.
So what can you do?
You’re probably thinking, I can’t just quit my job! Of course not; in fact, being unemployed is often more stressful than operating in an unpleasant work environment. But even when stress cannot be avoided, it can be managed. Consider these proven tension-reducing techniques:
- Take care of yourself. Exercise, eat well, don’t smoke, get plenty of sleep, and limit alcohol consumption. Take on a hobby you enjoy, or spend quality time with family and friends.
- “Manage your own expectations of yourself,” says Dorlen, “and don’t be a perfectionist—not just at work but in all aspects of your life.”
- “Use all the vacation and personal days available to you,” adds Dorlen. It may seem obvious, but many people don’t take advantage of time off. Never underestimate the restorative power of even a single day away from the daily grind.
- Find someone at work to talk to about important issues, not to just sit around and complain.
- If you need professional help, get it. Recognize when the problem stems from within and not from the office.
Protect your family
No one wants to come home and start snapping at his or her spouse and kids (and no one enjoys living with that person either). These simple strategies will help you leave stress at the door.
- When you get home, give yourself ten minutes to decompress and ask your family to respect that time as well. “Remember, your family is looking forward to seeing you—especially your children,” says Dorlen, “so take a few minutes to get yourself in the right frame of mind to enjoy being with them.”
- Make your home a place you look forward to being in, whether than means playing upbeat music, hanging beautiful art on the walls, or displaying favorite family photos. Keep your home organized so that at the end of the day you walk into serenity, not chaos.
- Try to avoid bringing work home, literally and figuratively. “If you continue to think about work when you’re at home, or actually do work at home, of course the anxiety invades family life,” explains William Richardson, MD, an attending physician in the Psychiatry department at Overlook Hospital.
- “Empower your family to speak up,” adds Richardson. “Ask them to tell you in a loving way if they’re being affected by your workplace stress.”
Who’s the Boss?
If you’re a manager looking to ease the strain on your employees, our doctors offer this advice.
- Communicate with your subordinates and really listen. Feeling like you aren’t being heard, or that your opinion is not important, is one of the biggest causes of workplace stress.
- Supply job descriptions to help manage workloads and expectations.
- Offer recognition for a job well done, a deadline met, or a new account landed.
- Remember employee birthdays. Explains Richardson, “Remembering a birthday demonstrates that you see the person as an individual and a human being. It’s more important than even a holiday gift.”
- If you need to criticize a subordinate’s performance, Richardson says that using a gentle tone of voice is vital. “We all react to tone of voice,” he says. “You can be as critical as you need to be if you say it in a sensitive way. You’ll get better results if you don’t belittle the person or put them on the defensive.”
Playing it Cool
Having a particularly bad day at work? Feel like your head is about to explode? Nip trouble in the bud with these concrete sanity savers.
- Escape briefly to an empty conference room or restroom. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and draw an imaginary circle around yourself that nothing can penetrate. Envision a relaxing sight: clear skies, an orange-and-pink sunset, your child’s smile—anything that makes you feel a million miles away from reality.
- When your inner critic rears his or her ugly head, stop for a moment and remember a time when you were at your best, in control, and competent, like the day you received a promotion or gave birth to a child.
- Tackle an endless to-do list by prioritizing. Divide a piece of paper into two columns. In column A, write down in order of importance the tasks that need prompt attention. In column B, list everything that can be addressed over the next few days. As you accomplish each task, cross it off with a brightly colored pen. If you’re truly overworked, Richardson suggests asking your boss to prioritize tasks for you so he or she can better understand the full scope of your responsibilities.
- The problem of a nasty boss is somewhat trickier. Dorlen suggests you become “appropriately assertive.” Ask to speak with your supervisor privately and air your feelings. Be sure you remain calm and professional. Demonstrate that you appreciate the problems he or she is dealing with as well. If your boss is abusive, speaking up is especially important. “Appeasing a bully only permits them to bully you more,” says Richardson. “It’s just like the playground.”
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