The American economy is booming and the unemployment rate is at the lowest it's been in the last five decades. But more people working doesn't mean that there's less stress in the workplace. It means there's more.
College graduates who've just joined the workforce experience stress differently than individuals who had been laid off or otherwise lost their jobs years ago who are just now re-joining the workforce. And the aging workforce worried about retirement and their pensions experience stress in a different way and for different reasons.
While the forms and causes may be different, what is similar is that people generally don't realize they are under stress until it manifests itself physically – being irritable with one's family members or friends after leaving work, being unable to sleep at night, eating comfort food as soon as they walk into their house, or dreading the start of each new workday.
These emotions, in turn, can lead to ulcers, high blood pressure, depression, obesity, and even heart disease. The workplace can turn toxic without awareness, perspective, and a healthy dose of skills.
1. Identify the causes of your stress.
Identifying the cause(s) of your stress is the first key to managing it.
Do you dread going to work every day because of a poor relationship with a co-worker or supervisor? Are you so overwhelmed with work that you have to stay late every day and then bring work home with you? Do you feel like you are undervalued for the work you do – whether by not receiving recognition from your supervisor or co-workers or not receiving the pay you think you deserve?
Keep a journal for at least ten workdays, tracking your day and what events cause you emotional turmoil. Try to record the meaningful and measurable parts that trigger you – how it happened, and what your reaction to it was. Record how you felt while the incident occurred, and afterward.
At the end of ten days, go through your journal and see if there are any easily identified patterns. Many people think it's just a bad boss or lousy pay, but a lot of the hidden stress of work stays hidden because we fail to take the time to look more closely at what makes work meaningful and what makes work challenging. And many times, though you can't change the stressor, you can change the way you react to it – putting you back in charge of the situation.
2. Talk to your supervisor.
There will always be stress in the workplace. The key is to manage the causes of stress, as well as the symptoms that arise from the stress.
One way to manage the cause of your stress is to talk to your supervisor about how they can support you in making work meaningful and creating an environment where the team grows and achieves. Rather than just focusing on people problems with a particular co-worker or workload, invite a bigger conversation about how you can support the team, and how you can play a role in the kind of work environment you envision.
3. Choose healthy stress relievers.
Food is called "comfort food" for a reason. Many people relieve their stress by overeating – continuing to eat even when they are not hungry and binge eating on sweets. Others will "relax" by over-indulging in alcohol.
Each of these options has negative consequences – among them obesity and chronic health issues.
Substitute healthy stress relievers for these unhealthy ones. Consume healthy fruits and vegetables instead of sweets – and avoid the junk food that always seems to find its way into the workplace. Take walks and move as much as possible. Exercise releases endorphins that improve our mood and our health.
4. Leave work at work.
Once you leave work for the day, try to leave the issues that the workday brought where it belongs: in the rearview mirror. One of my clients took a potted plant to work every day. He put it on his desk and drove it home, where he put it on his front porch. It helped remind him that he could chew on the workday on the commute, but once he hit his front porch, the work issues stayed outside. And, he'd pick them up in the morning (not during the evening when he wanted to be more present for his family). Spend time with family and friends. Take time to read a book, or see a movie or go to the gym.
Work doesn't need to be neglected. It just needs to be balanced.
5. Explore meditation or mindfulness.
If you have difficulty sleeping because your mind is going a mile a minute on what you need to accomplish the next day, try meditation or mindfulness to calm your mind and allow you to sleep.
Try keeping a daily to-do list and leave the uncompleted tasks alone. Prioritize and accomplish what you can, but remember the potted plant – the to-dos will be there tomorrow. Put them out of your mind until the next day! Meditation can help calm your mind and still your racing thoughts, so you might think about finding a video or app on meditation so that you can learn the precepts and apply them correctly in your own life.
No matter how meaningful and rewarding, work comes with stress. Your goal is not to let stress overwhelm you, but rather to learn how to find a healthy way to manage it.