How to alleviate and cope with stress at work

Stress has become increasingly common in Irish workplaces due to greater competition and higher workloads. A mild degree of stress can be positive, as it can serve to motivate and help us to work harder. However, chronic stress can lead to decreased mood, as well as mental health problems including anxiety and depression. Similarly, stress can cause physical health issues such as headaches, colds, upset stomach and muscle pains. Stress also affects organisations, as employees suffer in terms of work performance and are absent more frequently due to illness.

In recent years, there has been increased attention dedicated to researching the causes and consequences of stress. Indeed, there are research groups in Ireland and abroad that examine the negative effects of stress (e.g., the SASHLab at the University of Limerick). While it may not always be possible to prevent stressful situations from occurring at work, you can take steps to ensure that you are able to cope with stress in an effective manner. This article will outline seven methods that are proven to reduce and prevent stress in the workplace.

People often experience stress due to upcoming deadlines and challenging workloads.
People often experience stress due to upcoming deadlines and challenging workloads.

1. Identify and remove sources of stress

The first step to reducing stress at work is to make a conscious effort to pinpoint sources of stress. It may be the case that your workload is too taxing and that you are struggling to complete your work in a timely manner. Prioritising tasks in order of importance and focusing on the most urgent problems first will allow you to manage time and respond to stress more effectively. Similarly, organising and planning your workload will improve your performance and allow you to complete more work in less time.

The negative behaviours of toxic co-workers lead to stress, which can hinder your work performance and well-being. Taking credit for other people’s work, constant negativity and disregard for others’ time are examples of toxic behaviour. Some strategies for dealing with toxic co-workers are ignoring their behaviour, limiting contact and reporting the issues to management. In some instances, you will not be able to distance yourself from toxic co-workers or reduce the impact of other sources of stress at work. If you feel that nothing will change your situation and that your job is simply too stressful, you could consider seeking employment elsewhere or ask if it is possible to change roles.

2. Exercise more regularly

With challenging workloads and busy schedules becoming more common, it is perhaps unsurprising that only one-third of Irish adults get enough exercise. However, partaking in regular exercise has been proven to be an effective way to reduce stress. Physical activity produces chemicals called endorphins which can improve your mood, reduce pain and aid relaxation.

Although it can be difficult to dedicate time to exercising, it has many benefits for physical and mental health. Exercise apps such as 7 Minute Workout provide high-intensity workouts in short time periods. You could also walk or cycle to work from time-to-time, while taking a brisk walk during your lunch break will improve your focus for the remainder of the day.

3. Try to get more sleep

In a similar manner to exercise, we often neglect sleep due to longer working hours and busy schedules. While stress can negatively affect sleep quality, a lack of sleep hinders your ability to cope with stressful situations at work. Furthermore, sleep deprivation leads to negative mood and a less positive outlook in general. An adult should aim to obtain at least seven hours sleep each night.

Taking measures to improve your sleep quality such as going to bed earlier, sleeping in cooler temperatures and purchasing blackout curtains can improve sleep and reduce stress. Another common cause of reduced sleep is the greater presence of smartphones and technology. It is advised that you avoid looking at screens an hour before going to bed to improve sleep quality.

4. Talk to someone about your problems

Talking to your partner, a family member, or a close friend about the stress you encounter at work can provide you with emotional support and a clearer understanding of your problems. Discussing your problems with trusted co-workers can provide social support – you may find that they experience stress for similar reasons. On the other hand, it is also worth providing support to your co-workers, as research suggests that offering support can be more beneficial than receiving it.

Aside from seeking support from loved ones or your co-workers, you could also consider speaking with a supervisor or member of management about your levels of stress. In some instances, you will be unable to deal with the factors causing stress at work without intervention from management. By simply expressing your concerns, you could reduce your workload, improve your working conditions and decrease stress. If you feel that you would benefit from professional help, you should check whether your organisation provides an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP).

5. Take adequate breaks

Increased job insecurity and more competition has resulted in employees taking on longer hours and greater responsibility. However, a lack of adequate breaks can lead to burnout, which is a state of physical and mental exhaustion that lowers your mood and negatively affects work performance. It is important to be informed about your rights to breaks and rest periods, as your breaks are determined by the amount of hours you work.

While you may feel you are too busy to stop working, taking regular breaks helps maintain your productivity and motivation. If possible, you should leave your work environment during breaks and disconnect from all work-related activities. You are entitled to a limited amount of annual leave each year. Therefore, you should avoid taking on tasks during your time off and detach yourself from work as much as possible.

6. Allow yourself to relax

It is also important to give yourself permission to relax and recharge during your free time. It is not unusual to think that you should always be doing something productive and making progress towards your goals. However, relaxation eases the effects of stress on your mind and body and is essential to maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Setting time aside to do something you enjoy and practising relaxation techniques will reduce stress, improve your focus and boost your performance at work.

Relaxation techniques are easy to learn, low-cost and can be practised at home and work. For instance, research has shown that listening to music, and in particular classical music, can reduce blood pressure and the levels of stress hormones. Similarly, performing deep-breathing exercises is an effective way to manage the physical symptoms associated with stress. The practise of mindfulness involves being present in the moment and training yourself to react differently to stressful situations. For an in-depth introduction to mindfulness and its benefits, you can read our previous blog post on how to practice mindfulness.

7. Reduce perfectionism

Perfectionism involves setting unrealistic high standards and viewing anything less than perfect performance as failure. It can cause a person to spend too much time working on minute details, which in turn can contribute to other sources of stress such as not taking sufficient breaks. On the other hand, it can also make a person procrastinate and work slower. Although aiming for excellence and high standards is important, achieving perfection is impossible and there is always room for improvement.

Another hallmark of perfectionism is a strong fear of failure and making mistakes. However, it is inevitable that you will make mistakes on occasion, and they can help you to learn and improve. Try to avoid dwelling on your mistakes and instead focus on the positive contribution you make at work. By being less harsh on yourself and setting more realistic goals, you will decrease the pressure you put yourself under at work and significantly reduce your levels of stress.

Article written by Jamie Davern – Online Content Writer at Limerick Mental Health Association.