Work Stress: How To Protect Your Health and Happiness

Key Points

  • Work stress damages your mental, emotional, and physical health.

  • Heavy workloads, toxic work environments, poor leadership, safety concerns, and low morale induce stress in employees.

  • Actively reduce your work stress by implementing the strategies in this article.

  • Chronic stress is a major red flag.

Do you feel anxious, irritable, on edge, or depressed because of your job? Is work stress taking over your life?

If so, you're not alone. An alarming 60 percent of Americans are stressed to the max because of — you guessed it — their jobs. Want to hear something even more bizarre? One in five Americans doesn't do anything to reduce their work stress!

Fortunately, there are strategies to help you minimize your stress in the workplace.

What Is Work Stress?

Work stress, also known as occupational stress, is a harmful physical and emotional response to your work environment. Work stress occurs when there's a threatening discrepancy between your job requirements and your capabilities, knowledge, resources, expectations, or needs.

It's often triggered by sudden or unexpected responsibilities combined with the pressure of an overly demanding workload. When left unchecked, work stress hinders your ability to cope, perform well in your profession, and enjoy life.

Are There Different Degrees of Work Stress?

Yes. There are three types of work stress: acute stress, fear-induced stress, and burnout stress. Some can be helpful while others can be highly detrimental to your health.

Acute Stress

Acute stress is generally mild, situational, and seasonal. It generates just enough bite without sending you over the edge. It helps you respond to challenges, competitions, changes, and conflict productively.

Imagine: You land an interview for your dream job. Seconds after reading the email, you dart upstairs to share the exciting news with a loved one. They hug you excitedly, then immediately suggest a mock interview. You need to practice your answers!

The two of you grin and get down to business. Your study partner finds a bunch of interview questions online. Dialogue bounces back and forth for hours.

The following Friday, you hit your interview out of the ballpark. The hiring manager is so impressed that they send you an offer letter the next day.

Okay, back to reality. Why did you theoretically get the job? For starters, your acute stress motivated you to go the extra mile. It showed you just how much you care about your career and pushed you to perform well under pressure. It's necessary.

Fear-Induced Stress

Fear-induced stress stems from having to make important decisions or always be at your best. If you make a wrong decision or fail to satisfy certain criteria, you're met with dire consequences.

Fear-induced stress feels like the weight of the world is on your shoulders! Failure isn't an option, so you rely heavily on grit and self-preservation.

Burnout Stress

Burnout stress happens in response to prolonged stress and anxiety. You feel utterly detached, drained, and exhausted. You dread the activities that usually bring you joy and purpose. You lose your enthusiasm, mentally checking out and resorting to survival mode.

Burnout stress signals that a lifestyle change, or perhaps a career change, is long overdue.

What Are Work Stress Symptoms?

Work-related stress manifests both physically and emotionally. Difficulty concentrating, low motivation, procrastination, social withdrawal, and apathy indicate that something is off.

Have you noticed a change in your overall health? Do you get sick more frequently? Constant stress weakens your immune system, making you more susceptible to colds and infections. Fatigue, insomnia, skin problems, gastrointestinal issues, headaches, nervous sweating, and muscle tension can all result from a stressful work atmosphere.

When employees feel overburdened and helpless, they sometimes turn to alcohol, recreational drugs, or prescription medications to cope.

Work stress also causes high blood pressure, elevated heart rate, and a surge in blood sugar levels. Over long periods, these symptoms lead to heart attack, diabetes, obesity, stroke, and other life-threatening diseases.

What Are Common Causes of Work Stress?

There's a direct correlation between work stress and increased risk of mental or physical illness. The longer your stress weighs on you, the more damage it leaves behind.

Below are the most common causes of occupational stress:

  • Heavy workload: You have too much on your plate, are bound by tight deadlines, receive little to no breaks, suffer long work hours, and have no variety in your assignments.

  • Not enough work: The workday drags on, you always finish your tasks early, and there's no incentive to improve.

  • Toxic work environment: Whether it's unclean or dangerous working conditions, a noisy atmosphere, lack of privacy, unsuitable temperature, or the absence of proper facilities, your work environment makes you extremely uncomfortable.

  • Lack of support: You aren't properly trained for your job, feel isolated from your coworkers, face conflicting job demands, or your supervisor fails to provide clarity on your work assignments.

  • Poor leadership: You're routinely micromanaged (or left to fend for yourself), your supervisor ignores your vocalized concerns, or you report to multiple bosses who clash over work protocol.

  • Absence of job security: You feel like you constantly have to prove yourself. Your job lacks structure and transparency, and there's no opportunity to grow, advance, or earn a promotion.

  • Personal safety concerns: You're harassed, bullied, violated, or discriminated against in the workplace; there's always conflict, drama, and gossip amongst colleagues.

  • Traumatic events: You're an ER nurse, firefighter, police officer, military member, or first responder who deals with shock, trauma, and adversity daily.

  • Low morale: You're disengaged from work and feel powerless against unfair labor practices such as poor hourly pay, salary, and benefits. Even worse, a looming threat of punishment keeps you from standing up for what you deserve.

How Can You Stop Feeling Stressed at Work?

Work-related stress is associated with several individual and circumstantial factors. Here are nine ways to manage and mitigate your stress in the workplace:

Be Honest About Your Stress

Avoidance is an unhealthy coping mechanism. It doesn't even solve your problems! Avoidance only prolongs the inevitable, exacerbates anxiety, and creates a sense of learned helplessness.

Confront your stressors head-on — don't avoid them.

Address your stress honestly by naming the source(s) of your stress, devising and implementing healthy solutions, and evaluating and adjusting little details as you go.

Consider this example:

  1. Stressor: No job security.

  2. Healthy solutions: Expanding your network, researching available jobs in the area, and building a financial safety net.

  3. Evaluation and adjustments: To buff up your emergency savings fund, you decide to cut back on coffee shop trips and retail spending. You also wake up 30 minutes earlier each day to apply for jobs.

Embrace Self-Care

Self-care is so much more than getting a relaxing massage or taking a vacation day. It's also eating a nutritious diet, pursuing a healthy lifestyle, exercising consistently, and getting adequate sleep.

Self-care means nurturing meaningful relationships and designating private time to disconnect from reality, unwind, and recharge. Watch a nostalgic movie, drink a delicious glass of wine, cook your favorite meal, go on a date, splurge on that ooey-gooey dessert, and curate a playlist of songs that make your soul happy.

Your health is top priority — protect it relentlessly.

Stay Organized

Breaking down big projects into smaller assignments, organizing your space, and keeping a detailed planner combat overwhelm and dread. Structure brings direction, clarity, and confidence.

Prioritize your daily and weekly tasks from greatest to least, tackling the tougher duties first. Why? You're fresh, energized, and motivated to get things done.

Anti-stress tip: Leave your home 10 to 15 minutes earlier than usual. A solid morning routine saves you from frantically rushing around and lets you peacefully ease into your day.

Establish Healthy Boundaries

Soak in these words: You do not have to be accessible 24/7!

Full-time availability isn't functional long-term. Maintain a balance between your work, family, and leisure time.

Establish healthy boundaries in the form of rules:

  • Don't check your phone when you wake up or after you return home from work; leave your job at work!

  • Don't accept work calls after 7 pm.

  • Don't overcommit yourself — if a request is too much to handle, say no.

  • Take care of your "must tasks" before your "should tasks."

  • Don't check your smartphone compulsively; limit your time spent scrolling through social media.

  • Pause all work assignments during your lunch break.

Confide In Someone You Trust

Identify someone who undoubtedly has your back. Let them be your soundboard. Vent your frustrations until every last one is out of your system. Ask your confidant to listen before offering advice.

Confiding in a trustworthy person grants you emotional relief, support, validation, compassion, and comfort. Even more so, you gain access to solutions you haven't thought of and often a refreshing perspective.

No need for a super serious sit down. Invite your coworker, relative, friend, or romantic partner to eat, exercise, shop, or chill with you. Naturally work your stress into the conversation.

Bonus? Doing activities you love — with people you love — is a wonderful stress reliever!

Break Bad Habits

While bad habits may provide temporary euphoric relief from stress, they delay your desired victory over stress. How? Your bad habits stress you out. Unhealthy behaviors also derail your productivity, progress, and physical health.

Perhaps you need to quit smoking, declutter your desk, stop sweating the small potatoes, or resist being overly self-critical.

Are you a recovering perfectionist? Stop setting yourself up to fall short of unrealistic standards. Taking pride in doing your best (whatever that looks like) protects you from disappointment and lowered self-esteem.

Manage Daily Interruptions

"Most of us are bombarded during the day," claims Sharon Melnick, Ph.D., business psychologist, and author of Success Under Stress.

Emails, texts, calls, instant messages, pop-ins from colleagues, urgent deadlines, and last-minute fires to extinguish interrupt the constructive flow of your day. They're taxing on your brain and make it seem impossible to get anything done.

Further, Melnick advises responding in one of three ways: Accept the interruption, disconnect from it, or diagnose its importance and develop a strategic plan.

"You want to have preset criteria for which response you want to take," Melnick adds.

Anti-stress tip: Limit your availability by only answering emails during a specific timeframe, closing your office door when you need privacy, and establishing strict office hours.

Limit Self-Imposed Stress

Self-imposed stress, or self-inflicted stress, happens when you worry about circumstances outside your control or when you negatively react to a situation that you could've prevented.

Do you agonize over what other people think about you? Do you kick yourself for always running late even though you refuse to set your alarm clock earlier?

You can't always control what happens to you, but you can control your response. This easier-said-than-done approach is seriously life-changing.

Food for thought: Your job gives you purpose, but it's not your identity. Remind yourself that your worth isn't rooted in your performance, productivity, or achievements — it's based on your humanity.

Reach Out to Your Supervisor

If your work stress becomes paralyzing, schedule a meeting with your supervisor or Human Resources department. Engage in an open, respectful, and professional conversation about the causes of your stress.

Don't just present a list of complaints. Demonstrate that you're actively seeking a solution. Communicate your desire to do meaningful work for your company without hindrance. A healthy you is a happy, positive, productive, and creative employee.

They may offer you additional resources, accommodations, colleague support, flexible or remote working hours, increased responsibility, relief from a particular assignment, or a department transfer.

Should You Quit Your Job Due to Stress?

While quitting your job requires careful consideration, keep this in mind: Chronic stress is not normal or healthy. Persistent fight-or-flight mode triggers the continual release of adrenaline and cortisol into your body. When these hormones are perpetually imbalanced, a myriad of severe health problems follow.

The result? Your immunity and mental and physical well-being are compromised.

If your job repeatedly interferes with your work efficiency, health, happiness, peace, and relationships, it may be time to find a new one. At the very least, consider asking for fewer responsibilities or additional paid time off.

You spend the vast majority of your life at work; you deserve to be safe, heard, valued, and respected.

Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life!

Stress touches every single aspect of your life. When you repeatedly ruminate on a taxing situation, your stress only gets worse.

Reconstruct your thoughts to soothe and support you, especially during your hardest battles. Find solutions that best fit your circumstances. To further prevent, reduce, and manage your work stress, incorporate the above strategies.

You're in for a night and day difference!

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