Work & Career
36 Easy Ways to Make Your Work Day Less Stressful
Problems at work are more strongly associated with health complaints than any other life stressor. These tricks will keep the workplace madness to a minimum.
Work on one thing at a time
Work stress sometimes stems from pressure to finish everything at the same time. Today’s office worker actually changes tasks an average of every three minutes. Such a lightning-speed day of interruptions is helped along by the multi-tasking made possible by computers. Working on eight things at once might seem impressive, but it isn’t. Rather, it is exhausting, inefficient, and highly stressful. So, instead of constantly checking emails, having two or three documents open on your screen, or returning emails as they come in, structure your day to focus on one thing at a time. In particular, start your day by blocking out two hours for uninterrupted hands-on work. During this time, do not answer your phone or check emails. Then check emails and respond all at once. Go to lunch. Structure your afternoon in the same way. Designate a time immediately after lunch and an hour before you leave for returning calls. These are silent signs that stress is making you sick.
Work in short bursts
The flip side to multi-tasking is that it is hard to sustain creativity or intensity on one task for long stretches. Rather, our brains work in cycles of creativity, then take a rest. So try this: after an hour or so of concentrated work, get up for five minutes, walk around, do some stretches. Not only will this help the quality of your work and decrease work stress, but by the time you finish your day, you’ll have fitted in 30 minutes of stress-reducing exercise.
Deal directly, but constructively, with difficult workplace relationships
“Toxic people” are those whose negativity or demeanor seems to drain or annoy you. This might be your boss, your assistant, your colleague—in other words, they are people with whom you frequently interact. After a negative encounter with a toxic person, the temptation is to be angry and accusatory. But that leads nowhere. Instead, try this direct, honest, and disarming approach: “I am finding our interactions stressful because of [blank] and am feeling bad about [blank]. I would like our working relationship to improve. What suggestions do you have for me?” Even if you feel that the other person is the one who should change, by asking for his or her suggestions, you avoid putting that person on the defensive. If your colleague is even a little bit reasonable, this might make him or her admit, “Well, I suppose there are some changes I could make too.” Use these tips to make work stress management way easier.
Praise yourself at least once a day
Most of us don’t take enough time to praise ourselves for doing things well. So when you’ve completed an interim or long-term goal, tell yourself—out loud—what a good job you’ve done. You’ll get a burst of confidence that will go a long way toward helping you to maintain your cool amid the workplace madness.
Be creative in motivating yourself
Here’s a good one: write a check to an organization you loathe, put it in a stamped, addressed envelope and tell a trusted friend to post it if you fail to meet an important deadline or complete a vital task. Or take the positive route: give the friend something you really cherish or desire and let your friend give it back to you only if you achieve your goal. This is the difference between stress and anxiety.
Forego the coffee during team meetings or group work
A study sponsored by the British Economic and Social Research Council found that when men drank coffee while working together in a group, it tended to make the group less effective. The study also found that just the perception that the drink contained caffeine (whether or not it actually did) also increased the men’s feelings of stress and their heart rates.
Try this work stress buster
Stand against the wall and slide down it as if you were sitting in a chair. Stay there for a few minutes without looking down, just feeling your spine against the wall. Breathe deeply (in through your nose, out through your mouth) and focus on one peaceful thought (waves crashing on the shore, a glass of wine by a roaring fire). Press your feet into the ground as you hold this position and picture the stress oozing out of your body. When you stand up, shake out your arms and legs and return to work refreshed. These mini meditations can also banish work stress from your brain.
Keep a vacation file on your desk
Fill it with brochures of places you’d like to visit. When you’re feeling work stress, daydream your way through it. It will remind you of one reason you’re working, and provide a little virtual vacation.
Read a poem out loud twice a day
The cadence, words, and images will soothe your soul. Not into poetry? If you’re religious, try reading a psalm or other sacred writings. If you love music, listen to a few of your favorite songs. These are the signs you’re more stressed than you realize.
Keep an inspiration wall
Make an altar or display in your office to remind you of your life outside the office. Include pictures of your spouse, children and/or pet, a photograph of yourself doing something fun, plus a memento that reminds you of a special occasion. When you feel yourself getting overwhelmed and stressed out, take five minutes and simply stare at the display. Recall the day each picture was taken. Hold the memento and return in your mind to the place where you got it. Now you’re ready to return to work.
Keep a work journal
This is a journal you keep in your desk drawer (preferably locked). Write in it whenever you feel your temper rising, your frustration growing, or your despair increasing. In it, you can write all the things you’d like to say to the boss/client/colleague so you get it out of your system without losing your job. It will also help you to understand what it is about your job and your day that really drives you crazy—and what you actually enjoy. Do not, however, keep said journal on your computer, and always, always keep it out of sight. Try these strategies for shutting down stress fast.
Take an impromptu vacation
If you’re experiencing an unusual number of headaches, a sore neck, sore back, or other aches and pains; find you have trouble falling or staying asleep; or are snapping at your colleagues for no reason, your stress levels may be making you sick, and it’s time for a day off. Check your calendar for the coming week and find the first available day you can take. If you really are feeling unwell, take it as a sick day rather than a vacation day. There’s no shame in admitting that you are unwell. Whether you do something special or simply rest, make sure you take days off when you need them. If you don’t you can bet you’ll be really sick before long.
Schedule 10 minutes of ‘worry time’
Close your office door or go to an empty conference room and focus on what stresses you. You can bring your journal or just a sheet of paper. Divide the paper into three columns: My Worry; Why It Worries Me; Worst Thing That Could Happen. Once you confront the worst thing that could possibly happen—and realize that it’s highly unlikely it ever will happen—you can get back to work with your worry load lightened.
Manage your email
With the increasingly massive number of emails sent each year, this electronic form of communication has become a major source of work stress. A study by the University of Western Ontario found that managers spend more than an hour a day on email, extending their working week by an average of five hours. The study also found that only 17 percent of email users can answer their emails in the same day. To cope, read emails once, answer immediately, delete if possible or move them to folders. Overflowing inboxes are depressing and take too long to read and sort. Insert e-mail responses in the subject line whenever possible rather than composing a new message each time; reply only when you have something to say. Use the “rule of three”: if you’ve gone back and forth three times on a topic and you’re still confused or have questions, pick up the phone. Finally, never send an email if you’re angry. You can write it (either as a draft, or preferably in your word-processing program) then save it and look over it when you feel calmer.
When things feel as if they’re falling apart all around you, take five minutes and draw
Seriously. Grab a pencil and some blank paper and sketch the chaos around you, or something funny, something peaceful, or a caricature of the office villain. Or reap the stress-busting benefits of an adult coloring book. Using another part of your brain and focusing on something outside the chaos will provide a much-needed break.
Listen to music in your office
A study by Sheffield University found that listening to music in an office-based working environment led to workers having a more positive mood, which they believe improved their overall work performance. One thing: it was important that the workers were able to choose the music themselves.
Talk to your best friend at work
Studies find that social support at work is associated with lower blood pressure during the working day and smaller blood pressure surges even during work-related stressful moments. These are surprising ways that stress is good for your body.
Rub a drop of lavender oil on your inner wrist
The aroma of lavender (or cucumber oil) is a known relaxant. Close your eyes, hold your wrist up to your nose and sniff deeply, picturing as you do a field of lavender in Provence, the purple stalks waving in the breeze.
Leave the office for lunch every day
Getting out of the office, away from the stress, and into a totally different environment clears your mind and helps you to put some perspective on whatever hassles are dogging your day.
Build rewards into your working week
Having something to look forward to makes every difficult task more bearable. It might be a special dinner, a film, a game of tennis, or a massage. Put it in your schedule wherever it will help the most and think of working hard in advance to get to that reward.
Eat three Brazil nuts
They’re an excellent source of selenium, a mineral that may help to prevent depression. Watch out for these ways to reduce stress that backfire.
Munch on a handful of pumpkin seeds
A useful source of iron and micronutrients, these taste delicious and are a healthy way of providing a distraction from stressful moments in the working day.
Eat peppermint chocolates
Treat yourself now and again to some peppermint chocolate—particularly good if it’s dark chocolate. The chocolate itself is stress relieving, the peppermint provides a burst of minty energy, and the tiny sugar rush might be just enough to get you over the hump. At the very least, it’s better than slamming your office door or reacting in otherwise self-defeating ways to a madness-filled workplace.
Make a cup of tea
Pour a cup of boiling water over a handful of chamomile leaves or a chamomile tea bag. The herbal mix, long known for its gentle, soothing properties, will help to de-stress and center you. These are the scary things that happen to your brain when you’re stressed.
Do some deep breathing
Hold one nostril closed with a finger and blow strongly out through the other (blow your nose first!). This is a yoga movement believed to reduce stress.
Walk and talk slower
This tricks your body into thinking that things are calmer than they actually are.
Examine your real feelings
If you love what you do, the stress related to your job will be far less damaging than if you don’t. But if you hate your job, it’s time to explore other options. Spending a few minutes each evening rewriting your resume and researching other job options or employers can help you to handle the stress at your current job. These prebiotics can help with work stress relief.
As they say, it’s better to give than to receive. Provide praise and recognition to others at work whenever it is appropriate. You will feel good by making others feel good, and the good feeling will tend to spread.
Have a ‘perspective reminder’ handy
iStock/Mehmet Hilmi Barcin
Work may seem overwhelmingly stressful at times, but your troubles are likely to be smaller than they seem. Keep a picture in your office—the earth taken from space, a starry night, or the ocean—and look at it whenever you feel overwhelmed. Amid countless stars and the timeless crashing of waves against the shore, how important is that deadline, really?
When work is challenging, devote some of your downtime—weekends and evenings—to delineating a sequence of tasks. Make a list, place boxes next to each item and tick off the boxes as you move through the list (which is in itself very satisfying). You’ll avoid forgetting anything, you’ll stay focused on the job, you’ll be more efficient and it’s very satisfying to tick off those boxes. Here are the surprising ways stress is good for your body.
Socialize your work
Suggest a once-a-week lunch with colleagues where you can talk about a particular work issue. Use the collective brain to figure out how to do something better, improve your work facilities, enhance productivity, or improve relationships.
Give your colleagues a grade
A ‘D’ is for people who drain your energy, and an ‘F’ is for people who fill you up with energy. Now make sure that you avoid the D’s as much as possible throughout the day. Conversely, when you’re feeling drained, take a few minutes to connect with an F, suggests James Campbell Quick, PhD, professor of organizational behavior at the University of Texas, in Arlington.
Keep a Nerf gun in your office
And try to get some of your coworkers to do the same. When the stress feels overwhelming, hit the halls shooting. It is a completely fun, cathartic, and non-destructive way to let off steam. Here are the sneaky sources of work stress you need to know about.
Fill your office with plants
Make sure you cluster them and keep them within eyesight, near your computer. Studies find that plants significantly lower workplace stress and enhance productivity.
Drink Bach Rescue Remedy
Put four drops of this flower essence into a glass of water and drink it down. This natural remedy is believed to soothe stress, relieve impatience, and reduce worry.
Try some beverage leverage
Increase your productivity and decrease your stress by keeping an invigorating beverage handy at your workstation: hot tea or coffee in cold weather; iced tea, iced coffee, or perhaps just fruit-flavored mineral water in the heat. Choose something that feels just a bit indulgent, but doesn’t contain a lot of unwanted sugar or calories. Sip frequently. Next, check out the life secrets of people who never seem frazzled.