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10 Sneaky Sources of Stress at Work—And How to Fix Them

The National Institute For Occupational Safety and Health says a quarter of us list work as the number one stressor in our lives. Here are the sneakiest ways work can stress us out, and how to eliminate them for good.

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House-shaped key in the wooddaizuoxin/Shutterstock

Problems at home steal the spotlight

You’re at your desk, trying to concentrate on the task in front of you—but issues at home are distracting you and stressing you out. Barbara Greenberg, PhD, a clinical psychologist and the co-author of Teenage as a Second Language, says the ability to compartmentalize is key. She explains: “We need to develop the skill of compartmentalizing. You can keep home-life from spilling into work-life by having an appropriate place, perhaps a friend or even a therapist, to talk about the issues at home. This enables you to be fully at work when you’re there, and engaged when you’re at home, too.”

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Young Businesswoman Sleeping On Desk At WorkplaceAndrey_Popov/Shutterstock

There’s no wiggle room

Even if you love your job, there are times you must step away to take care of personal business. When your employer isn’t flexible and you don’t have the option, your stress will build. Brie Reynolds, a senior career specialist at Flexjobs, explains, “Flexible work options, like working remotely or having a flexible schedule, are one of the solutions to a work-related source of stress like commuting, as well as others such as office politics, and endless meetings.” According to a Flexjobs survey, 89 percent of those polled believed a flexible schedule would decrease their level of stress. If you decide to work from home, here’s what you need to get the most out of it.

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Messy office deskLeszek Czerwonka/Shutterstock

You’re drowning in to-dos

Yes, you’re supposed to be busy at work—but when your load has you screaming “Uncle,” it might be time to say something. cites a study revealing that more than 50 percent of employees spend 12 hours per day on work-related activities, and just as many skip lunch because of job-related stress. If you find yourself under a pile of work that’s impossible to complete, Dr. Greenberg recommends talking to a supervisor about delegating a few items, and making lists to keep it all straight. Using these specific phrases at work will make you even more successful. 

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Stess, overwork and deadline. Tired unshaven young architect freelancer massaging nose bridge , having headache while working in big architectural project at home office, feeling exhausted and sleepyWAYHOME studio/Shutterstock

You feel stuck

Whether you’re feeling stuck because you’re the sole bread-winner or because you can’t land a promotion, the stress can build. Dr. Greenberg told Reader’s Digest, “If you’re feeling stuck, you have to find ways to make your job more palatable. Use your breaks well and make a friend or two. Find ways to make your workplace feel gentler. One or two changes can make all the difference.” If you’re feeling stuck at work, here’s how to know if you need a new career or just a new job.

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Image of young serious and concentrated dark-skinned student, future architecture focused on her examination project, analyzing schematic drawings, making notes in sketchbook, surrounded by gadgetsWAYHOME studio/Shutterstock

You’re always holding your breath

If your job is so unpredictable that you’re not sure if you’ll be employed from one week to the next, you’ll be suffocating with anxiety. A study by CareerCast showed that job insecurity is the biggest job-related stressor. According to Dr. Greenberg, building a better relationship with your supervisor might be the answer. “When you develop a closer relationship with your supervisor, you’ll get filled in with accurate information instead of becoming a victim of the rumor mill. Finding someone you can trust is so important.” If this sounds like you, be on the lookout for these secret signs you’re going to be fired.

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team of young asian and caucasian entrepreneurs having a pleasant conversation in meeting room.imtmphoto/Shutterstock

The snark is off the charts

Some workplaces can start to resemble high school, and employees who aren’t part of the “in crowd” can feel a sense of dread. Moritz Kothe, CEO of Kununu, said, “Sometimes departments can feel cliquey. Not having strong relationships in the office can be a huge source of stress. Many [workers] said they didn’t feel like they could contribute as much to a team because they weren’t included in daily lunches or after-work outings. Once again, there is a way for an employee to fix this and potentially become a part of the group, but it’s important to evaluate if a manager needs to get involved.” Even on rough days, always try to stick to these work etiquette rules you probably ignore (but shouldn’t).

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problem in the airport, tired man waiting in the terminal with luggageDitty_about_summer/Shutterstock

Your out of office reply is always on

A study from the Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and City University of New York suggests that employees who have to travel two weeks or more per month are more likely to experience symptoms of anxiety and depression. They are also more likely to smoke and have trouble sleeping. If your work travel schedule is fraying your nerves, you may want to share your feelings with a supervisor or consider switching to a new position.

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Thoughtful male colleagues communicating during working process collaborating for completing project,young crew of designers using technology while making creative solutions together on meetingGaudiLab/Shutterstock

You don’t feel worthy

When employees feel less prepared and competent than coworkers, their stress levels will climb and confidence will plummet. Dr. Greenberg advises: “If it’s actually the case after careful self-assessment that you’re unprepared in comparison to your peers, then take the opportunity to level the playing field and find ways to stay up to date. Do some reading and educate yourself. Use it as a learning opportunity and see it as a positive.”

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Top view of business colleague sitting at table with charts during corporate meeting. Businessman and businesswoman discussing new project while sitting in office lobby.Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

Balance is elusive

“Employees may feel stressed about how to maintain boundaries at work, while still getting to know their colleagues,” explains Alicia Hodge, PhD, a psychotherapist in Northern Virginia. People may feel that they need to be social with co-workers or bosses to get a promotion, she says. “Making an effort to make small talk at work can ease you into learning more about your co-workers.” She recommends letting relationships build naturally: “It can be easy to spot forced interactions.”

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Traveler's desk with a working computerILIA KALINKIN/Shutterstock

Stop checking email

Technology can make your job easier, but it can also make it tough to get away from work, says Dr. Hodges: “The benefit, and drawback, of email is that it can be sent 24 hours a day. This often leads to employees checking their email constantly.” She advises, “If your email notifications make you tense or you are avoiding them, that may be a sign of work-related stress. Clarifying the expectations of your job and staying off your email will give you the much-needed space from work concerns when at home.” And if you’re still stressed, try some of these 34 easy ways to reduce office stress.

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Jen Babakhan
Jen Babakhan is an author and credentialed educator living in California. She writes regularly about advice and culture for Reader's Digest. She is also the author of Detoured: The Messy, Grace-Filled Journey From Working Professional to Stay-at-Home Mom (Harvest House Publishers, 2019). She earned her BA in Communication Studies from California State University, Stanislaus. You can follow her on Instagram @JenBabakhan , Twitter @JenBabakhan, and Facebook @JenBabakhanauthor.

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