The science of workplace stress: How to understand, manage, and de-stress your day

You don’t need a study to tell you that workplace stress is on the rise (although plenty will). According to recent surveys, up to 80% of workers feel stress on the job, while 40% say their job is very or extremely stressful.

Workplace stress isn’t the anxiety of a looming deadline or a difficult project (although those are certainly stressful). What we’re talking about here is the response to being constantly overworked, under-supported, and uncertain of your future.

This sort of stress in the workplace is everyone’s responsibility. Stressed out employees have higher turnover, take more time off, and are generally less productive, motivated, and focused than their less-stressed coworkers. Even worse, a meta-analysis of hundreds of studies found that stress in the workplace is as harmful to health as second-hand smoke.

All of this adds up, with one study saying that stress in the workplace costs US companies alone more than $300 billion a year.

So what can you do to help if you’re feeling stressed or if you work in a stressful workplace?

1. The science of workplace stress

2. How to manage stress at work

3. Reframe your workplace stress as something more positive

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1. The science of workplace stress

Science of stress

While being stressed out isn’t much fun, it’s important to remember that it’s part of being human. Stress is a natural response to dangerous situations, both real and perceived. And it can even be helpful in the right circumstances (like running away from a bear).

The problem, however, is that the modern workplace tends to trigger our stress response far too often. No matter how much of a “bear” you might think your boss is, our stress response wasn’t designed to deal with the perceived threats of the workplace.

So what can we do? The first step to controlling workplace stress is to understand what it is, how it affects us, and what’s most likely to set it off.

What causes us to feel stressed out? Signs and symptoms of workplace stress

Stress affects us all in different ways. But there are a few common symptoms I’m sure we’re all familiar with.

First, there are the immediate physical symptoms, like sweaty palms, racing hearts, tense muscles, clenched teeth, high blood pressure, and low energy.

Then there are the mental symptoms like constant worrying, racing thoughts, forgetfulness, an inability to focus, and being overly pessimistic.

Lastly, and maybe most disruptive on our ability to work, is the emotional impact of workplace stress. When we’re stressed we feel overwhelmed and out of control. We become easily agitated and frustrated, making it harder to work well with others. It gets more difficult to quiet our racing minds, making focus almost all but impossible. And we lose self-esteem and confidence, leading to procrastination and a loss of motivation.

While those are the most common symptoms and signs of workplace stress, what causes them to come on is a bit more complicated. According to The American Institute of Stress:

“Stress is a highly personalized phenomenon and can vary widely even in identical situations for different reasons. One survey showed that having to complete paperwork was more stressful for many police officers than the dangers associated with pursuing criminals.”

Ultimately, there’s no such thing as a most or least stressful occupation. Instead, the severity of workplace stress comes down to a few key factors we’ll go into next.

The triple threat of workplace stress: Overwork, uncertainty, and lack of control

While workplace stress can come from anywhere, most studies agree that there are three main sources: Working too much, uncertainty, and a lack of control.

Let’s look at each of these to help understand what they are and how they get triggered.

Working too much

Despite the rise of remote work, four-day workweeks, and even legislation to help curb long working hours (like France’s “Right to Disconnect” law that bans after-hours emails), most people are working more than ever.

In America, the average workweek is 47 hours—one of the highest in the world. As journalist Dean Schabner writes:

“Not only are Americans working longer hours than at any time since statistics have been kept, but now they are also working longer than anyone else in the industrialized world.”

Working long hours like this obviously puts a toll on our social lives (making “work-life balance” all but impossible). But it also has a number of other stressful consequences. For one, the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health found that overwork leads to impaired sleep and memory, heavy drinking, and depression. While award-winning psychologist Dr. Ron Friedman found long hours make it harder to communicate, collaborate, and make good decisions.

So why do we work long hours?

For one, competition, and therefore expectations are higher than ever. Collaborative work has risen by more than 50% in the past decade, leaving little time for our “most important work”. Plus, when the person putting in long hours is the one getting rewarded or celebrated, why wouldn’t you stay late as well?

Uncertainty

Overwork and being surrounded by people who are constantly busy naturally leads to another cause of workplace stress: Uncertainty.

Knowledge workers—people like writers, designers, developers, and managers—have jobs that are based on uncertainty. In many cases, goals are self-selected, leaving you unsure if you’re working on the right tasks.

To make matters worse, feedback can be elusive, unhelpful, or inadequate. The person you’re waiting for feedback from might be waiting for their own feedback or is so busy with other work they can’t take the time to put it together. All this means progress is hard to see, leaving us unmotivated, frustrated, and stressed out.

Outside of the workplace, more people feel uncertain of their futures as well. The most recent Stress in America survey from the American Psychological Association found:

“Nearly a third of Americans say economic uncertainty is a source of stress.”

When you’re uncertain of the economy, keeping your job becomes a necessity. But how can you feel confident about what you’re doing without clear feedback and vision?

A lack of control

Overwork and uncertainty lead us to try and cram more into our workdays. But this obviously isn’t a sustainable strategy. This brings us to our last major source of workplace stress. The more we take on, the less in control we feel.

As Roli Saxena writes in First Round Review’s Practical Frameworks for Beating Burnout:

“Stress is usually the result of many little things you think you can handle and then all of a sudden it all hits you.”

More specifically, Saxena says one of the most common sources of stress and burnout at work is committing to things you know (either consciously or unconsciously) you won’t have time to do. But we all do this. We’re uncertain in our careers, scared for our futures, and want to impress our bosses. So we take on more. Until all it feels like we’re doing is trying to keep our head above water.

If you feel this way, you’re not alone. In fact, when we spoke to 500+ RescueTime users, only 10% said they feel in control of how they spend their days.

Why workplace stress is contagious (and how you pass it on)

One of the major problems with dealing with workplace stress is that it’s often put solely on the shoulders of the individual. We’re told that stress comes from the choices we made. And so it’s up to us to find solutions.

And that’s exactly what most articles on workplace stress tell you to do: Stay organized. Block distractions. Take more breaks. Eat healthy foods and get enough sleep. And while these strategies will help lower your personal stress levels, managing stress at the workplace has to come from the source.

When a workplace falls into stressful habits—like putting too much pressure to produce, reducing staff (which makes everyone take on more work), being unclear in expectations, and so on—it spreads like a sickness.

A study in 2014 found our stress response can be triggered simply by observing someone else who’s showing signs of stress. In the study, 26% of study participants took on stress from those they observed, and the researchers found the closer the participant was to the person they were observing, the more likely they were to take on that stress.

So you might take on stress from a stranger, but you’re highly likely to take on stress from a close friend, colleague, or partner.

RescueTime helps you stay focused, motivated, and productive by blocking distracting sites, giving you in-depth reports on how you spend your time, and more. Sign up for free here

2. How to manage stress at work

Never stress

With an understanding of the sources of stress, we can start to look at ways to alleviate it. But like we just said, de-stressing your workplace isn’t just an individual effort. While it helps to do everything you can to lower your own stress levels, many of these issues need to be dealt with at an organizational level. That means having conversations.

There’s a hidden shame in telling your boss that you’re overwhelmed at work. We’ve come to believe admitting we need help is admitting failure. But as we’ve already seen, that’s not the case.

Workplace stress comes from everyone. And while we’re going to look at some ways to help lower your stress and deal with common stressors, the more you can talk about these things with the people around you the better.

Overwork: Beat burnout by setting boundaries, taking breaks, and learning to prioritize

When we work too much, we put ourselves at risk of burnout—a psychological syndrome that leaves us constantly exhausted, overly cynical, and feeling like nothing we do matters. It’s a terrible feeling and one that no one should have to deal with. Luckily, many people have been studying burnout and ways to reduce our susceptibility of it due to overwork. Here are just a few:

Set boundaries on the workday

It has become easier than ever to blur the lines between work and everything else in our lives. Whether we use our work laptops at home or have email or IM on our phones, that task that needs to be done is only ever a swipe away.

And without clear boundaries around the workday (and even during the workday), you’ll always be tempted to keep working. Reducing the temptation to overwork comes down to identifying what’s forcing you to put in long hours in the first place. Things such as:

  • Unrealistic deadlines
  • Scheduling conflicts or interruptions
  • Too much time spent on email, IM, and communications
  • Unpredictable schedules and meetings
  • Interpersonal demands such as dealing with difficult customers or coworkers

Once you identify these stressors it’s time to reduce them.

You might have a conversation with your boss about expectations and deadlines. Or propose “office hours” or “library rules” to avoid drive-by interruptions. You might even use a tool like RescueTime to set goals around how you spend your time and block distracting websites when you need to focus.

If you’re faced with scheduling conflicts and uncertainties, try creating a daily schedule with non-negotiable time for your most important work each day.

Prioritize your most impactful work (and get rid of the rest)

Most of us were hired to do some sort of core work. Yet, according to our research, the majority of our workday goes to other tasks like email, IM, meetings, and admin.

Learning how to prioritize means getting more out of the limited time you have each day. It’s one of the cornerstones of productivity and once you know how to properly prioritize, it can help with everything from your time management to work-life balance.

We wrote an entire guide to how to prioritize work, but here are a few methods you can try:

  • Use a “Master List” to capture and categorize everything you need to do and then break them down on a Monthly, Weekly, and Daily basis
  • Separate your “urgent” from “important” tasks using the Eisenhower Matrix
  • Rank the true priority of your daily tasks using the Ivy Lee method—write down six daily tasks that must be done in chronological order
  • Cut out “good enough” goals using Warren Buffett’s two-list strategy

Take more meaningful breaks during the day

When we want to do more in less time (and protect ourselves from overwork), we need to keep our mind and body in top shape. This means taking time to step back and take a break.

Research shows workplace performance improves after a period of rest and recovery, even among people who enjoy their work. And if you’re in a creative job, you’re going to need some rest in order to do your best work. A study from the University of York and the University of Florida found more than 40% of our creative ideas come during breaks and downtime when our minds are free to wander.

When you take your breaks will depend on your own schedule, but here are a few suggestions for making the most of them:

  • Get outside: Nature and fresh air have been found to increase energy and productivity
  • Give your eyes a break: Take a break from all your screens (smartphones included). If you need a quick fix, try the 20-20-20 exercise.
  • Refuel with the right food: Skip the chips and opt for foods with high protein to stop the dreaded post-lunch crash

Uncertainty: Fix miscommunication, get clearer feedback, and learn to talk to your boss and coworkers about stress

Our days are filled with uncertainty. We have unclear goals, inadequate or vague feedback, and no way to track our progress and know that we’re doing well. Out of all the causes of workplace stress, uncertainty is certainly the one that needs the most organizational attention to help fix.

Here are a few ways you might approach doing that:

Reduce the chance of miscommunication by choosing the right medium for the right message

Communication has become one of the most important skills for any job. But with more of us choosing email, IM, phone calls, and texts over face-to-face communication, it’s also become a place rife with uncertainty.

According to a recent study published in the Harvard Business Review, one face-to-face request is 34 times more successful than an email. As Vanessa K. Bohns, one of the study’s authors wrote:

“If your office runs on email and text-based communication, it’s worth considering whether you could be a more effective communicator by having conversations in person.”

Emails and other communication formats lack context, body language, and tone. They create more uncertainty than they clarify. Your boss might have said “Sure” to your request to take the lead on a project but was that a good sure? A bad sure? An indifferent sure? An annoyed sure? You get the picture.

Email and text-based communication work in many places. But if you’re feeling workplace stress due to some level of uncertainty, opt for something more personal like a phone call, meeting, or video call.

Ask explicitly for feedback (and be prepared to take it)

Feedback helps clarify what you’re doing well (or wrong) and solidify a path forwards. But feedback isn’t always easy to get. In fact, according to a recent article in Harvard Business Review, 69% of managers say they’re uncomfortable communicating with employees (And we can only imagine the number is higher when the roles are reversed).

In order to be clear in what your responsibilities are, you need to ask explicitly for feedback on projects and suggestions.

Claire Lew, CEO of Know Your Company suggests a method she calls “time boxing.” Rather than asking for general feedback, such as “How am I doing?” or “Is there anything I can do better?”

Lew suggests asking for feedback that covers a specific time frame. For instance, “What’s something I could have done better in the past two weeks?” or “What can I improve on from last quarter?”

Of course, you have to be prepared for the answer you’ll receive. Even though 92% of people believe getting feedback is effective for improving their performance, receiving negative or critical feedback is hard. But, as New York Times Smarter Living editor Tim Herrera explains:

“The solution—whether you’re receiving the feedback or giving it—boils down to trusting that everyone is participating in good faith.”

Talk to your boss about workplace stress

Getting clarity around expectations and performance are huge steps towards feeling more confident and less stressed at work. However, a crucial third element is having an honest and open relationship with your boss.

Again, this is easier said than done. According to clinical psychologist, Dr. Megan Jones Bell, one of the most common causes of workplace stress is having a challenging relationship with your boss. While research by the American Psychological Association claims that 75% of Americans believe dealing with their boss to be “the most stressful part of their workday”.

It’s never easy to have a difficult conversation about workplace stress, especially with your boss. However, it can help you focus on what’s best for your own mental well-being, which in turn will help the company.

If you’re considering speaking with someone at work about stress, here are a few steps suggested by workplace coach Steve Errey:

  1. Find a confidante: Speak with a friend or coworker first to verbalize what you’re feeling in a safe space.
  2. Expect discomfort: Understand what you’re getting into, but frame the conversation as necessary.
  3. Don’t problem solve: Resist the temptation to present a solution.
  4. Put yourself first: Find a solution that is best for you, not just the company.

Lack of control: Protect your focused time, be deliberate in communication, and use technology to help you stay on track

Being stressed at work makes us feel out of control. Unfortunately, with all of the things vying for our attention and focus throughout the day, it’s nearly impossible to feel in control of how you spend your time.

As we wrote before, just 10% of people feel in control of how they spend their time each day. To reduce workplace stress, you need to take back control of your time, focus, and attention. You have to switch from “reaction” mode to “action” mode.

Here are a few ways to do that:

Use your daily schedule to create a template for each day

Your daily schedule is one of the best tools in the battle against workplace stress. Unfortunately, few of us treat it as such. We book meeting after meeting or call after call and then try to squeeze in 15-30 minutes of productive time in between.

To help reduce workplace stress, we need specific times where we’re focused on what author Cal Newport calls “deep work.”

Deep work refers to tasks that require a level of concentration and focus that is hard won in the modern workplace. The way to make time for these tasks? Schedule them into your day.

For example, here’s what designer and best-selling author Brad Frost’s calendar looked like when he adopted the deep work philosophy:

Brad Frost Deep Work Calendar

If you have less control over your workdays, or they’re less structured, you can follow the advice of time management expert Elizabeth Grace Saunders and schedule “margins” on your calendar.

To others, this just looks like other commitments and they won’t try to book your time. While for yourself, this extra space gives you a chance to clear your head and provide space to plan and prioritize work.

Communicate in “bursts” to boost productivity and creativity and reduce time spent reacting

One of the most common places we lose control of our workday is when communicating. A quick email or Slack message turns into hours of time spent “half working” and distracted. Our own research found that most knowledge workers can’t go 6 minutes without checking email or IM.

To feel more in control of your time, researchers suggest working in “bursts” rather than being always available.

Not only does working in bursts put you more in control of when and for how long you communicate. But it also helps you and your team to be more productive and creative. As the study’s authors wrote:

“During a rapid-fire burst of communication, team members can get input necessary for their work and develop ideas. Conversely, during long periods of silence, everyone is presumably hard at work acting upon the ideas that were exchanged in the communication burst.”

Working this way requires (you guessed it) communication. Talk to your teammates about how you communicate during the workday, what a reasonable response time is, and how to deal with urgent vs. non-urgent messages. The more condensed your communication, the less stressed you’ll all be.

Use technology to block websites, track progress, and plan your days

Technology can make us feel out of control and stressed out. But it can also help protect us from workplace stress in a number of ways:

  1. The right tools can help you keep track of your work and stay on track: Digital calendars, project management tools, and to-do lists help us stay focused and keep track of our most important work each day.
  2. Time tracking apps like RescueTime help you track your progress on important work, keeping you motivated and in control of where you spend your working hours.
  3. Website and distraction blockers can protect us from social media-induced procrastination or getting carried away with other distracting sites that pull at our attention.

The key here is to use the right tools for the right task. Too many tools with intrusive notifications and alerts only add to that sense of being out of control and stressed. However, using a few tools, setting them up for focused work, and deleting everything else is a great way to harness the power of tech.

Outside of work: Prioritize self-care and be forgiving to yourself

If you’re like me, a lot of the stress you’re under comes from yourself. You pressure yourself to do well and beat yourself up when you fail to meet your own high standards. Unfortunately, research shows this is not a great way to deal with stress.

People who are self-compassionate and accept negative feelings like stress as being simply part of life tend to fare better than those who fight their negative emotions. Those who accept negative emotions even seem to feel fewer negative emotions overall than those who fight them in the first place.

These conclusions come from a study of students struggling with the stress of their first year at college. The study’s author, Dr. Katie Gunnell, explains why self-compassion is so beneficial:

“Our study suggests the psychological stress students may experience during the transition between high school and university can be mitigated with self-compassion because it enhances the psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, which in turn, enriches well-being.”

When dealing with workplace stress, you need to be aware of it. But also forgiving of it. Build in time during the week to reflect on what you’ve accomplished, take stock of your stressors, and plan for a better future.

More than 80% of workers say they feel stressed every single day. Find out how RescueTime helps you take back control over your time and de-stress your days. 

3. Reframe your workplace stress as something more positive

Reframe stress

While the tips above can help de-stress your workday, getting rid of stress entirely is pretty much impossible. Everyone is triggered by different aspects of workplace stress. And striving for a completely stress-free life is stressful in itself.

But does that mean that we should just accept the anxiety of the modern workplace? I don’t think so. In fact, there are a few exercises you can use to help transform the stress you’re feeling into something less impactful and potentially even helpful.

Replace stressful thoughts with positive ones

Many of the symptoms of anxiety and stress — dry mouth, racing heart — are the same as excitement. And studies have found that when you’re in a stressful situation, telling yourself to calm down can actually backfire.

Instead, you’ll be better equipped to handle the situation if you can reframe it as exciting and ride the wave of accompanying stress. When Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, began looking at how we react to the idea of stress, she found that people who reframed their anxiety as excitement performed better than those who tried to bury it with calmness.

How you do this can be as simple as using positive self-talk (for example, saying “I’m excited” out loud) or trying to adopt an opportunity mindset rather than a threat mindset.

Use stress for what it was meant for: To help in dangerous situations

The way we think about stress and our response to it can affect our response a lot. Research has shown that people who believe stress is unhealthy tend to have a less healthy stress response. While on the other hand, those who see their stress response as healthy and helpful actually react to stress in a healthier way.

When our brains feel stressed, they release a chemical called noradrenaline. This chemical is a bit of a two-sided coin. From a positive perspective, it increases arousal and alertness, focuses attention, and enhances the formation and retrieval of memory. However, it also increases restlessness and anxiety.

How our mind handles noradrenaline is a bit of a Goldilocks situation. We don’t do very well with too much or too little. However, according to Ian Robertson, a cognitive neuroscientist at Trinity College Dublin and author of The Stress Test: How Pressure Can Make You Stronger and Sharper:

“There’s a sweet spot in the middle where if you have just the right amount, the Goldilocks zone of noradrenaline, that acts like the best brain-tuner.”

Which means that as long as we find ways to control and handle stress emotionally, and reframe stressful situations as exciting, it can actually be an incredible way to boost brain function, increase creativity, and ultimately (and somewhat ironically) help us become happier, less anxious, and less depressed.

Workplace stress isn’t going away. But we can help protect ourselves from it.

There’s no escaping the fact that work is a stressful place. Yet it’s when that stress becomes a constant presence in our lives that we need to start worrying about it. Too much exposure to stress makes us worse at our jobs. It puts us at risk of burnout. And can even have serious consequences to our physical health.

But like anything, the more you know what causes you stress the more you’ll be able to mitigate its effects. Look for the things in your workplace that cause uncertainty, a lack of control, and make you feel like you need to always catch up.

And remember it isn’t just up to you. Stress in the workplace is an issue everyone should want to resolve.

More resources for dealing with workplace stress:

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

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