How to Handle a Stressful Job
Thriving in a High-Pressure Environment
Many people experience stress in their jobs. It might be temporarily because of a project deadline, or because of seasonal fluctuations in your workload. Or you might experience long-term stress due to the nature of your role, because of a difficult boss or co-worker, or because of office politics.
So, how do you maintain your professionalism, composure, and workplace relationships? The answer is by managing your stress levels, and by learning to survive and thrive in a stressful role.
In this article, we look at the consequences of job stress, and explore strategies that you can use to manage a stressful job successfully.
What Does Stress Do to You?
Job stress has many negative consequences. If you leave it unmanaged, it can affect your health, productivity, well-being, and career.
For example, a study conducted by researchers at University College London found that professionals who work in high-stress environments are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, insulin resistance, and high cholesterol.
Long-term, research shows that unmanaged stress can weaken your immune system, cause chronic muscle pain or sleeplessness, and contribute to obesity. It can lead to a number of psychological conditions, such as anxiety or depression, and it may cause relationship problems with co-workers.
Stress can cause severe health problems and, in extreme cases, death.
While these stress-management techniques have been shown to have a positive effect on reducing stress, they are for guidance only, and readers should take the advice of qualified health professionals if they have any concerns over stress-related illnesses or if stress is causing significant or persistent unhappiness.
Health professionals should also be consulted before any major change in diet or levels of exercise.
How to Identify Your Current Stress Levels
Stress can have a negative impact on your health and productivity. There are many warning signs that you're experiencing high levels of workplace stress.
Physical symptoms of stress include frequent headaches or muscle tension, persistent sleeplessness, and stomach upsets. You may also experience significant changes in your weight.
Psychologically, you may be irritable, depressed, and experience prolonged difficulty in concentrating. If continuous stress starts to cause burnout, you may also find that you lose interest in your work and hobbies, and become socially withdrawn.
Stress is not the same as pressure.
A manageable level of pressure can actually help you to perform at your best. However, if pressure increases to a point where you no longer feel in control, the result is stress. Unlike pressure, stress is never positive.
How to Manage a Stressful Job
The following sections look at several ways that you can manage stress in your role.
Before you can manage stress, you first have to know what causes it.
Work is often one of the main causes of stress in people's lives. In the U.K., research by the Health and Safety Executive found that 44 percent of respondents cited heavy workloads as a cause of workplace stress.
Other common causes of workplace stress can be grouped according to four main underlying causes:
Time stress develops from a fast-paced working environment with unrealistic deadlines. When you're suffering from this type of hurry sickness, productivity, relationships and well-being start to suffer.
Anticipatory stress is stress about the future. It may be due to a specific event, such as a presentation that you’re scheduled to give. Or, you may experience a more general fear about the future. Many people suffer anticipatory stress about their employment security, for example.
Situational stress is caused by situations over which you feel you have no control. These may be acute incidents, such as a sudden failure of a supply line, or longer-term issues, such as the feeling that you have no autonomy or purpose in your work. Unreasonably heavy workloads also come into this category.
Encounter stress derives from interaction with other people. Poor management, bullying, and having to deal with angry or difficult people can all be sources of encounter stress.
Once you've identified the factors that contribute to your stress, you can then take appropriate steps to manage them.
Find Ways to Stay Calm
Stress can often cause you to stop breathing for several seconds, even though you may not realize it. When you're feeling stressed, practice deep breathing exercises. Deep, slow breathing floods your body with oxygen, slowing your heart rate, relaxing your muscles, and helping you to focus.
You might also want to practice yoga or meditation after work; both are effective methods of managing stress.
Frequent daily breaks and regular vacations are also important for reducing work stress. Even a long weekend can help you to de-stress after a tough week. When you do take a break or go on vacation, leave work at work. Taking a "working vacation" (or constantly checking your emails and messages while you're gone) won't give you the time that you need to rest and recharge.
Manage Your Time
If you're struggling with a heavy workload or project deadlines, you can lower your stress levels and improve productivity by managing your time more effectively.
First, take our quiz How Good Is Your Time Management? to assess how well you're currently managing your time, and to get suggestions for improvement.
Distractions in the office can be a major source of stress. These distractions can come from well-meaning colleagues, from constant phone calls or emails, or from general office noise. Minimize distractions by closing your office door for short periods of time, by turning off your phone, or by listening to music or white noise to drown out people's conversations.
See our Time Management toolkit for more hints, tips and methods for managing your time as effectively as possible.
Increase Your Autonomy
Autonomy is the freedom to decide how to accomplish your work. Professionals who work in roles with low autonomy often experience more stress and dissatisfaction than those with greater autonomy.
Speak with your manager about your current goals or projects. Where appropriate, ask for the freedom to choose how you accomplish these goals. This could include working from home one day a week, or choosing who you want to work with on your next project.
Use job-crafting strategies to reshape your role and to better use your strengths and interests. This can lead to greater productivity and less stress. You might also find that job crafting adds interest and meaning to your work.
How to look after stressed team members as a manager.
Manage Your Priorities
Conflicting priorities can be a major source of workplace stress, especially when you feel like you're constantly "fire fighting." See our article Eisenhower's Ugent/Important Principle to learn how to focus on what's important, not just urgent.
It's also important to work out what activities can have the biggest impact. Use the Action Priority Matrix to identify which tasks are worth spending time on, and which ones you can safely delegate or drop.
If you're working on a project that seems overwhelming, break it into smaller steps. This allows you to accomplish one thing at a time, instead of trying to take everything on at once.
Regular exercise is one of the best ways to manage a stressful job. Daily exercise helps you to cope with stress, and it can also help to boost your memory, creativity, IQ, and productivity.
You can fit exercise into your schedule in many ways: wake up slightly earlier and exercise before work, take a walk on your lunch break, or use a standing desk while you're at work.
Take frequent breaks to move around and let your mind rest. Try taking several five- or 10-minute walks during the day. It might not sound like much, but this exercise and fresh air will give you time to rest and recharge.
Remember, any additional movement will help you to manage stress and live a healthier life.
Your attitude plays a major role in your level of stress, no matter what kind of work you do.
You can choose to approach tasks, responsibilities and people with a negative attitude, or you can choose to approach your work and relationships with a positive mindset. Although the amount of work is the same, the impact on your health and well-being is profound.
Whenever you catch yourself slipping into a negative frame of mind, make an effort to challenge your conceptions and to think positively instead. Challenge your negative thoughts with rational, fact-based thinking, and consider using affirmations to boost your self-confidence.
Assess Your Skills and Resources
Look at the work that you do. What are your biggest frustrations? Where are you most inefficient? Where are your bottlenecks?
These situations often point to a lack of tools, resources, skills development, or help – all of which can contribute to workplace stress.
You need to keep your skill set under continual review, particularly if your organization is developing new ways of working. You also need to have the right equipment, and know how to use it.
Make a list of what you need. Let your boss know what you're lacking, and explain how these items will improve your productivity and effectiveness. If your boss can't provide the resources that you need, think about how you might be able to negotiate for them with others, or acquire them on your own.
Find Meaning in Your Job
What do you love most about your job? What gives your work meaning and purpose?
These questions might sound simple, but they're important. If you know what gives your work meaning, you're more likely to be able to develop intrinsic motivation.
This motivation comes from knowing that what you do has value in its own right. It can help you to manage the stress that goes along with the work you do, and to build resilience when you're feeling down.
Everyone experiences stress at work from time to time. However, if your job is consistently stressful, it's essential to find ways to manage that stress.
Start by identifying what causes your stress. Next, confirm that you're handling your priorities and time effectively. Get regular exercise, and make sure that you have the tools and resources you need to do your job.
Talk to your manager about developing more autonomy in your role, and assess what it is that gives your work purpose and meaning. This will help you to improve your self-motivation and resilience.
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