What Causes Workplace Stress (And How to Unwind)
Most employees experience some degree of workplace stress, but if it's become a chronic issue, you need to make sure you're finding time and tactics to unwind.
Stress — it’s a fact of life. While you can’t avoid it completely, you also can’t let stress wind you up to the point that it derails your life and ruins your health.
From the outside, stressful situations in the workplace can look like a lot of things:
- Having too much to do
- Long working hours with few breaks
- Being subjected to bullying or discrimination
- Facing few opportunities for growth or advancement
- Having job demands disrupt family time and commitments
Whatever the situation, how you experience job stress is very personal. Different people in the same situation can experience different levels of stress. One can feel overwhelmed, while the other is left unbothered.
The stress you experience doesn’t come solely from the situation, but rather from your interpretation of the situation and how you respond to the stressors. Consider the following questions.
How do you feel when your boss drops a new stack of work on your desk?
What’s your first thought when you hear someone shouting on the shop floor?
How tight are your shoulders after packing 50 boxes? 100 boxes? 200 boxes?
Two root causes of workplace stress
There are two root causes behind most workplace stress:
- You feel the demands of the situation are more than you can cope with
- You feel you have little or no control over what happens
Heavy workloads, repetitive tasks, or tight deadlines can all lead to physical and mental exhaustion, which, in turn, can make it seem like these workplace demands simply cannot be satisfied.
Organizational change, being micromanaged, or having unclear performance objectives can lead to the feeling that everything is out of control at work. This can lead you to conclude that it doesn't matter what you do or say, because someone else is ultimately in control.
The highest levels of workplace stress are felt when the situation triggers you to respond to a combination of both root causes simultaneously. A mix of feeling like you cannot cope and feeling like you're not in control results in you feeling the most wound up.
If left unaddressed, workplace stress can lead to physical or mental health issues, as well as undermine work performance and productivity. Sometimes people turn to risky behaviors like smoking, drinking alcohol, or taking drugs in an effort to relieve the stress they are feeling. It's unhealthy to let your stress get to that point.
How to unwind from workplace stress
Once you become aware of the situations that cause you stress at work, there are things you can do to unwind. Your goal is to help manage the stress you’re feeling, not feed it.
Choose how you will respond when faced with stressors
Take a deep breath before you act. Don’t just react to a stressor when it happens — consider your options and then consciously choose what to do or say.
Making a conscious decision puts you back in the driver’s seat and gets at the root cause of the stress you are feeling.
Here are few responses you might choose when faced with a workplace stressor:
- Take a physical break and walk away from the situation for a few minutes (Learn more in Breaks During Work Are Necessary For Employee Well-Being And Work Performance)
- Take a mental break and think about something calming and relaxing for a few minutes
- Stretch and move your body in a stretch and exercise break
- Take a few deep breaths
- Find some humor in the situation and try to smile or laugh
- Reach out to someone you trust for social support
- Practice mindfulness and look for a new perspective on the situation
Establish boundaries between work and the rest of your life
Work shouldn’t be always present in your life. You need to get away from it regularly for rest and renewal.
Some ways to establish boundaries include:
- Establish an end-of-workday ritual that signals to yourself that you are no longer at work
- Log off your work email outside of work hours
- Let calls go to voicemail outside of work hours
- Don’t ruminate about work or co-workers
- Socialize with people outside of your professional network
- When on vacation set your voicemail and email to refer people to the person they should contact while you are away
Spend time away from work for rest and renewal
Working for days, weeks, or months on end without a break is exhausting. Everyone needs a break in their work routine.
Be sure to:
- Take your vacation days
- Don’t use weekends or work holidays to “catch up”
- Don’t habitually stay late at work to “catch up”
- Have at least one hobby that isn’t work related and engage in that hobby regularly
- Spend time with your friends and family
Take care of yourself, physically and mentally
The body and the mind are impacted by ongoing stress in lasting ways. Ongoing stress can lead to serious illness, including high blood pressure and depression. One way to avoid these serious complications is to regularly practice self-care. (Learn more in 14 Ways To Create A Workplace Culture of Wellness).
On a daily basis:
- Eat healthfully
- Move your body
- Spend time with people you care about
- Incorporate fun activities you can look forward to
- Get enough sleep
- Practice mindfulness, meditation, or deep breathing
Some stressors can’t be resolved by yourself
You may find yourself in a situation where the source of your stress can’t be resolved without the help of others.
If the physical or psychological effects of workplace stress are getting in the way of functioning normally, seek professional help. Your employer’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) may offer assistance, or you may want to see a doctor or psychologist.
Workplace issues that have to do with safety, bullying, or discrimination need to be discussed with your supervisor or the HR department.
The only way to unwind from stress is to put yourself in control of the situation. To do this you may have to take some tough action — but ultimately, it will be the best choice for your health and happiness.