Are you having a stressful day? Feel pressure to perform at work and worry about on-the-job demands? Has technology improved your life and at the same time, contributed to increased expectations that you be constantly available to work? Do you answer emails and return phone messages before and after work?
If you're overwhelmed with work stress, you are not alone. In a nationwide poll by the American Psychological Association, more than two-thirds of Americans listed work as a significant source of stress. A down economy has left many people with increased work demands and fewer resources to meet those demands. Even as the economy improves, the pressures at work don't necessarily decrease.
Work stress results in both physical and mental symptoms. Headache, fatigue and upset stomach are common physical symptoms of stress. Mental symptoms, such as difficulty concentrating, lack of motivation and excessive worry or emotional distress -- in the form of increased irritability, anger and nervousness -- can disrupt relationships and impact your job performance.
Stress during any given day can leave you distracted by worry, unable to focus, jumpy and jittery or frozen and unable to perform as well as you might otherwise.
Quick tips for handling daily work stress:
1. Know your limits. Everyone has work limits. Reflect on what you are willing and able to do. Then consider what expectations are tolerable in situations that push your limits. Articulate and negotiate ahead of time, when you can anticipate expectations that will stretch your limits. Consider enlisting your supervisor or colleagues in helping you find solutions to meet work demands that stretch your limits.
2. Plan to tolerate temporary increases in stress. Some days are more challenging than others. Work expectations may increase temporarily, or family or social obligations may impact your ability to manage job demands. Being aware of days when you're temporarily stretched can help you plan how to get through them, whether it's by communicating your needs or taking better care of yourself.
3. Prioritize self-care. It is essential to be kind and compassionate toward yourself when you are overloaded with work. You may be so focused on getting the job done that you have put yourself last. When you work long hours or are drained by your job, it's easy to neglect self-care, or to simply fail to notice that you are missing this essential ingredient to tolerating difficult circumstances. Simple activities such as listening to soothing music, eating comfort food, wearing a favorite scent, washing your face with warm water or dressing in soft fabrics can have an impact on your ability to tolerate difficult days. If you notice you've skipped basic activities such as going to the dentist or scheduling an eye appointment, it's a sign to focus on taking care of yourself.
4. Take a vacation. A relaxing week or two off might be ideal, but if that isn't realistic right now, take small, planned breaks during the day. You might assign work-free zones in your life. For example, restrict phone and computer use while eating meals, identify one hour in the evening that is dedicated to a leisure activity or wait until after breakfast to check your email on your smart phone. At work, consider taking a five-minute break every 90 minutes. Use those five minutes to stretch your legs, focus on deep breathing or make a cup of tea or coffee.
5. Get physical. Your physiological stress response originally developed to provide your body extra amounts of energy. You may be trapped behind a desk or in a meeting when stress hits. Channel that energy into something positive. Regular exercise can bring that energy to manageable and productive levels. During the work day, taking a quick jog up the stairs, walking around the building, stretching your arms or delivering documents in person can help modulate nervous energy that comes with stress.
Work demands can be stressful. The stakes of a meeting may be high, your job may be uncertain, you may have tense interactions with a supervisor or work colleagues or you may work in a less than ideal environment where noise or poor lighting increases stress levels.
There are times when you can improve your work circumstances to lower stress levels, but sometimes you have to find ways to get through difficult days. Finding healthy ways to manage your work stress each day can keep you going and make it less likely that you'll develop unhealthy habits -- such as overeating or smoking -- that may seem like stress relievers in the short-term, but only add to stress in the long-term.
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