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7 Ways to Reduce and Manage Stress at Work

Start the New Year Happier

There’s a serious health risk in your workplace, and it’s not the pile of frosted holiday cookies in the breakroom.

Stress is not something we talk about a lot, but it can drain you of energy, impact your concentration and have negative impacts on your job performance. While stress can impact any of us throughout the year, busy times like the holidays can be particularly difficult.

Gone unchecked, excess stress can lead to physical problems—headaches, stomach upset, high blood pressure, chest tightness and sleep issues. It can alter mood, adding to anxiety and depression. Do any of these sound familiar?

Before your stress level builds this season, let’s review ways to destress and be happier.

1. Work on Relationships
Now that many of us are back at the office, we must interact with humans again. Is there anyone you consider a friend, or would like to be friends with?

We spend a lot of our life at work, and it is the most likely place to develop friendships. Data by research company Gallup shows having close friends at work, or a best friend, not only makes us happier, but is closely tied to positive business outcomes, including profitability, safety, inventory control and employee retention.

Making friends at work isn’t as easy as when we were in school with a large group of peers our own age from the surrounding neighborhoods. If your company doesn’t have a mentoring program, where seasoned employees are paired with new ones, suggest starting one and be a mentor. Each time you help a new face at work is a chance to make a friend. From a company standpoint, the buddy system helps new hires integrate quicker.

During the pandemic we were glued to screens with little face to face human interaction. Now is the time to put down your smartphone and engage with people. So, instead of cruising your news feed over lunch, try striking up a conversation or asking a co-worker if they would like to go for a walk.

If you are still telecommuting, suggest your company support a fun online event, like “Happier Hour once a month. Invented by mental health professionals, this laughter-inducing program creates connections with a unique combination of Improv games and Stand-up prompts while making everyone feel comfortable in the Zoom space.

Group of friends playing a game

2. Focus on Workplace Wellness
Create a pleasant environment for yourself to sustain wellbeing throughout the day.  Here are a few suggestions to facilitate this:

Add some plant life
An indoor plant on the corner of your desk is not only aesthetically pleasing, it improves air quality, and provides a soothing effect. Check out these plants that make a good officemate.

Keep a water bottle handy
Keeping hydrated helps you think. Water is a great partner in creative thinking and problem solving.

Seek natural light
Ideally, place your desk where you can occasionally look outside. Not only will this give your eyes a rest from close up work, but the natural light can help boost mood and productivity.

Watch something happy
During break time, skip snarky social media or depressing news and watch a couple of funny cat videos. Laughing out loud is good for the soul!

Give your eyes and body a break
Every hour, stand up, stretch and look outside or in the far distance. Move your body a bit or march in place for a minute to get the blood flowing.

3. Organize and Prioritize Your Work
Having managed different types of employees over the years, I can tell you that many people hate to create task lists, organize and prioritize their work. But I’ll let you in on a secret. When you use a simple organizational system, you will actually feel less overwhelmed and stressed out. Here’s why. 

A simple system will help you map out what you need to do each day, while keeping overall goals in mind. You won’t need to think about work once you leave the office, freeing your mind to enjoy your personal time. Here’s how to manage it.

Clarify Goals with your manager
Depending on the type of work you do, you may have daily goals from your manager, or larger objectives that take longer to fulfill. If they are longer term goals, print them out and post the page on a wall at your eye level. 

Keep a running to do list
Make a master list of all of the things that need to be done on a simple excel spreadsheet, with the task name, a column for the priority, when it’s due and notes. Assign priorities: 1 being highest, 2 being important and 3 important but can wait. Tasks can be grouped by project, if you are working on multiple projects at once.

Sort the spreadsheet by priority within the tasks, ascending from 1 to 3. can prioritize, you have to set clear objectives. 

Make a daily plan in advance
Each afternoon, spend a few minutes reviewing your task list and overall goals, making a plan for the next day in your calendar. Write a brief agenda for yourself reflecting the order that you plan to do tasks, focused on priorities and items that move your overall goals along.

Cross off, but don’t erase, any completed tasks. This makes a handy reference if your boss pops by and asks how things are going. You can say “I completed x, y and z, and now I am working on a and b.

While this planning might take a half hour to start, once you get into the habit, this will only take a few minutes.

Scheduling breaks is important, especially if you are the type of person that forgets to take any. Ideally, you want to stand up and stretch once per hour, and use breaks for a little more activity. Sitting for long stretches is not good for your health.

Schedule times to review and return messages. Avoid the temptation to constantly check or respond to messages throughout the day. It can be a huge time suck that takes away from actually getting project work done.

According to science, most people’s brains are most alert before 2pm, so do any critical analysis in the morning. Afternoon time is best for creative work. 

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4. Start Exercising (or Exercise More)
In addition to walking and stretch breaks during work, regular exercise is important outside of work. Aerobic exercise in particular can help relieve stress by releasing endorphins and improving mood. 

Light exercise, walking around the office or using the stairs, helps get blood flowing through the body. That, coupled with taking a few deep breaths can also help other ailments that may interrupt our workflow. 

Aim for a minimum of 30 minutes of activity each day to get the most benefit.

5. Eat Healthy and Nutritious Foods
Sometimes stress causes us to reach for unhealthy “comfort foods” at work. When under stress, our brains release a hormone called cortisol that increases cravings for salty, sweet or fat-laden foods to provide temporary pleasure. Unfortunately, these foods make us lethargic and only worsens our stress.

This does not mean you have to eat “rabbit food” every day. There are plenty of tasty foods and snacks that are great fuel for our brains. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Trail mix from home- Raw walnuts, raw almonds and low sugar dark chocolate chips
  • Blueberries
  • Low fat, low sugar Greek yogurt (like Oikos) with fresh raspberries and a tablespoon of granola
  • Individual snack pack of grilled chicken from Costco
  • Leftover salmon with leafy greens 
  • Loaded green salad from home, mixed greens and veggies like asparagus, tomatoes, cubed sweet potato (or quinoa), Greek olives, topped with kale chips and pumpkin seeds
  • Sprouted grain toast with avocado
  • Blanched broccoli and cauliflower with hummus (I like veggies cooked just a tad to bring out flavor but still crunchy, then chilled to eat as a snack)
  • Celery sticks with nut butter

Avoid these:

  • Foods high in fat like cheese and red meat
  • Foods high in refined carbs or sugar, which cause your energy to spike and crash
  • Caffeinated drinks like coffee and soda, which in inhibit your ability to sleep
  • Nicotine, a stimulant that can boost your anxiety
  • Alcohol, a natural depressant

If you love to snack like I do, make sure to pack healthy snacks you like to avoid the temptation of what may be available in the break room.

6. Shoot for Eight Hours of Sleep
The inability to sleep is a sign of stress, and can be a vicious cycle. A lack of sleep inhibits your ability to cope with stress, and increased stress causes insomnia. It is really difficult to reduce stress unless you have had enough sleep.

It’s also good to stick to a schedule–aim for the same bedtime and wake time throughout the week. Avoid sleeping in on weekends, as this has the adverse effect of throwing off your schedule. Also, “catching up on sleep” is not really as beneficial as a regular sleep pattern.

Turn off screens an hour before you want to be asleep. I admit I do read the news in bed on my iPad every evening and morning, but now I try to do that earlier in the evening and switch to a book later.

Some health experts recommend an afternoon catnap. I’ve never been a napper, and can’t see doing that at work. However, those that can successfully snooze for 15 minutes or so could benefit from improved mood, memory, alertness and mental acuity.

7. Adopt Some Mantras
Choosing to have a positive outlook can really help manage stress, and make you a happier person. When you start to feel negativity creep in, these three reminders may help you further manage stress.

Stay positive by expressing gratitude for the positive things in your life
Is there a person, pet or activity you cherish? It could also be as simple as appreciating having enough food to eat and a comfortable bed. Let go of the things that disappoint you, and do a daily affirmation of the positive things in your life.

Nobody’s perfect- learn from your mistakes
Failures and missteps in life don’t define you, unless you let them. In a work context, let go of the upset and regret and focus on what you have learned from the experience and how you could change your approach next time. It’s always good to try and do your best, but perfection is often not attainable or necessary.

Focus on what you can control
Stress, and its related cousin anxiety, often centers around things outside of our control. Focus on those things you can control, like how much effort you put in, having a good attitude when working on a team, and treating people with respect and fairness.

A certain amount of stress in the workplace is not all bad. It can help drive us toward deadlines and greater accomplishments. But when stress becomes debilitating and too much to cope with, please take it seriously and take care of yourself. If these tips to destress don’t work for you, seek professional help. A therapist can help you make a plan tailored to your own specific needs and work environment.

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