13 Simple Steps for Taming the Strange Beast in Your Life

If someone asked you, would you be able to give a clear definition of job stress? More importantly, are you aware of how much job stress may be affecting your daily life?

Job stress is a strange beast! Most people have experienced it but would be hard pressed to explain exactly what it is. And many individuals are not even aware that they are experiencing job stress on a daily basis. Let’s explore this rather shadowy but ever-present beast and ways you might be able to tame it!

What exactly is job stress?

We have all heard about it and we have all felt its effects. But we usually don’t take a step back and ask ourselves what job stress is and how it affects our lives.

Job stress (also called “workplace stress”) is usually defined as the harmful physical, emotional, and psychological reactions that you experience when:

  • Your capabilities, resources, or needs do not match the requirements of your job very well
  • Your job places high demands on you but you have little or no control over the outcomes

How common is job stress?

Our world is becoming more complicated and our future is becoming more uncertain. So it’s no wonder that research is showing that stress in the workplace has been increasing over time:

  • A study done by a life insurance company found that 40% of workers reported that their job is “very or extremely stressful.” In addition, 25% of employees felt that their jobs contributed to their stress more than anything else.
  • A non-profit organization studying workplace stress found that about 25% of workers feel they are “often or very often burned out or stressed by their work.”
  • A survey conducted by a research organization indicated that 75% of people believe that workers today experience more on-the-job stress than workers a generation ago.
  • A Gallup Poll found that 80% of people experience job stress and that almost half of all employees feel that they need help in coping with this stress.

So if you are feeling stressed out at work, you’re not alone!

Some jobs are inherently more stressful than others. No one would argue that jobs involving danger, like police and firefighter work, create stress. And it’s clear to most people that high demanding jobs, like customer service and healthcare work, also entail lots of stress.

But did you ever think that repetitive, detailed work is stressful? Research studies indicate that manufacturing jobs and other work involving detail and repetition can be very stressful to most people.

It appears, then, that stress is not limited to certain jobs or industries. It shows it’s threatening face just about everywhere you look!

What are the warning signs of job stress?

Although a little stress at work can actually motivate you and keep you on your toes, prolonged job stress in heavy doses can damage your physical and mental health. That’s why it’s important to put it on your radar so that you can keep it under control.

It’s easy to get caught up in the nitty-gritty of your life and to overlook evidence that job stress is seriously affecting you. You may be feeling that things aren’t quite right, but you may not question why you feel so out of balance.

Any combination of the following symptoms or “warning signs” might indicate that you are experiencing excessive stress at work:

Physical Symptoms

  • Fatigue / sluggishness
  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Stomach problems
  • Sleeping problems
  • Chronic health problems

Psychological Symptoms

  • Anger
  • Frustration
  • Irritability
  • Impatience
  • Negativity
  • Cynicism
  • Mood swings
  • Apathy / loss of interest
  • Boredom
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Alienation / social withdrawal

Behavioral Symptoms

  • Conflicts with family, friends, and co-workers
  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs
  • Absenteeism or being late for work

Of course, you may also be experiencing stress in other areas of your life besides work. Regardless of its source, prolonged stress can be debilitating and can have serious consequences if you don’t take any corrective action.

What are the causes of job stress?

There are two main schools of thought regarding the causes of workplace stress. The first theory focuses on internal factors (or “worker characteristics”), and the second theory focuses on external factors (or “working conditions”).

The theory that emphasizes what’s going on inside of us argues that we are all different and that the things that are stressful for one person may not be stressful for another. This school of thought calls attention to our “individual differences,” such as personality traits and our coping skills.

The second theory states that certain external (or environmental) conditions, such as the following, inherently induce stress:

  • Fear of losing one’s job
  • Excessive workload demands
  • Pressure to meet deadlines
  • Pressure to work at optimal levels at all times
  • Pressure to meet increased expectations
  • Lack of control over work-related decisions and outcomes
  • Unclear or conflicting job expectations
  • Inadequate work direction or supervision
  • Dangerous working conditions
  • Demanding or angry customers
  • Excessive overtime
  • Changing work hours or rotating work schedules
  • Inflexible work hours
  • Frequent emergencies demanding immediate response

It seems that both theories have something important to say about job stress. On the one hand, you will be in a better position to deal with stress if you understand your own personality traits and what makes you feel stressed out.

On the other hand, if you are aware of the common environmental factors that contribute to job stress, you may pay more attention to them and recognize when they are affecting you negatively.

What things might stress you out on a brand new job?

Most individuals feel greater stress whenever things change in their lives. It’s typical for someone to get more anxious when they get married, have a baby, move into a new house, or start a new job. Feeling overwhelmed by these things is quite normal mostly because change involves uncertainty and confusion about what the future has in store for us.

Learning how to become successful on a new job can be very stressful at times. The job itself has its challenges, and it places certain demands on you. But the degree of stress that you experience on the job will depend primarily on how you look at things and how you cope with expectations and difficulties.

The first couple of months on a new job may be the most difficult for you because you may not be completely confident in your ability to complete your job tasks. At first, the job may feel overwhelming and you may question whether or not you are doing things correctly. As you become more familiar with the technical aspects of the job, however, your self-confidence will grow and you will experience less stress over time.

Sometimes stress is self-imposed because you feel that you shouldn’t get stressed out and because you think that you are the only person having problems. It’s important to remember that most people feel some kind of stress during the first few months on a new job. Stress simply comes with the territory!

How can you reduce job stress in your life?

Although people experience job stress in one way or another, everyone seems to handle it differently. How you cope with stress can make a big difference to your productivity, safety, and overall well-being at work and at home.

Your ability to manage your own stress can make the difference between success or failure on the job. And reducing your job stress can significantly increase your job satisfaction and improve your relationships with co-workers and managers.

You can do a number of things to reduce stress on the job and enhance your work life. But the first step in fighting stress is to take responsibility for your own physical and emotional well-being. If you don’t do anything about stress you experience, whether it’s coming from your job or other areas of your life, it’s not likely to evaporate on its own.

If you find that stress at work is affecting your job performance or is making you feel less satisfied with your job, it’s time to take action. The better you feel physically and psychologically, the stronger you will be to combat the ongoing onslaught of stress.

Try several of the stress-reduction techniques indicated below. Even changing some small things in your life can make a big difference in the amount of stress you are experiencing. As you make more positive choices, you will soon notice that you are able to manage your own stress and feel better about your work and home life.

1. Talk to someone you trust.

If your stress is overwhelming and your anxiety is out of control, ask someone you trust to help you. Simply talking about your fears and worries with a spouse, friend, supervisor, or co-worker may significantly reduce your stress. Getting support and understanding from someone you trust often opens up new avenues for taking positive action to address stress in your life.

2. Take a short break.

If you notice that you are having problems with stress on a particular day at work, take several short breaks to clear your mind. Taking a brisk walk or closing your eyes and relaxing for a few minutes often helps. Sometimes merely focusing on something else for a brief moment can reduce stress almost immediately.

3. Exercise regularly.

Nothing seems to have a more immediate effect on stress than aerobic exercise (e.g., running, biking, swimming). When you exercise, substances (called “endorphins”) that are released in the brain induce a sense of well-being and satisfaction. Try to get at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise (i.e., the kind that makes you sweat a little) three or more times per week to boost your energy, lift your spirits, calm your nerves, and relax your body.

4. Take time to relax every day.

When you are feeling anxious and stressed out, you often forget about relaxing. One of the best ways to deal with stress is to introduce at least 20-30 minutes of relaxation into your daily routine. This means finding a quiet place away from distractions where you can be alone. Lie down or sit comfortably in a chair, close your eyes, and go to a place in your mind’s eye where you can relax and feel at peace. By using this type of relaxation technique, you will be able to decrease your anxiety, reduce muscle tension and pain, and improve your moods around other people.

5. Use your diaphragm to breathe.

Breathing slowly and deeply with your diaphragm (i.e., belly) is one of the easiest and best ways to control anxiety created by stress in your life. The purpose of breathing is to get oxygen into the cells of your body and to eliminate waste products.

The brain is particularly sensitive to oxygen, and even small dips in the amount of oxygen getting to the brain can make a big difference in how you feel and behave. For example, when you get angry, your breathing is probably shallower and faster, reducing the oxygen content of your blood. Subsequently, your brain will have less oxygen, making you more irritable, impulsive, confused, and possibly violent.

If you are like most adults, you are probably breathing almost completely from the upper part of your chest, which means that your breathing is shallow and that your brain is not getting enough oxygen.

To learn how to breathe more effectively and to reduce your level of anxiety, lie on your back and place a small book on your belly. Make the book go up and down by breathing with your diaphragm. Correct negative breathing patterns by practicing diaphragmatic breathing for 5-10 minutes every day until you get the hang of it and do it naturally throughout your day.

6. Get enough sleep every night.

It is clear that sleep is critical for optimal brain functioning. Research has shown that insufficient sleep results in mood instability, reduced cognitive ability, irritability, and periods of confusion. When you are sleep-deprived, it is much more difficult to stay emotionally balanced and to handle stress on the job. Make every effort to get at least six to eight hours of sleep every night.

7. Eat healthy foods.

Diets high in protein (e.g., lean meats, eggs, low-fat cheeses, nuts, legumes) and rich in complex carbohydrates stabilize blood sugar levels and also help people feel more energetic and focused.

Unfortunately, most individuals have a diet filled with simple sugars (e.g., candy, cake, pastries, ice cream) and simple carbohydrates (e.g., white bread, pasta, white rice, potatoes). This kind of diet results in depression, negativity, lethargy, mental fuzziness, and poor concentration.

Be sure to eat complex carbohydrates (e.g., whole-grain bread or crackers, brown rice) and to stay away from simple, refined carbohydrates. Also, don’t go too long without food because low blood sugar will make you feel anxious and irritable. Finally, make sure you balance your high-protein diet with healthy portions of vegetables.

8. Drink alcohol in moderation.

Drinking alcohol may temporarily reduce your worrying and anxiety. But too much alcohol on a regular basis can actually increase your feelings of stress. In addition, if you drink alcohol to relieve your job stress, you may be going down the path of alcohol abuse and dependency.

9. Avoid caffeine and nicotine.

Both caffeine (in coffee, black tea, and certain sodas) and nicotine significantly decrease blood flow to the brain. This only worsens anxiety. Smoking when you are feeling overwhelmed and stressed may seem calming, but nicotine is a powerful stimulant that actually increases levels of anxiety.

10. Increase your “emotional intelligence.”

You can improve your stress management skills by learning more about your emotions and using them in constructive ways. “Emotional intelligence” in the workplace involves the following four components:

  • Self-awareness (recognizing your emotions and how they affect you and others). By becoming more aware of your own emotions, you will be in a better position to know when you are experiencing stress and what you can do to cope with it.
  • Self-management (controlling your emotions and behavior). If you learn how to stay in charge of your internal emotional experience at all times, you will become more self-confident and self-controlled.
  • Social awareness (understanding and responding appropriately to other people’s emotions). You can avoid stressful situations with others at work if you recognize and effectively use nonverbal communication cues (e.g., eye contact, facial expressions, tone of voice, posture, gestures).
  • Social management (relating effectively to other people and managing conflict). Stress in the workplace is drastically reduced whenever you are able to address conflict with others through effective listening, cooperation, and shared humor.

11. Work on your bad habits.

Sometimes the stress you experience at work is self-imposed by self-defeating behaviors. For example, you may be the kind of person who puts undue stress on yourself because you want to do everything perfectly. You are bound to feel overwhelmed and stressed at times if you have unrealistic expectations or try to do too much.

12. Control your negative thoughts.

Your overall emotional state of mind depends essentially on the kinds of thoughts you have. Thoughts release certain chemicals in the brain, and these chemicals have a dramatic effect on how you feel. Angry, sad, and cranky thoughts release certain chemicals that make your body feel bad. And happy, hopeful, and compassionate thoughts release other chemicals that make your body feel good.

Your brain translates your emotional states into physical states of relaxation or tension. Negative thoughts result in your body being tense and distressed. Positive thoughts result in your body being relaxed. If you generally have pessimistic or gloomy thoughts, learning how to control them will help you deal more effectively with stress and anxiety in your life.

13. Learn to be more organized.

If you are disorganized, you may be experiencing stress because you feel like you are losing control in your life. If organization does not come naturally to you, you many need to take extra steps to learn how to become more organized in your daily affairs.

If you are having problems keeping things organized, consider the following suggestions:

  • Establish clear goals for all aspects of your life and write them down. While looking at your list of goals, ask yourself the following question every day: “Are my decisions and actions getting me what I want in life?” This exercise will help you manage your time in a way that is consistent with your interests and goals.
  • Make a daily list of things that need to get done and cross things off this list once you have completed them. Be sure to attach deadlines to your tasks.
  • Prioritize your projects. You might want to do unpleasant tasks first and make your pleasant tasks your rewards for completing things you don’t feel like doing.
  • If a task seems overwhelming to you, break it into smaller tasks. Taking small steps will eventually get you where you want to go.
  • Take the time to keep your work area organized. If you procrastinate, your physical space will just keep getting more and more disorganized.
Author's Bio: 

Barry Farrell is an organizational psychologist who has provided management consulting for over 35 years. Visit GreatBizTools to try some free BizTools and to register for a free 15-day trial of WebAssess, an online testing system.