Mind-Body-Spirit

7 Ways to Manage Work Stress

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By Henry Ford Health System Staff

Today’s employees are being charged with more tasks, more demands on their time, and fewer resources than ever before. Workplace stressors—from overflowing inboxes to managing expectations that you’re “on” 24/7 — are on the rise, while opportunities to blow off steam are few and far between.

“Pressure on American workers is at an all-time high,” says Eric Bacigal, who leads employee health and wellness initiatives at Henry Ford Health System. And yet, he adds, “The added pressure starts to feel normal and people adjust rather than recognizing their stress symptoms.”

The problem is that unacknowledged stress takes a huge toll. When your body is in stress mode, it’s tough to think creatively. Instead we overreact, burn out and fail to effectively problem-solve. It’s bad for you physically, too: Over time, uncontrolled stress can trigger heart palpitations and shortness of breath, among other symptoms.

Here, Bacigal offers 7 strategies to prevent stress from spinning out of control:

  1. Tune in. Monitor your reaction to workplace demands. Are you holding your breath, tensing your shoulders or straining your neck? Is your heart beating fast or are you breaking out in cold sweats? These are signs you’re in mental and physical overdrive. If your workload is so overwhelming that you have no time to take a break, exercise, or spend time with friends and hobbies, figure out what you can delegate, delay, and take off your plate.
  1. Plan ahead. It’s tough to come up with an effective plan to manage stress when you’re already overtaxed. A better strategy: Before a crisis hits, carve out time to figure out how you’re going to minimize stress. When you’re relaxed, you’ll be better equipped to develop a stress-busting plan. Simple techniques like a 5-minute meditation session, desk-side yoga stretches, even taking 3 deep, cleansing breaths can help put the spring back in your step.
  1. Retrain your brain. If you tend to replay your stressors on a loop in your mind throughout the day — I can’t meet that deadline, I have too many responsibilities, and I can’t do this (whatever “this” is) — try to become aware of those thoughts so you can break the pattern. Then replace negative thoughts with positive self-talk. Instead of saying “I’ll never get all this done,” say, “I already did so much!” Acknowledge what you’ve already accomplished. Learning to discipline your mind this way takes practice, but it’s remarkably effective.
  1. Ask for help. This may seem like a no-brainer, but for many people, it’s surprisingly difficult to reach out. But asking for help is a vital skill that can help you avoid burnout. When you offload some of your responsibilities, you not only enable others to contribute to the greater good, you also give yourself a chance to truly shine at your remaining responsibilities.
  1. Take a breather. When you’re feeling overloaded at work, the natural response is to work harder. Don’t! Ironically, one of the best things you can do is step away from your desk. Take a 10-minute break. Even simpler, just push back your chair, close your eyes and breathe deeply. Sometimes a simple mental break is all it takes to reboot your brain, helping you see the work differently and approach it from a new perspective, with fresh energy.
  1. Talk it out. When we’re in panic mode, we can’t think logically, and need an unbiased, outside source to help us get back to center. Confiding in a friend, your partner, or a trusted colleague can help you come up with solutions. Others can be a great reality check when we can’t see things clearly due to stress.
  1. Prioritize self-care. When work stress builds up, people tend to stop exercising, sleep less and grab food on the go to maximize their working time. The problem: Taking time to recharge is critical to your health, well-being and productivity. So whether you walk around the block in the middle of the day, take a 5-minute venting break or pause for a healthy snack, make time to take care of yourself both in the office and on your own time.

Many workers pride themselves on how well they manage stress. When life calms down too much, they may even draw themselves to another stressful situation. That’s a bad cycle to get into. To break it, ask yourself, what do you really get out of being stressed? Then allow yourself to really connect the dots — does it impact your sleep? Do you tend to get more colds and other illnesses? Are you prone to anxiety?

“Sometimes, we are motivated to do things differently when we’ve felt and seen the negative impact of stress. That’s when we recognize that help is available,” says Bacigal. “When you start to feel despair or are overwhelmed more days than not, those are good times to say, I really need to talk about this with someone else.”

Most important, if you’re experiencing physical symptoms of stress, such as stomach pain, heart palpitations, tightness in the chest and breathing difficulties, see a doctor to develop a treatment plan that addresses both the symptoms and the underlying stress. (And check out what this primary care doctor wants you to know about stress.)

You can also read more wellness advice in our FeelWell section, so subscribe to get all the latest tips.

To schedule an appointment with a primary care provider, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

Eric Bacigal is the Director of Employee Health, Safety & Wellness at Henry Ford Health System. He holds a master’s degree in clinical psychology and a postgraduate master’s certificate in human resources and development, and is an expert in cultural transformation, organizational change, conflict resolution, and employee engagement.