Rare is the job that’s truly low-stress. No matter what you do for a living, you’re apt to be worn down by your day-in, day-out duties.
Individual workplace stressors might vary—an unreasonable boss, toxic co-workers, unclear expectations, an unrealistic workload—but the net result is the same. You come home from work feeling totally drained of energy and dread the prospect of doing it all again in a few hours. Over time, you may lose your capacity to work productively, and your career could suffer as a result of stress.
And let’s not even talk about the health toll of workplace stress. Stress in our professional lives is correlated with all sorts of mental and physical health maladies, from depression and substance-use disorder to cardiovascular disease.
Fortunately, you can manage day-to-day stress at work using some simple, effective strategies.
Keep a “Stress Journal”
In a private notebook or document, write down every stressor you encounter over a period of at least two weeks. Record what happened, how you reacted, and how you would do things differently in the future if you could. No event is too small—a coworker’s passive-aggressive comment, a Friday-afternoon work dump that ruins your weekend, a misunderstanding about who was responsible for a particular deliverable. In this way, you can see your stressors and patterns and mindfully react differently in the future.
Embrace Transparency and Honesty in the Workplace
Well-managed workplaces run on transparency and honesty. These are often held up as “core values” for a reason—they keep everyone on the same page and help manage stress as a byproduct. “If it’s OK for the boss to confess when he or she is having a tough day, that automatically makes it OK for everyone else,” says Bob Goldwater, founder of the Birth Injury Lawyer Group. In other words, we’re all human, even if we’re supposed to leave our personal lives at home. Workplace culture should reflect that.
Set Work/Life Boundaries (Within Reason)
It’s not realistic to avoid work entirely outside the office. But you can protect your mental well-being by setting reasonable work/life boundaries when you’re off the clock—and letting the appropriate parties know you’re doing so. “No email or non-emergency calls after dinner” is a good rule, for example. Just remember to respect your own boundaries—this is the first step in your co-workers doing the same.
Reframe Negative Thinking
Stress is not all in your head. But changing your thought processes around workplace stressors really can make things easier to manage. This is the mode of thinking behind cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. This doesn’t mean you need to be relentlessly, unrealistically positive, either. “Toxic positivity” can often do more harm than good. You just have to consider alternatives to the worst-case scenario.
“Chronic stress and worry can lead people to develop a mental filter in which they automatically interpret situations through a negative lens,” write mental health experts Nicole J. LeBlanc and Luana Marques. “To reappraise negative thoughts, treat them as hypotheses instead of facts and consider other possibilities.”
Practice Mindfulness (Or Whatever Works for You)
A little meditation goes a long way. You don’t even have to call it meditation. Taking five or ten minutes to sit quietly, feel your breath, notice when your mind is wandering, and make a calm and conscious effort to reel it back in—that’s mindfulness in a nutshell. Work it into your daily routine, perhaps over your lunch break or when the workday is done.
Understand What You Can Control and What You Can’t
You know, deep down, that there are some things you can’t control. You’re not all-powerful.
But maybe your boss doesn’t think so. Or your clients assume you can move mountains when you’re barely capable of holding up a molehill. Such expectations are a root cause of perfectionism, which almost always does more harm than good. You’ll do much better in the long run, and feel far less stress at work, if you focus on what you know you can change for the better and let everything else take its course.
Clarify What’s Expected of You
Finally, limit the scope of possible stressors in your work life by clarifying your role and responsibilities. Ill-defined jobs are much more common than you’d think, but a conversation with your boss could change everything.
“If you find yourself never knowing if what you are doing is enough, it may help to have a talk with your supervisor,” says wellness coach Elizabeth Scott. “You can take the time to go over expectations and discuss strategies for meeting them.”
How Are You Managing Stress at Work?
These stress management techniques won’t change your life overnight. You’ll still need to head into the office (whether at home or HQ) every day. You’ll still have to navigate the same social and professional dynamics in the workplace. And your morning and evening routines will remain, perhaps with some much-needed modifications.
However, if you can consistently practice these techniques, you’ll notice a difference in your working life sooner or later. It might be hard to describe at first, but it’ll click eventually: You’ll find it easier to go about your workday without becoming overwhelmed by stress.
You deserve it. Now it’s time to make it happen.