Where I mix career information and career decision making in a test tube and see what happens

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Reducing Stress on the Job

Constant workplace stress can take a physical toll: high blood pressure, ulcers, and a weakened immune system, among other woes. One study found that health-care expenditures are nearly 50 percent greater for workers who report high levels of stress compared to workers who report low levels. Workplace stress also causes work output to suffer, which reinforces the stress. Home life also suffers. A survey by the Anxiety Disorders Association of America found that of workers who said that stress affects their work, 81 percent said it interferes with their relationship with their spouse or significant other and more than a third said it affects their relationship with their children.

What can you do about workplace stress? My main advice would be to identify what is most stressful about your present work situation and shape your career-development efforts to change that. The process of change will itself create some stresses, but your goal can be to achieve a lower level of stress.

First, set priorities: You probably can’t defuse every stressful aspect of your work--unless you quit, which creates new stresses. So focus on the most severe stressors that you have the greatest likelihood of being able to change. Avoid perfectionism, which is a self-imposed form of stress; accept the fact that you make mistakes and view them as opportunities for learning. Be realistic about the goals you set for yourself.

Speak up: Often, your boss or co-workers can make adjustments to your work situation that may reduce or eliminate stressors. The key is for you to avoid whining and make the case that reducing the stress will increase your productivity. Ask for the resources you need and show appreciation for the support you get.

Put up a fence between work and the rest of your life: Avoid letting a cell phone or e-mail chain you to the workplace. Working partly at home can remove you from some office pressures, but it can also blur the line between work and free time. Cultivate friendships with people who aren’t co-workers.

Get organized: Sticking tightly (but not obsessively) to a schedule can prevent you from procrastinating and help you limit the amount of time you let yourself think about stressors. Deal with them when they’re scheduled, and then put them out of your thoughts. If you don’t have a job description, ask your boss for one. It will help you set boundaries on what is expected of you.

Exercise regularly: Leave time in your busy schedule for a workout of some kind. You may feel that stress leaves you too tired to exercise, but most people who take up a regular schedule of exercise finds that it invigorates them. It also drains away stress-induced hormones and contributes to your long-term health.

Eat sensibly and get enough sleep: Junk food and sleep deprivation can compound stress-related health problems. For example, caffeine and high-carbohydrate foods can increase the rush in blood sugar that stress produces.

Practice relaxation: Meditation techniques—even something as simple as slow, rhythmic breathing in a quiet setting—can help you decompress. Some people get similar benefits from extended prayer or a midday nap. Many people believe that bringing a pet to work is helpful (if the employer allows it).

Build a social life: Many people find the most rewarding time of the week is the time they spend with family and friends. Try to maximize these times. Social contacts distract you from workplace pressures and can provide support when you’re feeling blue. Meet like-minded people through volunteer work, a night class, a book club, a faith community, or a sports league.

Maintain a sense of humor: Try to find the humor in your situation. You can’t be afraid of something while you’re laughing at it. If you can’t find any humor in your workplace, find it in your leisure time.

If all of these strategies fail, you may decide that your best course of action is to leave your present job and find a less stressful situation. You won’t be the only person who is doing this; one survey found that almost one in five respondents had quit a previous position because of job stress. Another estimate is that 40 percent of job turnover is caused by stress.

The clearer your understanding of what you find most stressful in your present job, the easier it will be for you to identify a new position that avoids these stressors. Try to find a way to ask about potential stressors in your interview for the new job and, if possible, speak about them to people working for your prospective employer.

Sometimes, it’s not enough simply to change employers. What’s stressing you may be something essential to the nature of your occupation. Perhaps you’ve been able to tolerate the stressor for several years but have reached the point where you’re ready to move on to a different occupation--a second career or a retirement job.

If so, you may be interested in the occupations that I include in 150 Best Low-Stress Jobs.

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