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Workplace Stress: 8 Tips to Cope and Avoid Burnout

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Stress is often referred to as the “silent killer.” When you experience chronic stress, you might feel tired and irritable and even experience panic attacks. But worse, if chronic stress goes on, research suggests1 it can harm memory and increase your chance of heart attacks2, heart disease, and strokes. Stress is no joke!

If your workplace has become a source of constant and overwhelming stress, it may be time to make changes.

In this article, we’ll help you notice the signs of excessive stress, explore the common causes of workplace stress, and give tips on how to de-stress your work life.

What is Workplace Stress?

Workplace stress is the emotional strain someone feels when their job demands more than they have the capacity for. 

It can look like:

  • Juggling deadline after deadline, where the finish line seems to stretch further away with each step.
  • Handling a stack of tasks that keeps piling up with no extra pairs of hands in sight.
  • Navigating the delicate dance of office dynamics, where every step requires grace and strategy.
  • Feeling the tremor of job uncertainty, where every achievement is overshadowed by “what-ifs.”

Positive vs Negative Workplace Stress

Not all workplace stress is bad.

Positive stress in the workplace (called “eustress”) can boost growth and engagement. 

For instance, the pressure before a deadline might ramp up your focus and drive, resulting in a sense of achievement and a well-done job. Similarly, preparing for a presentation might be stressful, but it also pushes you to master new material and sharpen your public speaking skills, which can be exhilarating and rewarding.

Negative stress, on the other hand, occurs when the demands consistently outpace your ability to cope, leading to a drop in performance and job satisfaction. 

Imagine being assigned project after project without adequate time or support, leaving you chronically overwhelmed. Or consider the strain of working in an environment with constant miscommunications that leave you in a swamp of endless conflict. These scenarios can lead to a detrimental level of stress.

Pay Attention to These Signs of Chronic Stress

Research suggests3 that a little bit of stress is good for you. It can keep you alert and engaged. But if that stress returns unrelentingly daily, it can lead to physical symptoms. 

Below is a list of signs to pay attention to. If you’re exhibiting several of these symptoms2, then it might be time to find a way to dial down your stress levels.

  1. Sleep problems: Insomnia, frequent awakenings, or restless sleep.
  2. Fatigue: Chronic tiredness, not alleviated by sleep or rest, affects mental and physical well-being.
  3. Difficulty concentrating: Challenges in sustaining attention on tasks or frequent distractions, making productivity suffer.
  4. Decreased libido: A reduced interest or desire for intimate activities.
  5. Panic attacks: Sudden intense episodes of fear or anxiety, often accompanied by rapid heartbeat, sweating, or a feeling of impending doom.

If you feel concerned over some of your stress-related symptoms, you could consider seeking support from a professional counselor to help you get back on track. 

Here is a great repository to find online support.

The Most Common Causes of Workplace Stress (and How to Handle Each!)

In our professional lives, not just the big, glaring challenges can weigh us down. Often, it’s an accumulation of smaller, consistent stressors that chip away at our well-being and motivation over time. 

Identifying these sources of tension is the first step in crafting a balanced, fulfilling work environment. Let’s unpack some of the most prevalent culprits behind workplace stress and explore actionable steps to navigate them.

Stress and burnout go hand in hand. And if you’d like to dive deeper into fighting burnout, you might appreciate this free goodie:

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Unclear expectations

Have you ever had the experience of getting an assignment from your boss that made sense at first, but when you sat down to get started, you realized you felt clueless about what they wanted you to accomplish?

These situations can be stressful because you feel like you are doing bad work and might disappoint your boss. Or you might feel like you’re putting your efforts in the wrong direction and wasting time.

Either way, uncertainty can lead to stress when you need more clarity about what to do at your job.

Action Step: If you don’t feel 100% clear on an assignment or responsibility, ask questions until you do.  

You can also set up regular meetings with your supervisor to ensure you are on the right track.

Overwhelming workload

Carrying a heavy mountain can weigh on you over time.

If your work expectations are too large, your options are to work more hours to get your tasks done or stick to your work-life boundaries and feel like you need to catch up. Neither option is sustainable.

I have a friend who has a coveted job at a prestigious finance company. However, he has consistently worked 60-80 hour weeks for years. He’s let go of most of his hobbies and cut his sleep to 5 hours a night to make time for everything. It wasn’t until his child was unexpectedly admitted to the hospital, and he couldn’t see her because he was working, that he got the wake-up call that something needed to change.

If your workload feels too heavy, you can catch it before it burns out.

Action Step: Have an honest conversation with yourself about how much you can consistently work a week and still feel alive and well. Then, speak with your supervisor and candidly share your limits and concerns. 

No space between work and home life

When the line between professional responsibilities and personal downtime becomes blurred, it’s like being on-call 24/7. 

The inability to detach from work robs one of personal relaxation and strains relationships and personal pursuits outside of work.

When you light a candle, you eventually get used to its scent and stop smelling it. But if you leave the room for 10 minutes and then return, you can smell the candle’s scent again with a renewed nose. The same is true of work. You must take a break to renew and restore yourself.

Action Step: Designate clear boundaries between work hours and personal time. Are there days of the week you want to ensure that your work email stays closed? Or times of the day?

For many people, it can be helpful to set a personal rule not to engage in any work-related tasks (or even thinking!) on weekends and weekdays between 7 p.m. and 9 a.m.

Clarify your boundaries and write them down to make them official.

Toxic coworkers and conflicts that won’t go away

Human interactions are the heartbeat of any workplace, but when disagreements arise, or persisting tensions exist, the ambiance can quickly change from collaborative to corrosive. 

These strains are not just professional; they ripple into personal well-being, making every workday seem like an emotional minefield.

This study4 suggests that workplace conflict, especially with one’s supervisor, correlates with increased physician-certified sick leave.

Years ago, I worked as a landscaper, and my manager struggled with anger management. He was going through a particularly trying period in breaking up with his wife and relapsing into alcoholism. All this made it genuinely challenging for him to control his anger. 

As much empathy as I had for his situation, it was remarkably stressful to know that any minor mistake I made in trimming a bush could result in him losing his temper and berating me. While this was a valuable experience for me in conflict resolution, it also brought an unpleasant amount of stress into my life.

This example may seem extreme, but if someone in your workplace is a constant source of negative emotion for you, then the conflict may permeate stress into the rest of your life.

Action Step: Your options are to get as much space as possible from the person at work or resolve the conflict. If you go with option A, you could ask to be transferred to another team. If option B, consider asking for external support to help mediate your situation.

Additionally, here is a more comprehensive guide on dealing with toxic coworkers. 

And below is a great video on handling difficult people at work.

Worrying, “Will I lose my job today?”

The lurking shadow of uncertainty regarding one’s position or the company’s future can be an ongoing source of anxiety. This stress is profound, affecting not just daily tasks but also one’s long-term outlook and mental peace.

I used to write content for a YouTube channel, and for a while, we had no formal agreement over how many scripts I’d write. I always felt that it could be my last if I stumbled on any given script.

Once I noticed this source of stress, I negotiated a deal with my boss where he’d hire me for eight scripts at a time, and then we’d explore if we both wanted to renew or not. This dramatically lifted the weight of anxiety and made me feel more safe.

Might there be any shifts you can make to give yourself the feeling of more safety and stability?

Action Step: Engage in open dialogue about your job security concerns with your manager. Ask for honest feedback on what you could do to increase your security. It might mean taking on new skills and responsibilities or negotiating a new agreement. 

Lack of support

Imagine being asked to light up a room without a bulb and or being asked to set the electricity up for a room without knowing how electricity works. 

Without the necessary tools, resources, or support, even the most enthusiastic employees can feel stranded, hampering their ability to deliver efficiently.

Years ago, I worked as a data analyst, and I remember when I was new on the job, I’d receive assignments for complicated SQL queries (which are formulae you enter to get data from a database) without really knowing what I was doing. I remember the panic that would arise at doing it wrong, falling behind, or being unable to figure it out. 

Thank goodness a SQL sage in the office named Ryan Minato took genuine pleasure in guiding lost SQL souls like myself back on track. Had he not been there, I may have perished from the stress.

Action Step: Do you feel unsupported, underresourced, or under-knowledgable for some of your job? Request a meeting with your boss and let them know, asking for some help to get you feeling capable.

Financial scarcity

Oof. This is a big one. You aren’t making enough money. You may have student loans or credit card debt. Or perhaps you never learned how to save money, and no matter your paycheck, your bank account always hovers around zero.

The experience of financial scarcity can give an existential weight to a decision as simple as if it’s worth the extra $1.50 for the large french fries.

It can be difficult if you work hard and feel like you aren’t getting paid enough. Then, you might feel undervalued and could become resentful. Over time, the financial strains and perceived lack of appreciation can eat away motivation and well-being.

Action Step: If you feel underpaid, research industry-standard compensations for your role, and if you find a disparity, consider initiating a conversation with HR or your supervisor. 

And if you feel scarce and have never learned habits on how to save money, consider checking out this timeless book. 

Endless Deadlines

One survey5 found that deadlines were the top contributor to workplace stress. Though consider that not all deadlines create stress, some offer accountability. 

Deadlines can be highly stressful when they create a sense of perpetual urgency. Continually working under such pressures, especially when deadlines seem to overlap or are perceived as unrealistic, can make employees feel like they are constantly running on a treadmill that never slows down.

Action Step: If you have deadlines and feel you can’t keep up with them, try breaking your tasks down.

Start with a clear list of all tasks related to the deadline. Categorize them based on urgency and importance. Allocate specific blocks of time to each task, ensuring that you tackle the most critical ones first, and set short breaks in between to recharge. 

What Employers Can Do To Make Their Workplace Less Stressful

As an employer, creating a less stressful workplace isn’t just good for your employees and your company! 

Studies suggest6 that there is an inverse relationship between stress and productivity. In other words, the more stressed your employees are, the less productive they’ll be.

See if any of these tips feel like a good fit.

Promote work-life balance

Encouraging employees to balance their professional responsibilities and personal lives is vital for their well-being. Overwork can lead to burnout, decreased productivity, and heightened stress levels.

Action Step: Try one of these ideas:

  • Implement flexible working hours
  • Offer opportunities for remote work
  • Monitor employees’ hours to ensure that employees aren’t consistently working beyond their designated hours
  • Ensure that employees take at least 3 weeks of vacation per year

Create a space for stress-based feedback

A culture where employees can voice their concerns, provide feedback, or discuss challenges without fear of reprisal can significantly reduce workplace stress.

It can be especially powerful to ask your employees how their work stress levels are going. 

It can be challenging and scary for many employees to tell their employers that they are burning out, so if the employer initiates the conversation, this can go a long way.

Action Step: Hold regular check-ins or open forums where employees can discuss challenges and seek solutions. It can be a game-changer if you ask, “How have your feelings of stress at work been recently? Be honest, I want to know.”

Provide wellness programs and mental health resources

Supporting employees’ mental and physical health is a proactive approach to reducing job stress. It conveys the message that their well-being is a company priority.

Action Step: Introduce wellness programs that include gym memberships, meditation sessions, or counseling services. Ensure that employees are aware of available mental health resources and feel comfortable accessing them.

You might appreciate this article if you’d like more ideas on creating an employee wellness program. 

Frequently Asked Questions About Workplace Stress

What is workplace stress, and how does it affect employees?

Workplace stress refers to the physical and emotional responses an employee feels when job demands exceed their capacity to manage them. This stress can lead to decreased job satisfaction, reduced productivity, impaired decision-making, and potential illness and health problems.

What are the common causes of workplace stress?

The common causes of workplace stress include excessive workloads, tight deadlines, interpersonal conflicts, and a lack of work-life balance. Each can contribute to feelings of overwhelm and fatigue in the workplace.

How can I identify if I am experiencing excessive stress at work?

It may indicate excessive work-related stress if you’re experiencing symptoms like constant fatigue, irritability, lack of concentration, or feeling overwhelmed. It’s essential to recognize these signs early to address the root causes of stress and find coping strategies.

What are some effective strategies for managing workplace stress?

Effective strategies for managing workplace stress include practicing time management techniques, incorporating mindfulness exercises, and setting clear boundaries. Adopting these approaches can alleviate the pressures of daily job demands.

How can employers contribute to reducing stress in the workplace?

Employers can significantly reduce stress in the workplace by promoting a work-life balance, offering employee support programs, and encouraging open communication. These initiatives foster a positive and supportive work environment.

What are the long-term effects of workplace stress on mental and physical health?

The long-term effects of workplace stress on mental and physical health can be severe, ranging from anxiety and depression to cardiovascular diseases and weakened immune systems. Chronic, unmanaged stress can significantly impact overall well-being and quality of life.

When should I seek professional help for managing workplace stress?

If workplace stress becomes persistent, affecting your daily life and health, it’s time to seek professional help. Intervention from a therapist or counselor can provide coping techniques and solutions tailored to your specific needs.

Takeaways on Workplace Stress

Remember these workplace stressors and the tips to navigate each.

  • Unclear expectations. Seek clarification and consider regular check-ins with your supervisor.
  • Overwhelming workload. Reflect on a sustainable work week for you and communicate your concerns with your supervisor.
  • There is no separation between work and personal life. Set clear boundaries for work hours and personal time, and stick to them.
  • Toxic coworkers and unresolved conflicts. Try to distance yourself from the problematic person or seek mediation to resolve the issues in your strained interpersonal relationships.
  • Fear of losing your job. Talk with your manager about your job insecurity and ways to improve your situation.
  • Lack of support. Identify areas you need help in and communicate them to your boss, seeking guidance or resources.
  • Financial scarcity. Research industry-standard salaries for your role, discuss discrepancies with your HR and educate yourself on money-saving habits.
  • Deadline after deadline. Organize your tasks based on urgency and importance, allocate time efficiently, and ensure regular breaks for rejuvenation.

Best of luck in managing your stress. This may be a challenging period to get through, but you got this!

And if you’d like a few exercises and ideas on how to relate to your stress, you might enjoy this article.

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