Levels of work stress are rising. According to a study conducted by Princeton Survey Research, three-quarters of people say they experience more job stress than they did a generation ago. Increased stress is a cause for alarm. When left unchecked, it affects a person’s life in a number of negative ways. Furthermore, research shows unmanaged work stress can result in the deterioration of physical and mental health. Additionally, stress experienced over an extended amount of time has been linked to cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, and strokes. A report published in BJPsych Bulletin also cites “The recent increase in work stress has been linked with the global and national recession, job insecurity, and work intensity, all leading to greater workloads and more interpersonal conflicts.”
Watching out for you and also your team’s health and well-being is a part of being a great leader. Ignoring or “powering through” stress only causes decreased energy, lack of motivation, loss of productivity, higher levels of conflict, and feelings of unhappiness and burnout. Moreover, none of the symptoms of unmanaged work stress help you effectively guide your team. Learn more about work stress, eight different strategies for fighting it, and how to help stressed employees, too.
Common Causes of Work Stress
Work stress occurs when a person experiences emotional or physical triggers in the workplace. Factors that bring on stress at work include but are not limited to:
- Fearing failure
- Working strenuous hours
- Attempting to meet unrealistic goals
- Losing important clients or accounts
- Suffering financial losses
- Keeping up the facade of perfectionism
- Having no work-life boundaries
- Feeling pressure to constantly meet metrics or suffer consequences
- Being micromanaged
- Lacking trust
Warning Signs of Stress
A person’s body and mind will present signs when going through stress. For example, some symptoms of work-related stress are:
- Increased work-related anxiety
- Decrease in patience
- Mood swings
- Changes in sleeping patterns
- Apathy and lack of focus
- Headaches, hypertension, and fatigue
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Rise in negative rumination (cyclical negative thinking)
- Lack of creativity
Tips for Managing Work Stress
Experiencing the symptoms listed above can make a person feel hopeless, overwhelmed, and out of control. Nevertheless, know that with the right techniques, stress is manageable. Working through the strategies below helps leaders keep their bodies and minds in a healthy condition so they can serve their team members, customers, and clients to the best of their abilities.
Get Curious About What’s Causing Stress
Start by getting curious about the cause of work stress. When you feel a negative shift in your mental and physical well-being, start digging into what’s bothering you. For example, a person could experience work stress because they’re saying “yes” to too much work. Stress can also occur when a person is not organized. Additionally, fear is a major cause of stress. Becoming aware of what’s stressing you out at work is the first step in finding solutions for managing your stress.
Whenever you’re feeling stressed, get out a journal or make a note on your phone or computer. First, create three columns: how you’re feeling, why you’re feeling this way, and what to do about it. For instance, this might look like:
|How I’m Feeling||Why I’m Feeling This||What To Do About It|
|Tired, anxious, grumpy, unenthus, and resentful.||The hours I’m working are too long. I have little-to-no work life balance. Still, the company can’t run without me.||Delegate out more tasks. Focus on high-value work. Create scalable systems. Train a team of leaders who can operate the company in my absence.|
Furthermore, make sure your list of solutions are action-oriented. This helps ensure you’re actively working toward shifting out of overwhelm and stress and into feeling more freedom and relief.
Stop Perfectionism in Its Tracks
When all of a person’s self-value becomes tied to their achievements, they set themselves up for a lot of work stress. Dr. Jan Philamon writes in an article for M1 Psychology perfectionists believe “people will not like them or accept them unless they are perfect . . . They focus heavily on their mistakes and take them as a sign of personal defects, which negatively impacts on their self-esteem.” She also says perfectionism is connected to depression and anxiety.
Mistakes, errors, and failures are unavoidable in business. Leaders model expectations, which is why it’s important to embrace, accept, and communicate failure. Instead of exhibiting or rewarding perfectionism, teach people how to rise when they fall. Every company should have a guidebook for handling setbacks. When you’re working through your own, start writing it. Identify limiting beliefs and fears, remember the revision process is endless if you allow it to be, and show your team what it’s like to own your mistakes when things don’t work out.
Ask For and Accept Support
Stress can amplify a person’s desire for isolation, which increases feelings of loneliness. While you might need some time to yourself, try to avoid closing off from others. Leaders need to stay connected and continue to build strong interpersonal relationships with their team and customers.
Don’t be afraid to tap into vulnerability and ask for help. Brené Brown, best-selling author of Dare to Lead describes asking for help as a “power move” and one of the best ways to build trust with others. When you’re suffering from work stress, seek out the people in your life who can serve as support. Opening up with someone about what you’re feeling is both soothing and productive. This person—a mentor, friend, or family member who knows you well—can also provide solutions for relieving the symptoms of work stress.
Practice Time Management
Losing control of your schedule can feel like losing control of your life. With strong time management skills, leaders can reclaim their time and decrease work stress. First, begin creating a focused list of high-priority work. One of the best resources for focus is working through The Eisenhower Matrix. Write down all the jobs on your plate, then categorize them into four sections:
- Do first—urgent and most important
- Schedule—not urgent but requires completion
- Delegate—urgent but assignable
- Eliminate—not necessary or essential
After this, eliminate and delegate the work in quadrants 3 and 4. When delegating work, it’s also crucial the company uses superior project management software. For more information on this, check out this article on the best project management tools.
Take a planning day or a few hours to schedule productivity time in the next week to work on jobs classified as “urgent.” This practice, called “time blocking”, provides an overview of your schedule and helps dictate what work to focus on and what to say “no” to.
Learn more about time management, here.
Delegate Out Duties
In a successful, scalable business, leaders can’t perform every duty. Because of this, make strategizing and planning the future of your company a top priority. As leadership expert John C. Maxwell says, “If you want to do a few small things right, do them yourself. If you want to do great things and make a big impact, learn to delegate.” Establishing trust with your team is essential to delegating work.
Maxwell also says in a blog on delegation, “If someone else can do a task at least 80% as well as I can, I give it to them.” But before delegating, he trains the team member to do the job as he would. Here, the performance of the task is modeled, explained, and expectations are set. Investing in developing leaders at every level is the best way to delegate jobs while building a team culture of trust. Teach team members how to think, act, behave, and BE a leader.
Take Enough Breaks
According to the U.S. Travel Association, U.S. workers had 768 million unused vacation days in 2018. This goes to show people are limiting the time needed to recuperate from mentally and physically demanding work. Dr. Marcus Raichle, a professor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis tells Time, “The brain is the most expensive organ we carry around with us.” His research shows that mental effort accounts for nearly 20 percent of a person’s energy consumption.
Aside from using vacation days, take short breaks from work throughout the day to reset your mind and body. For example, try meditating, yoga, exercising, or just taking a brisk walk to release endorphins and alleviate stress. Time for recovery should be treated as a top priority so intentionally plan breaks into your daily schedule. Give yourself the space you need for the restoration of your mind, body, and spirit. In addition to enhancing personal well-being, you will be re-energized and ready to give your all to the team.
Make Healthy Diet Changes
What a person consumes significantly impacts stress levels. An article for Scientific American explains, “Under acute stress the brain requires some 12 percent more energy, leading many to reach for sugary snacks.” Sugar is a quick fix for raising the serotonin and blood glucose levels the brain desires under chronic stress. Yet, sugary foods aren’t a substantial source of energy. They lead to reactive hypoglycemia—or more commonly known—a sugar crash. During a sugar crash, a person might experience irritability, fatigue, increased hunger, headaches, and lack of focus.
Instead of reaching for sweet treats during stressful moments, follow a balanced, healthy diet. Eating to restore the body and mind is one of the best ways to decrease stress.
When stressed, Dr. Josh Axe advises eating foods that are:
B Vitamin-Rich (for Increasing Energy)
- Raw or cultured dairy products (yogurt and sour cream)
- Cage-free eggs
- Free-range chicken
- Grass-fed beef
- Wild-caught fish (salmon, cod, or mahi-mahi)
- Leafy greens (kale, collard greens, cabbage, and spinach)
- Brewer’s yeast
High in Calcium and Magnesium (for Relaxation)
- Beans and legumes (pinto beans, kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas, and peas)
- Cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, and bok choy)
- Nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans, cashews, and macadamia nuts).
High in Protein (for Optimal Brain Functioning)
- Cage-free eggs
- Organic chicken
- Grass-fed beef
- Wild-caught fish
- Black beans
- Goat cheese
- Chicken or beef liver
- Cottage cheese
- Sprouted whole grain bread
Healthy Fats or Contain Omega-3 Fatty Acids (for Brain and Heart Health)
- Wild-caught fish (salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, and sardines)
- Nuts and seeds (walnut, flax seeds, chia seeds, macadamia nuts, and pumpkin seeds)
- Avocado, olive, and coconut oil
Get Plenty of Sleep
Work stress that results in sleeplessness is a serious issue. For example, inadequate sleep can lead to a weakened immune system, risk of cancer and heart disease, debilitated focus, memory loss, weight gain, and visible hair, skin, and nails issues. Tiredness deeply affects a person’s ability to contribute and excel at work. Furthermore, not getting a good night’s rest prevents leaders from modeling effective leadership.
First, try keeping a sleep diary to help you take note of your sleeping habits. It can help guide you toward a better night’s rest by tracking the conditions when you sleep the best and when you do not. Additionally, try biohacking methods like using blue light blocking glasses to avoid interfering with your body’s circadian rhythm and natural ability to produce melatonin. It’s also important to avoid screens for at least an hour before bed.
Great sleep hygiene habits prepare the mind and body for rest and can make a huge difference in alleviating stress. Get into a relaxed, peaceful state before attempting to sleep. This might mean spending an hour before bedtime practicing self-care such as taking a warm bath, reading, journaling, praying, or meditating.
For better sleep, Dr. Axe suggests using natural sleep aids such as:
- Eating foods for dinner that contain the amino acid tryptophan. This includes cage-free eggs, wild-caught fish, spirulina, pasture-raised poultry, raw or organic dairy products, grass-fed beef, bananas, potatoes, beans and legumes, and grains.
- Calcium-rich foods (seeds, raw milk yogurt, sardines, salmon, beans and legumes, nuts, collard greens, kale, and spinach).
- Magnesium supplements.
- Essential oils such as bergamot and lavender.
- Valerian root
- St. John’s-wort
What to Do When You Notice Visible Stress as an Employer
Leaders need to manage their stress so they can effectively guide and positively interact with their team. Yet, it’s also important for them to protect team members from unhealthy stress levels and burnout. When employees experience work stress, it can lead to a dip in productivity, decreased retention rates, absenteeism, poor team culture, and serious mental and physical health problems.
Here’s a few suggestions on helping employees suffering from work stress:
Set Boundaries and Expectations Upfront
Miscommunication causes conflict and stress in organizations. During the onboarding process, make sure new team members know exactly what they’re responsible for and how to do their tasks. Set expectations in-person and on paper so they have a reference. Additionally, inform them of behaviors and actions that are unacceptable. To do this, create clear company protocols for reprimands and termination. Should someone violate any of the core values guiding the company, take immediate action.
Acknowledge Noticeable Shifts in Behavior and Physical Appearance
Look for physical and mental shifts in employees that demonstrate signs of burnout such as tiredness, apathy, lack of drive, frustration, and overwhelm. Meet with those who exhibit these shifts to listen to what’s wrong and determine ways you can help. Don’t wait until a person completely crashes. Show up and offer your support as soon as you see a change in them. Let your people know you’re available to help them find solutions that protect their well-being.
Ensure key performance indicators (KPIs) are realistic, manageable, and agreed upon by the team member responsible for them. When goals don’t align with what an employee can accomplish in a given period of time, it creates the stress of trying to meet unreasonable expectations. For this reason, help employees set reasonable, yet challenging performance goals they believe are achievable. Visit this article for more information on creating great KPIs.
Show Appreciation and Gratitude
Consistently show team members you appreciate their hard work in helping the business fulfill its mission. Acknowledge employees’ contributions by verbally expressing gratitude for them. Additionally, show appreciation by providing rewards such as extra vacation days, gift cards, bonuses, or raises.
Many team members will try to power through burnout. Don’t let them. Give employees time to rest and recover so they can show up to work as the best version of themselves. Additionally, be a model for managing work stress, and teach them some of the skills you learned in this article.