Managing Stress in the Workplace

Dr. Joseph McCloud
October 27, 2023
8 minutes

Work and stress are two things that always go hand in hand. 

Work isn’t always enjoyable, but for many people, workplace stress can cause severe harm to their health.

Stress in the Workplace Statistic

According to a recent ADP survey, nearly seven in 10 (67%) workers say they experience stress at work at least once a week, up 62% from pre-pandemic levels. One in seven (15%) feels severely stressed every day.

Chronic stress leads to health risks that include high blood pressure, clogged arteries, anxiety, depression, addictive behaviors, and obesity. It’s essential to understand how to develop a healthier relationship with stress in the workplace and not let work stress you out.

The Truth About Stress at Work 

Stress is necessary for workers to be productive. It diverts blood to your brain, gets your blood pumping, and gives us energy and motivation to get things done. 

While stress is a critical system in the body, an overly stimulated stress response leads to the stress response becoming "stuck." Increasing stress levels can result in constant activation of the sympathetic nervous system (your fight or flight response).  This can harm your mental health, emotional health and even result in a weakened immune system.

More importantly, this over-stimulation of the sympathetic response removes what is known as the “vagal brake.” The vagal brake is the normal counteraction of the stimulation caused by the fight or flight response that helps the body come back down to rest. 

The Yerkes-Dodson Law

The Yerkes-Dodson Law is an important law related to this concept, represented by the graphic above. It outlines the balance between rest and action needed to achieve what is known as “eustress,” the normal amount of psychological stress that is beneficial for the experiencer.

When individuals begin to make their way to the right side of the graph, the immune system becomes overly stimulated, which causes inflammation throughout the body. This level of inflammation in arteries, joints, and brain tissue leads to a dramatically increased risk for depression, anxiety, and an inability to focus. 

Overall, high levels of chronic stress will make it much more difficult to do good work and be a valuable contribution to your organization. 

The best workers are those that learn how to use stress to their advantage. By finding this sweet spot, you can create an energized, balanced, and motivated atmosphere within the body where you can thrive.

Finding that perfect level of eustress can help you have more energy, better focus, more motivation, and a richer zest for life. Learning to have a healthy work-life balance will allow you to harness the benefits of your natural stress response system. 

You need to train your stress response system to work for you, not against you. The goal here is not to fight stress, but to use stress to our advantage.

Rethinking Stress 

Your stress response system is something that can either serve you or deplete you, depending on how you perceive it. Some stressors will always be harmful, as life will always include hard times that cause us significant amounts of stress. 

The key here is to understand that while these may be severe in the short term, without them, how would you ever experience growth? Going one step further, can you begin to see these challenging experiences as making you feel more alive? 

Break the Cycle of Negative Thinking

As we mentioned, chronic, unrestrained stress is very damaging to pretty much every aspect of your health. If you want to re-balance your stress response system to begin to work in your favor, you first need to shift your mindset to one that accepts stress and utilizes it. Then, you can start to train your body to handle stress in a more balanced manner. 

Studies show that training your stress response system helps you be calm, cool, and collected and enhances your cognitive abilities, focus, energy, and immune system. 

You have a specialized ability as a human to take charge of the state of your mind and body and better manage stress. You will need to develop a healthy relationship with stress and train your mind and body to handle it more effectively.

Here's how you can do this:

Tips for Managing Stress at Work

Train Your Stress Response System 

Managing stress at work will be much easier if you first work to train your stress response system and identify stress triggers. Undergoing targeted training such as exercise, resistance training, cold therapy, and meditation can help balance your stress response system and give you more control over how you feel at work. 

Putting these training modes into your daily routine will help you learn how to view your stress from a fresh perspective and realize how much it has controlled you up to this point. As we will discuss, this goes a long way for approaching conflict more healthily, staying organized, and thriving under stressful conditions. 

As you train your stress response system, you can also use a biofeedback device that tracks heart rate variability (HRV) to keep track of your progress and how balanced your stress management system is becoming. 

Enhance Self-Awareness

Establishing a personal “center” and developing an awareness of where your stress levels lie at any given time is a crucial practice for managing work-related stress. If you don’t know how stressed you are, how are you supposed to know what to fix?

Self-awareness is having a good understanding of our motivations, behaviors, and feelings below the surface. Getting to know yourself better and learning to practice mindfulness and meditation enables you to make changes, develop new habits, and learn new skills. It will also help you handle stressful situations better and enjoy your personal life more thoroughly.

Self-Awareness Through Journaling

Make sure you set aside time to check in with yourself in your daily routine. You can do so through a quick meditation, simple deep breathing, or even a journaling exercise. Practicing meditation can have profound effects on your brain health, heart health, mood, and HRV scores.

As you cultivate self-awareness and enact self-regulation, you can also add some biofeedback monitoring to check your average HRV scores. These scores will enable you to look inside your physiology and see if the health of your stress response system is improving. 

Establish Clear Expectations 

If you want to minimize stress, you need to be realistic about how overworked you may be. Employees often overwork themselves when the requirements are unclear. Stand up for yourself and make sure your role is clearly defined and you’ve set realistic goals. Otherwise, how will you know what you’re supposed to do and how to accomplish it? 

Demanding clearly defined expectations and understanding your role are giant steps towards reducing stress in the workplace.

Improve Your Organizational Skills 

Poor planning and organizational skills can often be a metaphor for your relationship with stress at work (as well as for your mind!). If you do not stay organized and on top of your daily to-do's and responsibilities, you will likely lose track. Your inability to be efficient and confident in your contributions to the organization can quickly culminate in unnecessary and unhealthy stress. 

Be Careful with Conflict 

Conflict at work is an unavoidable circumstance in most cases. Rather than avoiding conflict at all costs, it’s better to approach conflict more healthily and reasonably. 

The brain often perceives conflict as a threat. It prepares the body for emergency response, releasing stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol - the classic fight or flight response. 

This response stimulates physiological effects such as increased heart rate and sweaty palms. It also impairs the ability to think clearly and rationally, which is why those in conflict often lose control and say things they regret. 

Cultivating a healthy stress response system can change this response. Having greater self-awareness can help break the cycle of negative thinking and open the door to controlling how you respond, rather than just simply reacting. Relaxation techniques, such as controlled breathing, can also help manage the stress response in real-time.

If ideas are going to work and efficiency is supposed to happen, people need to work together. There will inevitably be disagreements from time to time - which is why leading by example, keeping a calm head, and understanding other viewpoints as valid can create a much less stressful environment. 

You may need to learn to have more patience with your fellow workers and be more understanding. You may need to improve your organization and time management skills. 

Re-evaluating your idea of work-related stress and training your stress-response system will lead to greater productivity AND a better ability to manage stress. Finding that golden middle ground between too much stress and not enough challenge is the key to being the best worker you can be. 

If you want to achieve this, develop a healthy sense of self, keep your body and mind healthy, eat a healthy diet, and utilize the powerful insights that biofeedback wearables can provide you into the deeper workings of your physiology.