Before you read one more word, I want you to take a really deep breath. Take air into your lungs as slowly as you can, breathing in through your nose, hold your breath for a count of four, then exhale slowly through your mouth until you feel like you can’t breathe out any more. Now do this four more times. Relaxed? Okay, good.
At this point, I want you to close your eyes and think about work for a moment. Mentally take yourself through a normal day on the job as you walk your mind through your typical job functions. Think not only about the duties themselves, but also the people you interact with along the way. Engage all of your senses as you hear the noises, smell the smells, and feel all of the things you would on any given “day at the office.”
Once you’ve visualized your work day, I want you to pay attention to how you feel. In other words, from the time you took those five relaxing breaths until the time you arrived at the end of your virtual work day, did you notice any changes in how you feel? Specifically, could you feel your anxiety and angst increase, right along with your blood pressure? Did your muscles tense up, causing you to feel discomfort in your neck, back, and shoulder areas?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, sadly, you are not alone. Stress is a major issue, particularly in the workplace.
Workplace Stress Statistics
In a 2011 Stress in the Workplace survey conducted by Harris Interactive in conjunction with the American Psychological Association, 1,546 Americans who were either self-employed or employed by someone else were polled about stress in relation to work. Based on the results, researchers discovered that approximately one-third of the people surveyed said that it was common for them to feel “stressed out” during the course of their work day.
Additionally, one out of five respondents also shared that “their average daily level of stress from work is an 8, 9, or 10 on a 10-point scale.” So they weren’t just dealing with a little bit of stress during their work day; they felt like they were under extreme amounts of pressure a majority of the time!
These are the kind of findings that cause The American Institute of Stress to report that “job stress is far and away the major source of stress for American adults.” According to the Institute, the main causes of stress at work include tension related to job workload (46%), “people issues” (28%), trying to balance home and work (20%), and job-related insecurity (6%).
Are you nodding your head yes because you’ve felt some or all of these yourself? If so, then you’re likely feeling the effects both mentally and physically.
Mental and Physical Effects of High Work Stress
In a recent interview with Matthew Clark, Ph.D., resiliency expert at the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program, Dr. Clark said, “We have found that when stress level is high, sleep is poor, energy is low, quality of life is poor, perceived health is low, people do not exercise and they turn to food for comfort.” Dr. Clark adds that another negative effect of high stress levels is that “people tend to be less present. So I am at work, but I am thinking about the stress in my life and not as focused or as effective as I could be.”
Research confirms these assertions as several studies have been conducted to assess the negative effects that stress has on a person’s life. They have found that chronic, unrelenting stress contributes to increases in blood pressure, artery damage, and the accumulation of plaque…all risk factors of cardiovascular disease. High levels of stress which continue over time also reduce immune cell function, leaving you more susceptible to the common cold, upper respiratory diseases, immunodeficiency viruses, and system inflammation.
Consistently high amounts of stress also affect you mentally. They put you at higher risk of depression, give you greater feelings of tiredness and fatigue, and overall contribute to a general lack of enthusiasm about life.
To make matters worse, not only does stress negatively affect your physical and mental health, but it also makes you less likely to look after your health to begin with.
Stress and Its Effect on Health Behaviors
For instance, Dr. Clark and eleven colleagues completed a study published by the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine just recently, in September of 2016. It took place from January of 2009 to December of 2013 and involved 676 participants, with the researchers looking at the relationship between each person’s levels of stress and his or health and wellness behaviors.
What they found was that the more stress the individuals were under, the less likely they were to engage in positive health behaviors. In this study specifically, it was noted that the persons with high levels of stress didn’t go to the wellness center (a center which provided fitness and nutrition programs, as well as programs designed to help reduce stress and tension) as often as their less-stressed counterparts.
Another study, this one conducted by members at the Department of Psychiatry at the Yale Stress Center, was published in Sports Medicine and it found the same. This one was a comprehensive review of 168 different studies involving stress and its effect on physical activity and the researchers found that three out of four studies reviewed were able to connect higher levels of stress with lower levels of physical activity.
In other words, the more tense you feel, the less likely you are to move around, further compounding your likelihood of possible health issues, as being sedentary hurts your health too. In fact, a lack of physical activity increases your risk of premature mortality according to one piece of research published in Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews, pointing to the fact that many studies have found a correlation between time spent sitting (mainly while watching TV or driving) and a higher rate of death due to all causes.
Breaking the Stress-Poor Health Cycle
So what are some things you can do to break the stress-poor health-stress-poor health cycle? Dr. Clark provides a few different alternatives to consider. As far as work goes, these include monitoring work hours and work load, taking time off for medical appointments and much-needed vacations, and engaging in stress management programs.
When thinking about stress and its effects on health, don’t forget to consider its impact on your employees’ health as well. Because tension is apparently so commonplace at work, the more you can do to relieve your staff’s work-related stress, the more it helps you in return as there are many benefits of having healthier, less-stressed employees. Among them are that these individuals are more productive, take less time off, are less likely to quit, and have better morale.
“We have found that having wellness champions, employees who support their coworkers with wellness activities, helps to make employees feel more supported and valued,” says Dr. Clark. “We all have stress at times, we all have work-related stress at times, so sharing ideas for stress reduction and monitoring our stress levels is important.”
What to Do If You Feel Stressed
Because stress impacts every area of your life, it’s imperative to find ways to reduce it—even when you’re not at work. Here are some ways to do that:
- Take time to breathe. Stress is a normal occurrence in life, so there’s no way to avoid it completely. Instead, you have to find ways to calm your body down when you start to feel your blood pressure rise and one extremely effective option is simply to breathe. Close your eyes and take some deep breaths (just like you did at the beginning of this article) to calm your body. You’ll feel better almost instantly when you do.
- Find a hobby you enjoy. It also helps to have a hobby, something you look forward to on days that seem to get under your skin. From tinkering with wood to landscaping to any other activity imaginable, if you enjoy it, then make it a point to do it often. Not sure which hobbies you’d like to do? NotSoBoringLife.com has a list of over 300 ideas, so take a look at it and see what you think. You’re sure to find at least one thing that piques your interest. When you do, commit to doing it. Often.
- Get your sleep. Stress has a way of escalating when you don’t get the sleep you need on a regular basis. Ideally, the National Sleep Foundation recommends somewhere between seven and nine hours a night. If you have trouble in this area, it helps to establish a sleep-inducing nighttime ritual such as playing soothing music while you read, meditating, or having a cup of warm tea or milk. Additionally, avoid the computer, spicy foods, or anything else that stimulates you versus relaxing you within a few hours of bedtime.
- Eat a healthy diet. We all know that eating nutritious foods is good for our waistline, but choosing healthier options also helps lower stress levels. That’s why the UK-based Stress Management Society suggests that you limit processed foods and opt for whole foods instead. Also consider choosing herbal tea over coffee, whole grain over white flour, and even slowing down when you eat as opposed to “gulping down food.”
- Keep it in perspective. When you feel overwhelmed it’s easy to have a “sky is falling” mentality. However, if this is how you think, everything becomes larger than life, adding to your stress levels even more. That’s why it’s so important to keep your stressors in perspective by not making them any bigger than they really are. This starts by not overdramatizing what’s going on or by using words that give the situation more power than it deserves (such as “I’ll never be able to handle the pressure!”). Remind yourself that you can deal with anything, as most life stressors are not actually life or death, that is, unless you let them be.
- Create a support system. No one says you have to go through work-related stress alone, nor should you. There are people who love and support you, making them the perfect individuals to include in a support system you can call on when you’re feeling tense. There is amazing benefit from having a coach, cheerleader, mentor, or simply someone who says, “It’s okay. I’m here for you.” Know who those people are and rely on them when you feel your stress levels rise. Talk to them and let them help you through the tough times. This helps you get rid of the stress while strengthening your relationships at the same time.
- Increase your physical activity. Most people correlate the need to exercise with weight control, but getting regular physical activity also aids in controlling stress. By regularly working out, you’re able to get rid of pent up emotions, causing your body to release feel-good endorphins too. You don’t have to do a full-body, high intensity workout to appreciate the effects either. A simple walk around the block is enough to help put you in a better frame of mind.
Don’t let stress deter you from a healthy life, a happy work life, or a happy life in general. Try these suggestions and you’ll notice that you feel better all the way around, making you wonder what took you so long to kick your stress to the curb…which is right where it belongs.