Is your job killing you? How to deal with workplace stress

For millions of Americans, workplace stress is a common issue. In fact, you may be stressed out at work so often it’s become the normal routine for you.

Before you resign yourself to a career filled with anxiety and worry, you should know there are ways to manage this stress, and you should take control before your health suffers the consequences.

How common is workplace stress? The American Psychological Association (APA) notes people experience stress at work so frequently that 65% of employees consider workplace stress the number one stressor in their lives, and at least one-third of Americans experience chronic stress on the job.

This means the majority of working individuals are suffering negative physical and emotional responses due to poor matches between the job and the needs, capabilities, and resources available to the worker.

What causes workplace stress?

There is no single cause of workplace stress, and what affects one person may not affect another.

If you’re dealing with stress on the job, it’s important to take a step back and try to identify the issues at hand so you know where to start when looking for solutions.

Workplace stress, according to the APA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is most often the result of:

  • Expectations of assignments, including overwhelming workloads, infrequent breaks, short deadlines, and meaningless tasks
  • Feeling a loss of control in a situation
  • Dangerous or unpleasant work conditions
  • Feelings of job insecurity
  • Lack of growth opportunities
  • Too many job responsibilities
  • Unclear work roles
  • Poor social environment
  • Low salaries

Many times, workplace stress is a culmination of multiple issues, and sometimes they may seem minor when you think about them individually. Poor lighting and a grumpy co-worker might not sound overwhelming, but pair those with job insecurity and unreasonable task expectations, and suddenly workplace stress skyrockets.

What are the health consequences of stress at work?

Ignoring workplace stress and just carrying on sounds like the adult thing to do, but you might not be so quick to make that decision if you realized just how job stress affects your health.

Initially, stress may manifest as just a feeling of dread, rapid heart rate, or minor mood swings toward a task at hand, but over time, it starts to take a toll on physical and mental health.

The CDC states that stress initiates a defensive action in the brain, which sets off a cascade of reactions within the body.

With stress, hormones release, muscles tense, heart rate elevates, and breathing deepens. This reaction, often called the fight-or-flight response, is intended to get the human body out of dangerous situations.  

In the short-term, a stress response doesn’t have any negative effects, but chronic stress keeps the body in a constant state of alertness, and eventually these biological reactions start to wear down the body’s systems.

Chronic stress can result in:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Erratic eating habits
  • Headaches
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Insomnia
  • Weight fluctuations
  • Depression
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Diabetes
  • Cancer
  • Decreased immunity
  • Substance abuse
  • Increased risk for work injury
  • Absenteeism

Shocked that workplace stress could cause such serious issues? Many of these health consequences are interconnected.

Depression, for example, can spiral into substance abuse, and erratic eating can lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other complications.  

Ultimately, the effects of stress can shorten your lifespan, so crack down on job problems before they start to wear you down.

What can you do to manage stress at work?

Luckily, “ignoring” isn’t on the list of ways to manage workplace stress. In fact, if you want stress on the job to diminish, you need to take a very active approach to the issues affecting you.

The APA makes the following recommendations for stress management:

  • Get support: Don’t bottle stress up. Talk to family and friends, and if you are feeling overwhelmed, talk to a mental health professional.
  • Talk to your boss: Policies and work expectations can’t change unless you talk to a superior about what’s going on. If your boss is a part of your job stress, consider talking to the next supervisor in line.
  • Establish boundaries: If you can’t be available 24-hours-a-day, make sure you are clear and firm in that boundary. Don’t feel bad about setting limits.
  • Learn how to de-stress: Deep breathing, meditation, and exercise can all be ways to defuse stress. Some, like deep breathing, can even be done on the job.
  • Use vacation time wisely: If you have vacation days available, space them out to help give yourself recovery time from long stints at work.
  • Find healthy responses to stress: Instead of grabbing a cigarette or donut when you’re feeling overwhelmed, make some tea or go for a short walk.
  • Improve your job knowledge: Being new to a job can cause stress. If you can take classes or brush up on the latest technology, it may be in your best interests to do so.

If workplace stress has gotten you to a point where your health is suffering, and your job performance is slipping, you may need to consider an employment change.

It’s not always possible to resolve problems with managers or co-workers, nor is it always possible to change job expectations and work environments.  If change within the workplace isn’t possible, consider looking at a personal change to a new company or organization.

Dealing with the “bad boss”

Let’s face it. Sometimes the people running the show can be a big part of workplace stress, and if you’re having trouble dealing with your boss, you aren’t the only one.

In 2015, a Gallup study found half of the people in the U.S. have quit their job at some point to get away from a boss.

So what can you do if you’re at odds with a manager? Try some of these tips from the Harvard Business Review:

  • Help your manager define problems so the solution becomes clear to everyone involved.
  • Build trust with your manager by completing tasks, or going above and beyond on occasion. With trust comes more freedom and less scrutiny.
  • Have a team meeting with your manager about his or her performance. There is strength in numbers, and calm discussions can solve a lot of workplace stress issues.
  • Try and see the situation from your boss’s view. Bosses often have to make the best decision for the company as a whole, and this may not always benefit the individual employee.
  • Be transparent about what you are doing, and what your job goals are. Managers want people they can trust and have no ulterior motives.
  • Focus on your boss’s strengths rather than weaknesses, and look for ways to use those strengths to your advantage.
  • Ask your boss for input on your great ideas.
  • Instead of arguing with your boss, allow him or her to experience a situation. For example, if you notice another employee is deliberately cutting corners, put the boss in a situation to see it for himself, rather than you just blowing the whistle on the situation.

In the end, if upper management won’t correct your boss’s ways, it’s up to you to find a way to do so, or to work around the issues. If you can’t do that, you may just need to move on to a new career or company.

Remember, you aren’t alone when it comes to workplace stress. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America states three-fourths of workers with job stress feel it carry over into their personal lives, and 7 out of 10 workers say job stress negatively affects the relationship they have with their significant other.  

Don’t let stress dictate how happy and healthy you are. In the end, you can always find another job, but you only get one body, and it’s up to you to keep it as healthy as possible.

Hope Gillette
Hope Gillette

Hope Gillette is a journalist from New York. She specializes in research journalism and has an extensive background in Hispanic health writing. Hope is also a published novelist and award-winning author, as well as a mixed martial arts expert and fitness trainer.