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June is National Safety Month! Every week, Neumann Safety Manager James Machamer will share industry insights to promote National Safety Month and help foster a safer work environment. This week’s topic is Managing Workplace Stress.

Stress. The word itself may be enough to set your nerves on edge. The American Institute of Stress (AIS) reveals that 80% of individuals experience stress on the job, and nearly half say they need help to manage their stress. Everyone feels stressed from time to time and copes with stress differently, and it’s important to know your limits to avoid more serious health effects.

What is Job Stress?

Job stress is physical, mental, or emotional tension in response to perceived demands and expectations in the workplace. An employee’s stress levels can be influenced by relationships with co-workers, supervisors, and managers, and prolonged stress can lead to poor health and injury.

Stress can be classified into two categories: positive and negative. 

Negative stress, or distress, is the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of a job do not match the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker. If employees no longer believe they have adequate knowledge, skills, or abilities (KSAs) for their job, the stress they experience will more likely be negative. Employees’ negative stress can cause insomnia, inattention, irritability, high blood pressure, and poor decision-making.

Positive stress, or eustress, is an individual’s physiological response when they respond well to a challenge. If employees believe they have adequate KSAs, the stress they experience will more likely be positive. Their positive attitude builds confidence in meeting performance expectations and can lead to increased productivity, improved morale, and better teamwork.

What Causes Job Stress?

Many factors can lead to job stress. The most common are as follows:

  • Excessive workloads
  • Work that isn’t engaging or challenging
  • Lack of social support
  • Lengthy commute times
  • Not having enough control over job-related decisions
  • Conflicting demands or unclear performance expectations

Most will agree that job stress results from the interaction of the worker and the conditions at work; however, how an employee responds to job stress depends on their personality and coping style. What is stressful for one employee may not be stressful for another. Therefore, it’s essential to have strategies that focus on individual employees and ways to support demanding job conditions.

At some point, everyone has felt the pressure of work-related stress. Any job can have stressful elements, even if you love what you do. In short-term situations, you may experience pressure to meet a deadline or fulfill a challenging obligation. But when work stress becomes chronic, it can be overwhelming and harmful to your physical and emotional health.

Unfortunately, chronic stress has become far too familiar. A stressful work environment can contribute to health issues such as headache, stomachache, sleep disturbances, short temper, difficulty concentrating, anxiety, insomnia, high blood pressure, and a weakened immune system. It can even contribute to health conditions such as depression, obesity, and heart disease. To compound the problem, people who experience excessive stress often deal with it in unhealthy ways, such as overeating or eating unhealthy foods, smoking cigarettes, or abusing drugs and alcohol. The APA’s annual Stress in America survey has consistently found that many Americans cite work as a significant source of stress. You can’t always avoid the tensions that occur on the job; however, you can take steps to manage work-related stress.

Strategies to Manage Stress

Track your stressors. Keep a journal to help identify which situations create the most stress and how you respond to them. Record your thoughts, feelings, and information about the environment, including the people and circumstances involved, the physical setting, and how you reacted. Did you raise your voice? Get a snack from the vending machine? Go for a walk? Taking notes can help find patterns.

Develop healthy responses. Instead of fighting stress with fast food or alcohol, do your best to make healthy choices when you feel the tension rise. Find activities you enjoy like physical exercise, reading, or playing games with your family. All of these are great stressbusters. Getting quality sleep is also vital for effective stress management. Build healthy sleep habits by limiting caffeine intake late in the day and minimizing stimulating activities, such as computer and television use at night.

Establish boundaries. In today’s digital world, it’s easy to feel pressure to be available 24 hours a day. Establish some work-life boundaries for yourself. For example, don’t check email from home in the evening or answer the phone during dinner. Although people have different preferences regarding how they blend their work and home life, creating clear boundaries between these realms can reduce the potential for work-life conflict and the stress that goes with it.

Make time to recharge. Everyone needs time to rest and return to a pre-stress level of functioning. This recovery process requires “switching off” from work by having time away from work-related activities. Don’t let your vacation days go to waste–take time off to relax and unwind. When you return, you will feel reinvigorated and ready to perform at your best. If taking time off is not an option, get a quick boost by turning off your smartphone and focusing your attention on non-work activities for a while.

Learn how to relax. Techniques such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, and mindfulness (a state in which you actively observe present experiences and thoughts without judging them) can help melt away stress. Start by taking a few minutes each day to focus on a simple activity like breathing, walking, or enjoying a meal. Focusing on a single activity without distraction will get easier with practice.

Speak with your supervisor. Employee health has been linked to productivity at work, so your boss has an incentive to create a work environment that promotes employee well-being. Start by having an open conversation with your supervisor. The purpose isn’t to lay out a list of complaints but to devise an effective plan for managing the stressors you’ve identified. This plan can include resources you need from your employer, further clarification of expectations, support from your colleagues, more meaningful assignments, or improving your workspace to make it more comfortable.

Get some support. Accepting help from trusted friends and family members can improve your ability to manage stress. Research stress management resources available through an employee assistance program, including online information, counseling, or referrals to mental health professionals. If you continue to feel overwhelmed by work stress, you may want to talk to a psychologist who can help you better manage stress and change unhealthy behavior.