For most adults, work is a significant source of stress. In fact, research suggests that it’s second only to money, and it’s followed closely by family issues. Unfortunately, the stress we experience at work doesn’t stay at work. It affects our friends, our families and communities — not to mention our long-term health and wellbeing. If we want to keep our heads and our hearts while keeping our jobs, we have to manage stress. But how?
What the Research Says About Stress in the United States
The American Psychological Association has conducted an annual survey on stress in the United States since 2007. The Stress in America study provides a clear-eyed view of just how stressed we are and what’s causing our stress.
In the 2015 study, the top three sources of stress were:
- Money: 66% of respondents rated it as a somewhat significant or very significant source of stress.
- Work: 66% of respondents rated it as a somewhat significant or very significant source of stress.
- Family responsibilities: 53% of respondents rated it as a somewhat significant or very significant source of stress.
While money and work have been the top two every year, 2015 marks the first time in nine years of research that family responsibilities have entered the top 3. For career-loving parents, this could spell serious trouble.
Surviving Stress: Crossover, Spillover and Working Parents
You already know that a stressful day at work tends to follow you home. It affects how you treat the other drivers on the road, how you engage with your partner, and how you interact with your kids.
Have you also noticed how your stress affects the behavior of people close to you? The foul mood that was yours alone turns into your kids’ foul mood and your partner’s foul mood. They didn’t experience that meeting at work that completely stressed you out, but your stress has now become their stress too, making for a less-than-restorative evening at home.
These phenomena — when stress from one area transfers to other areas and to other people — is known in psychological research as the Spillover-Crossover model, and it might be the most compelling reason to learn to manage your stress. Sure, you know that chronic stress has been associated with all sorts of diseases and disorders — some of them fatal — but that knowledge is often insufficient to inspire change. Knowing that your work-related stress is affecting your life as a parent and partner should tell you it’s time to do something differently.
How to Manage Your Stress
Managing your stress is, fundamentally, a two-step process:
- Notice and acknowledge your stress.
- Do something about it.
Before you say anything — I know. I know that’s a ridiculously oversimplified view. I know that if it was really that simple, we wouldn’t have the stress epidemic that the research reveals.
But hear me out: sometimes the idea of managing stress can, itself, cause us more stress. Having a simple framework can increase the likelihood that will really do something about it. So let’s lok at those two simple steps in a little more detail.
Step 1: Notice and Acknowledge Stress
The first step of simply noticing and acknowledging stress is actually trickier than it sounds. That’s because our higher brain functions — the functions that enable us to reflect on our own experiences — go dormant during our highest periods of stress. The limbic system in our brains — the parts that are responsible for emotion and motivation — goes on high alert and the rational systems recede. This means that the extremely advanced brain function of metacognition — the ability to think about what we’re thinking — becomes very difficult.
But there is hope. We can tune into the signs of stress and get better at noticing them. Did you just snap at a coworker? Are you suddenly craving junk food? Are you having a hard time focusing on your work? Do you suddenly feel tired or sad, without a clear reason? Are you just plain overwhelmed? All of these are symptoms of stress — your body’s and brain’s ways of telling you that adrenaline and cortisol are taking over. Notice these symptoms, and then do something about them.
Step Two: Do Something About Stress
Nice job noticing that stress was getting to you! Now, it’s time to do something about it. The specifics of this next step are going to depend on the situation, on who you are, and on where you are, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s look at three primary strategies for managing stress at work:
- Get physical: As shown below, stretches or yoga at your desk can make a big difference. If that doesn’t lower your stress level, go for a quick walk or run. Even a few sprints up and down a flight of stairs can provide immense relief.
- Take a break: We are most productive when we alternate periods of activity with periods of rest throughout the day. Step away from the computer (email and Facebook are rarely restful and restorative) to breathe, meditate, chat with a coworker, drink some water, eat some fresh fruit or veggies, or listen to music you love. Even a minute of real rest makes a big difference.
- Change the situation: Sometimes, just managing yourself isn’t enough to get the stress under control. If you need to change something about where and how you work (e.g., a standing desk, work-from-home days, etc.), what your work is (e.g., certain types of tasks or projects that cuase more stress than others), or with whom you work, collaborate with your boss to brainstorm solutions and come up with some short-term experiments to try. A coach can also do wonders to help you uncover new ways of managing stress.
For more on workplace stress and how to deal with it, check out the helpful infographic below, put together by our friends at SurePayroll and Ghergich & Co. Print it and post it in your workspace as a reminder that managing workplace stress is a key part of any work-life balance strategy.