You’re short staffed—for the second year. Your company is getting reorganized—for the third time since you've been there. Your department's budget has been cut—again. Sure, maybe you're just overdue for a new job, but in the meantime, the day-to-day stress you feel at work is becoming overwhelming. And it feels like all you can do is think about work.
Before you can plot your next move, you need to get some perspective. After all, while reducing on-the-job stress has its merits, there comes a point where your best stress-lowering strategy is just to take your focus off your work life and get back in touch with the world outside the office.
Not only is that often the prerequisite for setting things right in your professional life, it's often the path of least resistance that you need to take: Sometimes work-related stressors are simply out of your control. If that's ever the case, try taking these steps to regain your mental footing.
People who feel stressed about work tend to think a great deal about it even when they’re not working. One of the best ways to fend off the feeling that you’re working 24/7 is to limit the mental time you give to your professional life. Easier said than done, yes, but a simple end-of-day wrap-up can help.
Before unplugging for the night, look over the past day's work (stresses and all) and tie up any loose ends you can. Then plan the next day—even if all that means is setting expectations. This keeps you from thinking everything left undone during your commute, over dinner, and while you're brushing your teeth before bed. In fact, this simple strategy may even improve your sleep since it gives your natural impulse to ruminate something to focus on. If you can, try shutting off any work-related email or phone notifications after hours.
Although it can seem justified, and even helpful, to complain about work, that's pretty much guaranteed to perpetually heighten your stress. Instead, run through a frustrating event in your head just once—in order to learn from it and find any meaning that may be helpful the next time. Have that conversation with just one or two trusted colleagues, and leave it at that. Then move on.
Rehashing your frustrations over and over again with anyone within earshot will invariably make the situation worse. In fact, vocalizing your negativity releases stress chemicals, both in you and in the person listening to you. That makes whatever's bothering you expand in your mind, so the more you talk about how terrible something is at work, the more terrible things you'll actually find to stress you out—not just at work but everywhere. If you can’t talk about work without getting negative, come up with a convenient deflection like, "Work’s fine. But what I’m really interested in right now is _________."
Everything seems worse when you’re sleep deprived. There's a strong link between sleep deprivation and psychiatric conditions like depression, anxiety disorders, and ADHD, according to Harvard Medical School researchers. So try to nudge your bedtime forward a bit—even an hour's more sleep can make a big difference. Or just give yourself permission to wake up later—or take a nap during your lunch break. Even 30-minute naps can reduce stress hormones and boost the immune system.
As little as five minutes of aerobic exercise has been found to reduce anxiety. That means that a short break to take a walk—or a longer one to work out, do yoga, or play a sport—can have a massive return on investment in terms of your mental health.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, "Aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and improve self-esteem." So if you want to reduce stress at work, the answer isn't just to force yourself away from your desk—it may be to ditch the office specifically for the gym, pool, or ball court.
If you’re an introvert, time alone is essential to refuel. But even extroverts, especially those with people-oriented jobs, need solitary time to reduce stress hormones. In her book The Willpower Instinct, author Kelly McGonigal notes that some of the most effective stress-relief strategies are solo affairs. It can be tempting to think, "Great, I have some time alone, I should get something done." But when you're overwhelmed with work-related stress, taking that time to recharge and do some other low-impact, solo activity—like reading or listening to music—may be the better option.
But don't spend too much time alone. According to John Cacioppo, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago and coauthor of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, loneliness has a link to stress hormones as well as immune function and cardiovascular health.
If you struggle with making time for people, start small. Smile at the security guard when you walk into the office. Say "yes" on occasion when your colleagues ask you to lunch. Call a friend on your way home from work. Try to have at least one dinner a week with family or friends. Having identity and meaning outside of work lowers the stakes of what’s happening there, which in turn lowers stress.