Sometimes on-the-job stress hits like a ton of bricks. Other times it slowly boils up from a simmer. But no matter how it arrives, you've probably felt it. Three-quarters of American workers in a 2007 survey reported experiencing physical stress symptoms due to their work, and researchers are still tallying up all the consequences to our health and well-being.
At a basic level, the experience of stress at work is one of helplessness—of pressures beyond your control to dial down. And while it's certainly true that the causes of your stress may be out of your hands, your response to it isn't—at least not entirely. So instead of sitting back and suffering, try taking these steps, in this order:
There is no upside to self-martyrdom. Letting yourself burn out won't do anyone any good—but taking a moment to recognize that can. So start with a little self-discipline; you don’t have to go around whining about how much you have to do. Instead, politely but firmly let the people you work with know that you've reached your limit and can't handle additional work or interruptions at the moment.
They'll understand that you need to buckle down—we've all been there. Ultimately, though, it's you who needs to take responsibility for looking after yourself. There's a limit to how much you can do, but it's your job to communicate to others when you've hit it.
Some people who take on too much are perfectionists or believe that no one else can do the work as well as they can. Inability to delegate and the need to micromanage are both paths to increased stress and burnout. It's true that the times when you're most stressed hardly make for the best conditions to learn how to trust others better, but that is when it counts. So instead of trying to overhaul your working style altogether, look for small, one-time tasks or projects you can hand off to others just this once.
What's one thing that would be helpful to take off of your plate and won't really matter if someone else doesn't do it exactly the way you would? Delegating effectively is about giving others an initial leeway to fail and learn from their failures before getting it right. That isn't easy, but it helps to remind yourself that trying to handle everything on your own brought you to this point—which is a failure of a different sort. Remember there have been other situations where others took control and things turned out fine. This can be one of those situations, too.
Some people see asking for help as a sign of weakness and will do anything to avoid it. Like many behaviors that we've learned, this one doesn't serve us well when we're feeling maxed out. But the people we ask for help seldom see that as a sign of weakness—most people are more than willing to lend a hand when it matters.
And make no mistake: Asking for assistance is more than delegating a task or two. When you do that, you're basically saying, "I'm fine with all this—just please do that for me." Sometimes that doesn't cut it: You need to say, "Listen, I need help with all this, too." Come to grips with the fact that making such a request will be uncomfortable at first. Try asking for a small amount of help initially and see what kind of impact that makes, then work up to requesting assistance with the bigger stuff, too.
When we're frustrated, the first thing we're often told to do is push our chairs back from the table and blow off steam. At work, this isn't always so simple. Our natural urge is often just to push harder. Sometimes it's best to put steps one through three in motion first. This way, you can feel like you're already addressing the issue before you let yourself take a breather.
It may seem counterintuitive, but after a certain time we're simply unable to focus effectively—and that window tends to shorten when we're under intense pressure. The most productive thing you can do is step away from your work to recharge and regenerate. Go for a walk, meditate, sit outside for half an hour and just do nothing. However you approach it, the key is to take time to sharpen your mind when you feel it getting dull, overtaxed, and ineffective.
One of the things we're often tempted to do when we feel work stresses mounting is shut out our friends and families so we can get caught up. Bad move. Spending time with people who can't help you knock out your tasks and projects may seem like a luxury you don't have, but it's this type of interaction you probably need the most. Not only do they provide us with emotional and moral support when things don't work out, they can also offer some helpful perspective precisely because they don't have an inside view on everything that's going sideways at the office.
It might not sound like much, but simply reminding yourself that you won't always feel this way is pretty important. There will soon come a time when you'll be looking back on it from a much better place. While you're in the thick of it, though, try and remember how life is when you aren't inordinately stressed out—when you're working steadily toward your goals and aspirations.
You might even remind yourself what you're gaining from the present experience (even if it isn't much fun) will serve you well in the future. Maybe you're learning to be more assertive, to say no when you need to, or to find out who you can most count on when you need help. Yes, reflecting on these sorts of things will take an effort of will, but it can help put everything into context.
When work-related stress builds up, the first things we push to the sidelines are our out-of-work routines and rituals: exercising, maintaing our social relationships, the solo activities we do to unwind. The times when you most feel you don't have the time to do those things is when it's most important to do them. You might not be able to make that standing dinner date with your friends and hit the gym, but you can probably find a way to do one of them.
Guard that time and resist the temptation to let it slide. Remind yourself that your health, emotional well-being, and loved ones are more important than anything you've got bearing down on you at work—and that reconnecting with them can help you deal with things a bit better back at the office.