Your work has a significant influence on your overall quality of life and there is plenty of data on its effects on your mental and emotional well-being. But research also shows it matters for everything from your energy levels and your waistline to your sleep and even your longevity.
Fortunately, it entirely possible to take action to reduce these negative effects.
The science behind work stress
There are a lot of factors which matter to your health, and they interact with each other, of course. But work tends to be particularly important because it occupies so much of your time, and because it has a spillover effect on the rest of your life and your health.
Your energy. You may be tired at the end of a day of work, but chances are, your fatigue is worse if you’ve had a lot to worry about at work. A study by Texas A&M University found if you’re worried, you’re also more likely to feel exhausted physically. There is a link between feeling upset, concerned, or anxious emotionally—and feeling drained and not energetic. This presents challenges because when you get home after a long day or week. It can be rejuvenating to exercise or walk the dog—but ironically, you may have less energy for activities which would re-energize you.
Your sleep. Getting enough sleep is fundamental to health and physical wellbeing, and a study by the University of Oregon has linked sleep with better innovation and improved problem solving. In addition, research by Bar-Ilan University demonstrated lack of sleep can contribute to obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, diabetes and certain types of cancer. Unfortunately, if you’re exposed to rudeness at work, it can get in the way of your sleep—interrupting a good night of rest. This is according to a study published in Occupational Health Science.
Your lifespan. If energy, weight and sleep weren’t enough, you can also be concerned about how long you’ll live. Sobering research published in “Health Psychology” found when people lacked strong relationships with co-workers, their lifespan was negatively impacted. In the study looking at a 20-year timespan, what mattered most was being surrounded by colleagues who would help solve problems and who were friendly.
With the huge impact of work on physical health, there are some steps you can take to manage your work and also reduce your stress levels—and these kinds of responses can make a positive contribution to your physical health.
How to manage your stress
One of the primary ways you can manage the physical consequences of work is to reduce your stress. Your job will always present challenges and some amount of stretching and facing problems can be motivating. In fact, trying something new and building skills in areas which are unfamiliar is correlated with happiness. But when problems are too much, you can take steps to regroup and reinvigorate.
A new study by Joblist found the most effective ways to reduce stress were by meditating (which worked for 81% of people), stretching or doing yoga (68%), taking a walk or getting away from your desk (67%) or listening to music (65%). People also found breaks, reading, chatting with co-workers and silencing phone notifications to be effective. The bottom line: Do what works best for you, but be intentional about managing the stress which will be coming your way.
Where your expertise can help
Another way to cope is by seeking work which aligns with what you’re good at and where you want to grow. Your work will never be a perfect fit with everything you love to do—no job is ideal—but seek a job in which you spend time doing work which engages your skills.
Also talk with your boss about doing more of the things you like and potentially getting help from team members on the tasks which you dislike and which they might enjoy more. Also volunteer to contribute to projects outside of your current role which will allow you to use and develop more of your skills.
Grow your relationships
Feeling connected with coworkers can also be a powerfully positive for your wellbeing—both emotionally and physically. When you have support, when you have a level of trust and respect and when you feel like your work matters to colleagues, you’ll be more fulfilled.
Tune into co-workers, ask questions to learn about them and offer to help others. In addition, invite colleagues for coffee, seek out a mentor and make connections with people from both inside and outside your team. All of these actions tend to reinforce positive relationships at work and build strong support systems.
When you don’t feel like you can fully express yourself at work, it can be a tremendous source of stress and pressure. Remind yourself of how you’re empowered to speak up, take action and shape your work. If you’re concerned about how things are going at your company, share your ideas about how things could be better. If you’re feeling stagnant in your current role, spend time learning about new opportunities and networking in order to learn from others. If you don’t feel a strong sense of purpose, connect with your boss regularly and seek feedback. The actions you take can have positive outcomes, and boosting your feelings of empowerment is also healthy.
Work doesn’t have to be a negative part of life. It can be a terrific opportunity to express your talents, contribute to others and build meaningful relationships. But you’ll want to be in the know about how your work affects you, so you can be intentional about how you shape the future of your work.
Tracy Brower is a sociologist focused on work-life happiness and fulfillment. She works at Steelcase and is the author of two books, The Secrets to Happiness at Work and Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work.