Chillax: 13 Ways to Reduce Workplace Stress
Quick trivia: from what movie does the line “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” come? It comes from the 1976 movie, The Network. Winner of four Academy Awards and with an all-star cast, The Network is a satirical film about a struggling fictional TV network. The movie climaxes with the anchor of the evening news, after learning he has two weeks before the program is cancelled and after threatening to commit suicide on the air, erupting in a 4-minute on-air rant that inspires the country to unify in his misery (if you’re curious, visit here).
But some 38 years later, most American workers still feel extremely high levels of stress in their jobs. In fact, in a recent survey, 83% are stressed out by at least one thing at work, and 70% of American workers are disengaged (check out my July blog on how to increase employee engagement). And it’s getting worse: the World Health Organization predicts that stress will be the leading cause of physical disability in the world by 2020.
It’s no wonder: coming off of a monumental recession, many American workers are asked to do more with less – their days (and sometimes their nights and weekends) are filled with an ever-increasing workload. So as summer winds down, and people conclude their vacations and long Labor Day weekends, today’s article focuses on the individual worker – 13 ways to reduce stress on the job (or in your personal life) that can be used by anyone in any organization or circumstance…
Exercise more. I know, I know – easier said than done. But we’re not talking an hour a day to train for ultra-marathons here: you can do as little as 10 minutes (and some research says 7 minutes) a day to achieve positive effects on your health and happiness. It helps you relax, releases endorphins (those “happy hormones”), increases your brain power, improves your image and confidence, and also improves health (weight, muscle tone, cardiovascular, diabetes, etc. etc.). My wife is a fitness coach http://twitter.com/Gianna_BL), so I can’t escape it at home. But I’ll tell you from personal experience: the more I exercise, the better I feel and the more resilient and capable I am at dealing with daily stress.
Sleep more. Sleep helps our bodies recover and repair, but it also helps us focus, be more productive, and improve our disposition. In fact, some research shows that sleep helps us better cope with negative emotions – in other words, helps us deal with stress and improve happiness. Seven to eight hours of time well-invested for our health and well-being.
Eat right. Stress sometimes leads people to make poor food choices, but poor diet can lead to additional stress (weight gain, increased blood pressure, diabetes, and other chronic health issues). Generally, the healthier foods you eat, the healthier you’ll feel. But there are actually a few super-foods that reduce stress. Try these: turkey (tryptophan boosts serotonin, which helps alleviate stress); spinach (a rich source of magnesium, which helps promote a sense of calm; spinach also boasts energy); salmon (the Omega-3 boosts serotonin, nourishes the brain while mitigating stress hormones, and reduces inflammation and promotes healthy blood flow); nuts and seeds (rich in both Omega-3 and Omega-6); citrus fruit (the Vitamin C reduces stress and serves as an antioxidant that boosts your immune system); root vegetables like sweet potatoes and carrots (high fiber, good carbohydrates which boost serotonin and help control blood pressure). Eat better and you’ll feel better.
Spend time with family and friends. You’ve all heard the saying that you never claim on your deathbed: “I wish I had spent more time at work.” Social time with those you love – or just love being around – is important to improving happiness (yes, even for introverts). Humans in general are social creatures. And there is a tremendous amount of research (such as “Blue Zones” studies) that indicate that happier, healthier cultures are predicated in part on the strength of their social networks.
Center yourself: practice breathing, meditate, or try yoga. Meditation helps improve focus, clarity, attention span, and also helps keep you calm and composed. You don’t need a dark, quiet room or some other tranquil environment (though that helps) – you can even take just 2-3 minutes in the office for deep breathing and focusing exercises to clear your head, slow your heart rate, and improve your mood. Take three minutes for long, slow deep breaths. Don’t do anything else, but focus your attention on your breathing and your whole body. And repeat it two or three times a day. It works: your stress will dissipate. You can also try yoga, which combines a series of slow-moving and stationary poses with deep breathing. Yoga improves flexibility, strength, balance, and stamina, and greatly reduces stress.
Take breaks. Research shows that taking regular breaks during the workday can boost productivity and creativity. Dr. Danny Penman, author of Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World, says: “Breaks give your mind space to digest information. It’s very important to daydream, to let your mind run free at the deepest level. That’s the source of creativity – taking disparate ideas from different disciplines and putting them together.” So take a lunch break, stare into space for a few minutes, or take a walk (see “exercise” above and “go outside” below for more on the benefits of a walk!).
Take a vacation. “Vacations have been shown to increase your on-the-job performance as much as 40% when you return. So having rested employees is really critical for business,” says Joe Robinson, author of Don’t Miss Your Life. But yet more than 25% of American workers don’t GET any vacation and an even larger number don’t TAKE vacation. Vacations offer a physical, mental (and emotional) separation from work, recharging our psychological batteries and oftentimes curing work-related burnout. Robinson: “vacations have been shown to re-gather crashed emotional resources. Vacations heal us.” Sometimes when you least think you can afford to take a vacation is exactly the time you need it the most.
Get outside! In The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor claims that spending even 20 minutes outside improves your mood, broadens your thinking, and improves your memory. So take a walk, go for a run, or just go sit by the lake or watch the sunset. Reconnecting with nature has a rejuvenating effect on us all.
Unplug from technology. We’re bombarded with data all day – emails, text messages, phone calls. And studies have shown that technology is making us more distracted, impatient, and forgetful (it forces us to think in shorter time increments – to process information more quickly). This causes stress and sometimes the loss of perspective of the bigger picture. So give yourself permission to turn it off – shut down for the night (or weekend or at least during your vacation time!).
Volunteer. To make yourself feel better, make others feel better – volunteer. In fact, research shows that the happiest individuals spend at least 100 hours per year volunteering (or just two hours per week!). It gives us purpose; it makes us feel productive and useful; and it improves our own self-worth and disposition.
Try acupuncture or message. Both methods change energy flow and/or chemicals in the body – they reduce the stress-induced cortisol, they stimulate blood flow, they reduce blood pressure, and – at least with message – they relax muscles.
Smile. Yes – real smiles (not fake, contrived smirks). Even better, laugh. There are many studies that show the positive impact of laughter – it releases endorphins and improves our moods.
Practice gratitude. Sounds simple, but it really is effective. Humans are wired to sometimes focus on the negative (the weather stinks, our favorite sports team is struggling, the economy is unstable, I’m tired, etc.). Try focusing on the good things in your life – you may journal about it try or just try thinking of three things each night for which you are thankful. Sounds corny, but it does refocus you on positive thoughts, reduces stress, and gives you a better outlook.
As leaders, try to create an environment that reduces employee stress – it’s best for their satisfaction and well-being, and it optimizes their productivity and maximizes their effectiveness. But stress is inevitable: with today’s constantly changing world and ever-increasing demands, I’m afraid we can never fully eliminate stress from the workplace. However, we can – as leaders and individual workers – deliberately manage stress. And we should: our professional performance depends on it. Indeed, our health – both as individuals and as organizations – depends on it. Enjoy the rest of summer and a much-needed long weekend!
Never stop improving!
Brian S. Lassiter
President, Performance Excellence Network (formerly Minnesota Council for Quality)
Catalyst for Success for 27 Years!
[This article originally appeared in the Aug 2013 PEN newsletter.]