Taking Control of Workplace Stress

By Jeremy Lechan, Tufts Medical Center Staff

Do you feel stressed at work? Regardless of industry or job function, chances are you have experienced workplace stress at one time or another. And you’re far from alone. Work is the leading cause of stress in the United States, affecting millions of Americans every day. But just because it’s all too common, doesn’t mean stress has to be an inevitability of the job.

“Don’t throw up your hands and accept that workplace stress is a natural part of life,” said Debra Lerner, PhD, Director of the Program on Health, Work and Productivity at Tufts Medical Center. “While work-related stress is a significant problem in the U.S. today, we can make stress-reducing changes – some significant, some subtle – to improve the mental health of people in the workplace. Part of the solution it to help employers make investments that will contribute to their employees’ health and wellbeing.”

Dr. Lerner, who has dedicated her career to researching depression and other mental health issues at work and developing intervention programs to help working people function more effectively, points to three key environmental factors that contribute to worker stress: highly psychologically demanding work, too little control over the work, and not enough social support at work.

“Psychologically demanding work may include a work situation that is chaotic or one that requires an extremely heavy workload, persistent deadlines, or conflicting priorities; the work even could be simply too boring and underusing a person’s skills,” said Dr. Lerner. “A lack of employee control over their own work (such as having no ability to decide how to perform an important task), and insufficient support from managers and co-workers are also critical factors in workplace stress. These job stressors contribute to a workplace environment that is not conducive to employee mental health and wellbeing.”

Workplace stress is not only detrimental to workers, it is also extremely expensive for employers. Previous research has estimated that absenteeism, decreased productivity and employee turnover as a result of work-related stress costs the U.S. economy more than $300 billion per year. And that does not include additional costs for employee utilization of health care resources.

“Many companies have recognized this problem and have attempted to address it, but most interventions still emphasize change to the worker, rather than the work environment,” said Dr. Lerner. “While interventions such as meditation and resiliency training may help some workers alleviate their stress, employers really need a systematic strategy and approach to changing how work is organized to successfully create a less stressful working environment. Redesigning jobs to increase the autonomy of workers and work units is good places to start.”

Unfortunately, the United States lags far behind in this regard. Other developed countries – including Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom and Australia – already have institutional guidelines and regulations to promote psychosocial health in the workplace.

“These countries’ governments are invested in programs to guide employees towards stress-reducing working conditions that they believe will result in health and productivity benefits,” said Dr. Lerner. “No such national strategy exists in U.S.”

While employers may need to take the lead in reducing their employees’ stress, there are measures workers can take to improve their own mental health on the job. Dr. Lerner recommends five subtle changes – which she calls “small tweaks, big payoffs” – to help reduce stress at work:

  • Try to find opportunities in your day to exert control over your routine and tasks. For example, if you feel overwhelmed by relentless emails, consider using automatic replies or filing systems, or schedule time to respond to messages that can wait.
  • Limit distractions. Analyze what distracts you, when you are most distracted and what is going through your mind when you distracted. You may be able to prevent the distraction or more quickly recognize when you are distracted and stop it. Try programming a pleasant sound to go off when you are doing something that makes your mind wander.
  • Develop and lean on a social support networks of managers and co-workers – don’t isolate yourself and know when to ask for help.
  • Take “micro-breaks” – close your eyes, stand up/sit down, or go for a walk; use your commute to do something you enjoy
  • Pinpoint a useful technique for improving time management. This may mean taking a little time at the beginning and end of the day to get organized, breaking down large or difficult tasks into steps or asking yourself (or people you trust) whether you can change anything to save time or be more effective. Practice the new techniques and use checklists - they work!

“Take time to diagnose what is causing your stress and get into a new routine to effectively manage it,” said Dr. Lerner. “It is often just one or two things creating the problem, and if you can identify the source, you can do something about it. Keep track of the changes that work for you and reassess periodically.”

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Posted March 2019.

The above content is provided for educational purposes by Tufts Medical Center. It is free for educational use. For information about your own health, contact your physician.

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