Stress is the double-edged sword of the business world. Small amounts can supercharge focus and spur healthy competition, while too much can distract, overwhelm, and sabotage performance. Moreover, our work can literally make us sick. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), short term stress can contribute to headaches, sleep problems, short temper and difficulty concentrating. Chronic stress can have more detrimental effects: high blood pressure, severe insomnia, a weakened immune system and increased risk of heart disease and depression.
Very little U.S. data exists correlating workplace stress and health. Researcher Joel Goh of the Harvard Business School tackles this gap in a comprehensive study. His findings are vexing: Not only does workplace stress contribute to at least 120,000 deaths each year — it’s responsible for up to $190 billion in annual healthcare costs. While many stressors are often out of our control, we aren’t completely helpless. Here are several tried-and-true methods you can use to let off steam while on the clock.
Sitting in front of a monitor for eight hours a day is about as healthy as it sounds. While work frequently demands buckling down at your desk, the Mayo Clinic recommends breaking up monotonous blocks of time to help center your focus and refresh your mind. If you need to plan a short meeting, take your discussion on the go. Walk with team members, grab coffee or a snack, or step outside for fresh air. Virtually any form of physical activity can help restore a sense of calm to the nine to five madness.
Stress and laughter go together like oil and water. According to the Mayo Clinic, laughter not only lightens your mental load but also cools down your stress response. In addition, humor is a natural form of healthy social contact — an underlying element shared by many thriving organizations. When your team is facing a particularly imposing challenge, understand that you’re all climbing the same mountain. It helps to internalize the camaraderie: Your struggles are not yours alone.
Many of our jobs require long sessions in front of a computer screen, which can lead to dry eyes, soreness, blurred vision and even headaches. Doctors have a catch-all term for these symptoms: “Computer vision syndrome,” says Dr. Joshua Dunaief, an ophthalmologist and macular degeneration researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. So what to do if your job requires daily, prolonged screen time? Dr. Joan Portello, an associate professor and researcher at State University of New York School of Optometry, recommends trying the the 20-20-20 rule. It’s effective and easy to remember: For every 20 minutes of screen time, divert your gaze to something at least 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. Your eyes will thank you.
Act vs. React
We’ve gone over several tactics to combat workday stress, but what about the bigger fish — the daunting stressors that keep us up at night? “We experience stress when we feel that situations are out of our control,” says Sharon Melnick, Ph.D., a business psychologist and stress mitigation expert. Melnick’s strategies are informed by 10 years of Harvard research and have been field-tested by over 6,000 training participants and clients. She advises we acknowledge that there are aspects of stress we can control, and those we simply can’t. Typically, we’re in control of our actions and counteractions, but powerless to macro forces like a coworker’s attitude, an unexpected deadline or rumors of major corporate restructuring. “Be impeccable for your 50%,” Melnick advises. Try to let go of the rest.
Feed your brain
Throughout the workday, many elements compete for our attention: emails, meetings, phone calls, unexpected drop-ins and more. Don’t give lunch the cold shoulder. According to the American Dietetic Association, some 70% of Americans eat lunch hunched over their desks, as reported by NBC News. While this may be unavoidable to a degree, it’s helpful to treat your lunch break like a break. Whenever possible, make an effort to step away from your desk during lunch, mentally and physically. Eat with a coworker, talk weekend plans, decompress. Return to work satisfied and refreshed.
Eating takeout every day may be convenient, but it’s expensive and can hide massive calories. If you can only squeeze in one “healthy” meal a day, make it lunch. It’s much easier to pack something healthy ahead of time versus making lofty plans to prepare a five-star organic dinner after an exhausting workday. Keep a bag of nuts or trail mix in your desk drawer to stave off hunger and avoid the 2:30 shuffle to the vending machine. Lastly, be aware of your coffee intake. While caffeine will get your motor running, the Mayo Clinic recommends limiting your intake to four cups a day. Too much java can lead to dehydration, headaches, and muscle tremors -- quickly doing more harm than good.
Things to Consider:
• Sometimes workplace stress is unavoidable, but we aren’t helpless.
• Take time to give your body breaks throughout the day.
• Stay hydrated and be mindful of your diet.
• Understand that some stressors are simply out of your control — rise above the storm and you’ll always find the sun.