How to Manage Work Stress (Even When You’re Under Fire)

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Work stress ebbs and flows—some weeks you might have too little to do, while others you’ll barely remember looking up from your computer all day. One thing’s for certain about stress, though: you can’t escape it, which is why it’s essential to have some coping techniques in place for when the unavoidable happens.

Whether you’re facing a looming deadline or a massive batch of emails in your inbox, one of these approaches should help.

Write Your Stressors Down

Your brain isn’t as logical as you might think. Sometimes (okay, often), the stress you’re feeling doesn’t align with the actual stressor. Ever caught yourself saying, “I’m never going to get all this work done” only to find you pull through well before your deadline?

Our brains love all-or-nothing thinking. It’s simple and to the point, but “the point” doesn’t always align with reality. And it’s precisely that exaggeration that stresses us out the most. So, the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, do this:

  • Take out a pen and paper and write down exactly what you’re stressed about
  • Next, write down the worst that could happen. Therapists recommend this because it helps you see clearly whether you’re exaggerating. If you’re panicking about asking for a raise, what’s the worst that could happen? Maybe your boss says no, but you’ll still go back to your desk and job, and you can start to think about applying for new jobs tomorrow. That’s not so bad, is it?
  • Finally, break up the stressful tasks into individual to-do items or subtasks. Isolate an immediate next step and start working solely on that. Running coaches tell athletes to focus on the next 15-20 feet in front of them, not the finish line, for a reason—it helps keep you motivated and present.

Try Some Deep Breathing

Sometimes, the best thing to do is take a time out, especially if your stress starts to prevent you from getting the work done. Taking a moment to breath can help slow you down and re-establish the connection between your brain and your body. If you’re not sure where to start, try using the 4-7-8 breathing exercise (which a therapist friend once recommended to me). It’s a great option because it tells you exactly how to do deep breathing in a highly accessible way. There are also plenty of great mindfulness and meditation apps that you can try using on your lunch break.

Take a Break Every Hour

In an interview with The Thirty, Sanam Hafeez, a NYC-based licensed clinical psychologist, points out that many of us work for too long in one stretch without taking a step back. This doesn’t mean you need to take a 30-minute break every two hours (obviously most of us can’t and shouldn’t do that), but it does mean consciously pausing for a few minutes. Says Hafeez, “Set your alarm to sound, and allow yourself to get up, walk around, get water, stretch, go to the restroom, and say hi to your co-workers. Hunkering down in your office or cube only makes you feel isolated and disconnected.”

Delegate, Delegate, Delegate

If you’re a manager or team lead, it might be time to ask yourself honestly: are you delegating enough? There’s an art to letting go of work, and especially if you’re Type A, it can take some time to learn. So think about the work you’re currently doing and make a list of elements you could probably hand off to one of your team members. Chances are they’re eager for new opportunities and have been waiting in the wings.

Take Time Off

We all burn out. If you have vacation days, there’s no point in not using them. Too often, people hold out on taking time off so they can build it up and use it all at once. As perfect as an epic vacation to Europe sounds, it’s not worth it if you spend ten months out of the year on edge and miserable with no time to decompress. And here’s a fun fact: most Americans never use all of their vacation days, anyway. So that whole “use it all up at once thing”? Total myth. If you’re stressed, now’s the ideal time to plan a staycation or mental health day.

Talk to Your Boss

If you sense that your stress is truly outside of your control, a few deep breathing exercises won’t solve the problem. Take real stock of your workload to determine if, in fact, you can’t get it all done in the day. Then talk to your boss. Together, you should be able to realign your priorities or determine what you’re spending time on that’s not actually urgent (sometimes, this problem comes from miscommunication on all sides). If that doesn’t work, it might be time for the company to hire someone to help you—which is something your boss needs to know ASAP to get the process started.

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