Stress Levels at Work

We all know that stress is not good for us. Newspapers and magazines publish articles telling us of the negative impact of continued high stress levels. When experiencing an average level of stress, blood pressure, heart rate, and body systems return to normal when the incident has passed, including the extra levels of cortisol produced during these times. If, after a dangerous event has passed, stress levels don’t return to normal, the body stays alert to address whatever danger it perceives. Folks with too much stress without a return to a calm state will find the high level of cortisol necessary for the body to process fight or flight, stays too high. For example, a stressful meeting at work followed by an unpleasant run-in with an employee in the hallway, and a huge pile of tasks lying in wait…the body can’t return to pre-stress levels. What follows is anxiousness, headaches, being more susceptible to heart disease, memory and concentration problems, as well as problems with digestion, sleeping, and weight gain. A pretty frightening list of potential health problems from something that seems innocuous. Just a little too much stress. It doesn’t have to be all from the same source, either. Work, family, finances, relationships. The list is endless ( No one’s body can handle it all. The solution: find an effective way to reduce or eliminate the stress encounter at work.

Stressed by Anger

Of course, if you are a therapist, a counselor, or another health professional you are well aware of the quagmire that results from dealing with too much stress. Both individual clients and professionals themselves tend to believe that they can handle it. It sounds easy. But no one can eliminate all stress. We know, and we tell our clients, some stress (eustress) is good for us, helps us feel alive and ready to shine. For example, performers often say that their stage fright heightens their ability to give a sparkling performance. They use it to their advantage. How do we teach our clients (and ourselves) to keep the good and get rid of the bad?

The conundrum for our clients? Work is of central importance in one’s overall life, volunteer work, satisfaction at home, and general well-being. People who love the work they do, and who feel competent at their work, are more successful and satisfied than those who do not. A large part of their identification comes from the work they do and thus it forms a significant part of folks’ self-concept. The problem is that many workplaces have changed and continue to do so. In this “new” workplace, it is important to develop the requisite work skills and ability to handle added stress that supervisors expect from their workers in today’s world.

Furthermore, while specific knowledge and technical skills gained from formal education or on-the-job-training have been necessary for people in the workplace, work-related or work skills are considered as important as technical expertise. Supervisors are requiring a much broader skill set from their workers, thus increasing the demand for more well-rounded workers. It is estimated that workers in today’s workforce will go from school to school from school to work, from work back to school and then from retraining back to the workplace in an ongoing cycle of trying to learn the necessary work skills required in most positions and demanded by the ever-changing requirements of the fast-moving workplace.

It is imperative, then, for everyone to be responsible for managing their own skill development to keep up with the changes occurring in the workplace. The development of effective work skills in order to stay competitive is critical. Supervisors will expect employees to be able to do their work, and they also expect them to be able to apply knowledge of work skills. Adaptability will also be a key to employment success. Each person now needs to be a self-manager of their own skill and work development. Learning and practicing effective work skills never stops. Each of us, client and practictioner alike, need to be a lifelong learner of skills, including stress management skills, to be an effective worker regardless of the changes in society and the workplace (Essential Work Skills Workbook, Leutenberg and Liptak).

Stressed in the workplace
Stress in the workplace

Ability to deal with workplace stress should be at the top of the list. “People are asking me for answers,” says Sharon Melnick, Ph.D., a business psychologist and author of Success Under Stress. “Everyone feels overwhelmed and overly busy.”

In an article in Forbes Magazine ( by staff writer Jenna Goudreau, Dr. Melnick  gives suggestions for a dozen ways for all of us to cut down on high stress levels in the work place.

  1. Act rather than react – Identify what you can and cannot control. Perform impeccably on your parts of a project and let the rest go. Your skills and focus will shine through.
  2. Take a deep breath – One of the most effective methods of controlling stress is to breath properly. You can do a breathing exercise right in the middle of a stressful meeting without anyone knowing what you are doing.
  3. Eliminate interruptions – only answer emails and phone messages during certain times of the day and then close your office door. If you don’t have a door, turn your chair so your back is facing out, put up a sign that says when you will be available, and ignore those who come to see you. Your co-workers will self-train and eventually only come when they know you are available.
  4. Schedule your day so you can stay focused and on task – write a priority list before you go home in the afternoon, and then review it before you start your day. Should they be re-ordered? Did something change overnight that should be reflected in your plan for the day?
  5. Eat right and get enough sleep – provide your body with the right fuel, and sleep enough to reset yourself for a new day.
  6. Change the story – reinterpret the facts. Stressful reactions develop from looking at things through a certain lens. Change the lens. Don’t be a Pollyanna who doesn’t face facts realistically, but remember others’ opinions about you and your skill set are not necessarily negative.
  7. Cool down quickly – pull in air through your pursed lips and blow it out your nose. Done correctly you will feel a physical cooling off in your mouth that will inspire a mental coolness.
  8. Identify self-imposed stress ‒ change your focus from others’ perception of your work to the work itself. This has an added benefit: you’re more likely to impress those with whom you work.
  9. Re-order your priorities – Melnick says, “Focus on projects that will have the most impact and are best aligned with your goals.”
  10. Reset your Panic Button – learn about acupuncture points that will help you settle down. For example, Dr. Melnick suggests positioning your thumb on the side of your middle finger and applying pressure. This will instantly helps regulate your blood pressure.
  11. Influence others – in other words confront a stressful situation or employee as soon as possible. Don’t let the situation fester and grow in your mind. Help others to see things your way.
  12. Be your own best critic – internal negativity is as likely to stress you out as external negativity is. Pump yourself up! Encouraging thoughts will help you achieve at the highest levels and train others to think positively about themselves.

Here is an exercise to help you or your clients manage your workplace stress more effectively. It is from Leutenberg and Liptak’s workbook, Essential Work Skills Workbook.

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