Does your stomach clench or get flooded with butterflies when you’re facing a looming work deadline? Do you fret at your desk over an upcoming performance review? If you have to give a PowerPoint presentation to a client or co-workers, do you become so filled with anxiety that you find it hard to concentrate on your tasks? After more than a year of COVID-19 lockdown, are you worried about returning to the office?
Workplace stress is very common. Overall, 83% of workers in the U.S. suffer from stress related to their work, according to the American Institute of Stress.
This widespread, work-related stress is associated with an array of negative consequences, according to the institute:
— About 1 million U.S. workers miss work each day because of stress.
— Stress related to work causes 120,000 deaths in the U.S. annually. Such stress also leads to $190 billion in health care costs on a yearly basis.
— Businesses in the U.S. lose up to $300 billion annually because of workplace stress.
The fact that more than 80% of workers in the U.S. experience work-related stress shows that “working in a stressful environment is the rule, not the exception,” says Colleen Cira, a licensed clinical psychologist and founder and executive director of the Cira Center for Behavioral Health in Chicago. “Anxiety often comes with stress.”
In addition to the usual workplace worries about deadlines, presentations to high-ranking bosses and annual evaluations, many people are grappling with anxiety associated with working during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Research published in 2020 in the Journal of Applied Psychology notes that feelings of anxiety — including those associated with the pandemic — can prompt a “fight or flight” response.
“The fight response is triggered when the threat is deemed surmountable, while the flight response is triggered when it is believed that the threat is difficult to overcome,” researchers wrote. “The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to prompt a flight response, as it is an immediate threat, it is unclear how long it will persist, and there are a multitude of unanswered questions regarding its impact.”
Work-related anxiety can have a paralyzing effect on some people, Cira says. Anxiety at higher levels can leave some people feeling overwhelmed by their work tasks, to the point they freeze. “Their sense of doing assignments in a timely manner, focus and attention to detail go away,” she says. “Some people feel paralyzed because they feel they have too much to do. They might procrastinate or rush through their assignment, not paying the proper amount of attention to detail to their work.”
Fortunately, there are effective strategies for coping with stress related to work.
Here are eight strategies to cope with work-related stress:
— Check in with yourself regularly.
— Don’t assume the worst.
— Avoid becoming too hungry, angry, lonely or tired.
— Accept uncomfortable feelings.
— Get up and move.
— Don’t drink alcohol or use drugs to calm your nerves.
— Seek help from your employee assistance program.
— Learn about your new office safety protocols.
1. Check in with yourself regularly.
Some people get so caught up with their daily responsibilities that they don’t consider whether the level of anxiety they feel is proportional to whatever situation they’re worried about, Cira says. Every time you stand up from your chair, get something to drink or take a short break, and ask yourself: “How am I doing?” Cira suggests. “Am I stressed? Am I feeling overwhelmed?” Being aware that the times your anxiety level is spiking can alert you that it’s time to use stress-managing strategies.
2. Don’t assume the worst.
It’s easy to focus on worst-case scenarios when you’re feeling anxious, but that’s not productive and usually not realistic, says Russell Morfitt, co-founder and chief clinical officer at Learn to Live, Inc., a Minneapolis-based firm that provides online services to help people with anxiety, insomnia and related issues. “We sometimes fall into the trap of planning for negative outcomes, and fail to consider how things may turn out well,” Morfitt says. For example, instead of anticipating you won’t have anything interesting to say during a job interview, imagine talking about a topic that reflects well on your experience and abilities.
3. Avoid becoming too hungry, angry, lonely or tired.
“When we’re hungry, angry, lonely or tired, we have less emotional bandwidth,” Cira says. “It’s like running too many electronic devices on a single Wi-Fi modem. One or more of the devices might freeze. Human beings are the same way,” she says. “Our emotions and nerves can become frayed.” Feelings of stress can cause your body to release the stress hormone cortisol. Too much cortisol is associated with depression, heart disease, weight gain and memory and concentration problems.
4. Accept uncomfortable feelings.
Rather than trying to deny or run from uncomfortable feelings, accept them with the understanding that they’ll pass, Cira says. For example, you might feel anxious during your first weeks at a new job because you have to learn new tasks and a new computer system. Accept that you won’t know everything about your new job right away, and that’s OK, Cira advises. “Some helpful things to say to yourself in this situation might include, ‘I’ve learned new jobs before and it’s turned out alright’; ‘All I can do is my best’; and ‘I should give myself some time to adjust before assuming this won’t work,'” she says.
5. Get up and move.
It’s common to feel like your body is buzzing with extra energy when you’re anxious, Cira says. That can create cognitive dissonance. “Our brain is telling us to relax and chill out, and our body is saying something else,” she says. If you’re feeling fidgety, go for a walk around the office or outside, she says. Even a moderate amount of exercise can prompt your body to release endorphins that will improve your mood.
6. Don’t drink alcohol, overeat or use drugs to calm your nerves.
Some people turn to unhealthy options, like drinking alcohol, overeating or misusing drugs, to self-medicate when they’re dealing with work-related stress, says Dr. Daniel G. Amen, a double-board certified psychiatrist and founder of Amen Clinics, an outpatient health care clinic that offers mental wellness services. Amen, who’s based in Newport Beach, California, is the author of the New York Times bestseller “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life.”
Using alcohol, food or drugs to shield yourself from anxiety is a bad approach, he says. “These choices can end up doing more harm than good,” Amen says. Instead, try healthy ways to reduce stress, like deep breathing, exercise, meditation, listening to relaxing music and getting a massage.
[Read: How to Handle Extreme Stress]
7. Seek help from your employee assistance program.
If you’ve tried various relaxation techniques and find that you still aren’t able to shake persistent feelings of work-related anxiety, it may be time to seek help, Amen says. Talk to trusted friends, relatives and spiritual leaders, and consider using your company’s employee assistance program as a resource. Many employers have such programs that can put you in touch with the right mental health professional for you, Amen says.
8. Learn about your new office safety protocols.
Feeling angst about returning to the office amidst the COVID-19 pandemic is natural, and it’s no reason to be hard on yourself, Amen says. Learning what your company has done to make the office safer might help ease your anxiety. “Talk to your supervisor or the human resources department before your first day back in the office to get a clear understanding of any new protocols,” Amen says.
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Update 03/15/22: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.