Executive Wellness Guide: Stress in the Workplace
Managing Mental Anxiety on the Job
By Eric J. Wallace
It’s 10 a.m. on a sunny Tuesday morning, and 30-year-old Newport News transplant Nate Dillinger is attending the first of a daylong gauntlet of meetings. As the digital marketing director for a prominent Virginia Beach nonprofit, he is presenting an analytic report to company executives. However, a younger colleague interrupts him just three sentences in.
“She works for me, is super ambitious and pretty clearly wants my job,” he explains over coffee in the bustling Aromas café at Oyster Point. Due to an inclusive company culture, employees of all levels are encouraged to attend and participate at strategy meetings, which tend to take the form of a roundtable discussion. “I’ll be in the middle of what should be a quick point—” say, donations from newsletter clicks are up 5 percent— “when she butts in in a would-be exegetic capacity … Basically, she’ll try to insinuate she deserves credit for the bump, which was actually the result of initiatives set in place months before she arrived.”
For Nate, the diversion is unnecessary and wildly frustrating. But board members seem to eat it up. In fact, they applaud the behavior as a passionate “commitment to the company.” This, Nate says, is completely wrong. “She shouldn’t be there in the first place and she certainly shouldn’t be commended for sharing misleading information.”
While well-meaning, he says the “executive head-patting” has a trickle-down effect. It encourages junior level employees to view the passive undercutting of their superiors as a viable way to secure collateral for advancement. Furthermore, meetings that should take no longer than 30 minutes grind into “asinine hour-and-a-half discussions about nothing.”
In short, the scenario is stressing him out.
Unfortunately, Nate’s situation is far from isolated. According to the American Psychological Association, in 2017, more than 61 percent of Americans cited work as their top source of stress, and one in three designated the condition as “chronic.” Meanwhile, less than 40 percent reported doing an “excellent or very good job” of managing that stress.
“Stress occurs when you experience the perception that the demands placed on you exceed your ability to cope,” says Anthony Centore, Ph.D., founder of Thriveworks Counseling in Virginia Beach. “Any job can have stressful elements, even if you love what you do. In the short-term, that could take the form of pressure to meet a deadline or to fulfill a challenging obligation. And that’s no big deal.”
But when workplace stress becomes chronic, it’s a different matter entirely. Among the most common habitual stressors cited by the APA are low salary, excessive workloads, lack of growth or advancement potential, inadequate social support, limited control over job-related decisions and unclear performance expectations. Or, as in Nate’s case, a discrepancy in company culture compounded by hyper-competitive coworkers.
“If left unchecked, chronic stress can give rise to anxiety, insomnia, high blood pressure and a weakened immune system,” warns Centore. “It can also contribute to health conditions such as depression, obesity and heart disease. Furthermore, people who experience excessive stress frequently deal with it in unhealthy ways, such as overeating, eating unhealthy foods, smoking cigarettes or abusing drugs and alcohol.”
Luckily, Centore says there are tools workers can use to protect themselves from the damaging effects of workplace stress. In general, he recommends a 10-point, two-tiered approach addressing both office and homelife.
Exercise—Research shows that regular exercise benefits both mind and body. However, in the midst of a crisis, just 20 minutes of heartrate-boosting physical activity can work wonders for mitigating stress. It will bump up your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters (endorphins) and give you a quick ‘runner’s high.’
Laughter—When we’re stressed, our faces often tense into a scowl. However, the simple act of laughing can disrupt the negativity and give you a quick jolt of happiness. Pop on a comedy special and indulge a bit of healthy giggling.
Social support—Sharing our concerns and feelings with others can be a godsend for diffusing stress. Just make sure the person is someone you can trust to understand and validate you. If no one fits the bill, try to find a support group, counselor or online forum.
Healthy diet—Stress drains your energy and weakens your body’s immuno-responses. Keeping hydrated and eating a balanced, nutrient-rich diet will help you stay strong and feel better during times of increased psychological tension. And here’s a tip: Steer clear of excess sugary foods and caffeine, as they subject your body to a rollercoaster of ups and downs.
Adequate sleep—Unfortunately, stress sometimes keeps us awake late into the night. But the lost sleep gives rise to fatigue, which reduces our body’s ability to cope. The result is a negative spiral. Vigorous exercise can help dispel nervous energy. Additionally, try training your body by going to bed at the same time each night and reading a book until you fall asleep.
In the Office
Track stressors—Using a journal, keep track of workplace situations that create stress and how you respond to them. Note your feelings, what happened to trigger the situation, who was involved and so on. Taking notes will help you identify patterns and how to deal with them.
Develop healthy responses—As you begin to identify repeat stressors, work to create positive coping strategies. For instance, if your boss scolds you and you find yourself running to the snack machine for a chocolate candy bar, stop. Instead, try taking a 20-minute walk to cool down.
Boundaries—Establishing boundaries between your work and homelife can go a long way toward reducing stress. Make rules that suit your lifestyle and stick to them. For instance, you might say no more checking emails after 7 p.m. Or, no business phone calls during dinner.
Recharge—To avoid burning out, you need time to disconnect from work. Take a day off to immerse yourself in doing something you enjoy. If you find yourself unable to take time off, power down your phone for a mini vacation. Just one hour engaging in non-work-related activities can be quite rejuvenating.
Talk to your supervisor—Try having an open conversation with your supervisor. Discuss the stressors you’ve identified in your journal and how they might be minimized to enable your peak performance. Remember, a happy worker is a more productive worker: It’s in your boss’s interest to promote a healthy employee workspace.