How to Deal with Stress at Work: Causes, Signs and Tips

Say “goodbye” to workplace stress once and for all.

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

How to deal with stress at work

Workplace stress is an increasingly prevalent issue in today’s fast-paced and demanding professional world. The pressures of meeting deadlines, handling difficult coworkers or supervisors, and maintaining a healthy work–life balance can take a toll on our physical and mental wellbeing.

Especially if you work in one of the more stressful jobs, it can be even tougher. 

However, it's essential to recognize that stress is a natural response to challenging situations. The key lies in learning how to manage and mitigate its effects.

In this guide, we’ll cover how to deal with stress at work. From identifying the sources of stress to adopting practical techniques for stress management, we’ll explore a wide range of approaches to help you navigate the storm of workplace stress.

Stress and the global workforce

Many statistics regarding stress at work are sobering. In the US, 56% of workers in corporate or government positions feel at least somewhat burned out. It’s a similar picture worldwide, with Gallup’s Global 2022 Workplace Report highlighting that 44% of global workers experience some form of stress.

Stress impacts different workers in different ways. For example, globally, people under 35 are more likely to feel stressed than older workers, and stress is more prevalent in Europe and Asia than in the Americas, Australasia, Africa and India. This data shows that stress is a global issue — and not one to be taken lightly.

The causes of workplace stress

Workplace stress can arise from various factors, and its causes can be multifaceted and complex, including factors not immediately related to work, such as personal circumstances or technology. Understanding these causes is essential for us to identify and address stressors effectively.

Here are some common causes of workplace stress:

  • Concerns away from work, such as health or financial worries
  • Conflicts with coworkers or managers
  • Excessive workloads
  • Job insecurity
  • Lack of control
  • Lack of recognition or lack of progression
  • Long hours
  • Technology overload, or a feeling of being “always on”
  • Toxic work environments
  • Unclear expectations

Symptoms to look out for

Understanding the signs of workplace stress is crucial for addressing and managing it effectively.

Stress can become symptomatic in terms of how it physically affects us. These factors impact the work we do and our workplace relationships.

Here are some ways to spot workplace stress:

  • Aggression or short-temperedness
  • Changes in daily habits, such as mealtimes or grooming standards
  • Decreased productivity
  • Decreased work performance
  • Difficulties in concentrating or increased procrastination
  • Increases in physical complaints
  • Increases in sick days and absenteeism
  • Mood swings
  • Negative thinking or pessimism
  • Social withdrawal

The effects of ignoring the signs

Stress is an insidious force that can creep into our lives, affecting our physical and mental health before we even realize it. One of the most dangerous mistakes we can make is ignoring the signs of stress. Here are some compelling reasons why this practice is a recipe for disaster.

Firstly, stress doesn't simply disappear on its own. In fact, it can grow exponentially. When we overlook its early warning signs (like irritability, sleep disturbances or muscle tension), we allow stress to fester and grow. What might have been a manageable issue can quickly escalate into a full-blown crisis, with serious and long-lasting consequences for you and those around you.

Secondly, ignoring stress can lead to a range of physical health problems. Chronic stress has been linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity and a compromised immune system. Over time, it can even contribute to the development of more severe conditions like anxiety disorders and depression, which can lead to suicidal thoughts. If you, or someone you know, has suicidal thoughts, please contact your local suicide crisis line immediately.

Furthermore, stress can wreak havoc on our professional relationships. When we fail to address the signs of stress, our work performance might suffer, leading to missed deadlines and strained relationships with coworkers. As these creep in, we might begin to suffer from burnout or exhaustion. Stress is often missed as an illness by employers, who might focus on our underperformance, leading to job loss.

Ignoring stress impacts our personal relationships and can rob us of the joy in our lives. At home, we might become distant, irritable or emotionally unavailable, causing friction with loved ones. Stress can become a constant companion, overshadowing our moments of happiness and preventing us from fully enjoying life’s pleasures.

How to deal with workplace stress

Workplace stress can affect us all and it can be serious. That said, it can be managed and reduced. Here are 10 top tips to do so:

1. Set boundaries

In today’s busy world where technology makes it increasingly difficult to switch off from your day in the office, finding ways to set boundaries is important. Set clear boundaries between work and your personal life, and inform your managers and coworkers of these so you can set the right expectations.

Avoid taking work-related calls or checking emails during your downtime. It’s easier said than done, but following this advice will mean that you’ll create mental space to switch off after your day’s work is done.

2. Delegate and collaborate

Teamwork does indeed make the dream work! In many jobs, there are many ways to collaborate with others and delegate certain tasks. If possible, delegate tasks or collaborate with coworkers to share the workload. Doing this can make big tasks seem less daunting, help you save time, and manage the expectations of others.

Teamwork doesn’t just assist in terms of productivity. It can also be a fun and social way of working, and a chance to learn new ways of working from others.

3. Communicate effectively

Open and honest communication with coworkers and supervisors can help address workplace issues and reduce tension. Many situations of stress involve communication or times where ineffective or inadequate communication has created difficult situations.

Don’t be afraid to say “no” to coworkers. Share with them how you’re feeling, and provide plenty of notice if you need to tell people projects might not be completed on time, or when you’re unable to finish something. Such communication not only reduces stress but also showcases you as an effective communicator.

Don’t hesitate to seek support from other people — asking for help is a great communication trait in itself, after all.

4. Identify stressors

Pinpointing the specific factors causing stress in your workplace is vital for dealing with it. This could be excessive workloads, difficult coworkers, tight deadlines or unclear job expectations. Stressors at work will vary from industry to industry and from job to job.

You might also want to take time to reflect on what stressors are impacting you at work, as these might not be readily apparent in the moment. Consider what stressors are having a more serious impact or would make the biggest difference to your wellbeing if they are removed or reduced.

5. Maintain a healthy lifestyle

A healthy body is better equipped to handle stress and will also support your wellbeing when you feel stressed, by minimizing its physical impacts. While work might get hectic and there won’t appear to be enough hours in the day to look after yourself, there are ways to do this.

Maintain a healthy lifestyle by eating well, exercising regularly and finding time to socialize with loved ones, especially if it’s to talk about a difficult day and “let it all out”. Ensure you get plenty of sleep, and stick to a set bedtime every evening.

It’s also helpful to set goals in order to ensure you stick to your healthy lifestyle; it’s only going to benefit you if you keep at it for the long term!

6. Practice mindfulness and relaxation techniques

One of the most powerful ways to cope with and reduce work stress is to practice mindfulness. You can do this through engaging in meditation, listening to your favorite music, undertaking deep breathing exercises, or practicing progressive muscle relaxation techniques to reduce stress levels and increase mental clarity.

Mindfulness techniques might be new ground for some people, but there are plenty of ways to get into this and learn how to do them. Many companies will organize mindfulness interventions for their employees and provide opportunities for it during the working day or holding classes before or after work.

Mindfulness is also not just about solitary moments; you can get involved with colleagues or friends as well.

7. Seek professional help

Of course, sometimes, it can be inevitable that stress can take over to such a degree that more drastic and structured forms of management will be the better solution. In these cases, where workplace stress becomes overwhelming and begins to affect your mental health, consider seeking support from a therapist or mental health counselor. They can provide coping strategies and guidance tailored to your situation.

Listen to your friends and family too. If they suggest that professional help is the way forward, then take their advice. They might be noticing behavioral changes about you that are not apparent to you.

8. Set realistic goals

While workplace goals work best when they’re set to stretch your capabilities, don’t take this to the extreme or set goals that will cause you stress because they’re nearly impossible to complete. A good goal-setting framework is SMART: goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-Bound.

SMART frameworks ensure your goals are invigorating and energizing, but not draining and insurmountable. When receiving goals and targets from managers, challenge any that you know cannot be achieved, and propose alternatives. Manage other people’s expectations and set realistic timeframes to avoid creating unnecessary stress when following up with work.

9. Take regular breaks

Regular breaks throughout the day are a win-win approach to working well. Short breaks help your mind refresh and relax, and can lead to greater productivity and output in the long run. A break to take a walk, stretch your legs, eat a snack, or just to step outside for a few moments can do wonders for your mental wellbeing and is scientifically proven to reduce stress as well as ensuring you work better.

No matter how busy you are, find time in your day to take these regular breaks. One technique to consider is Pomodoro, where you take a short break of 5 minutes for every 20 minutes you work. Once you get into the habit of doing this, it can be a hard routine to break!

10. Work on your time management

Effective time management is vital for work–life balance and in creating a feeling of control at work. Managing time appropriately can also support you in completing tasks on time and reducing pressure from others who won’t need to chase for work to be completed. Focus on developing your time management skills to avoid burnout and allocate your time efficiently.

Tools like to-do lists, calendars and project management software can be helpful in supporting you to manage your own time. One other key aspect of time management is learning how to say “no” at work. This is easier said than done but can be instrumental in managing your stakeholders and their expectations in terms of what you should be and can be doing.

Key takeaways

Workplace stress can affect anyone at any place. It’s a sadly common ailment and can have lasting and serious implications for our mental and physical health.

Here are some key points about stress and how it can be managed:

  • Workplace stress is a global issue, impacting all regions in similar ways.
  • Workplace stress is caused by many different factors that can be present in all kinds of jobs.
  • Stress can manifest itself in different ways, from physical and mental illnesses to behavioral changes and a reduction in workplace performance.
  • Stress can be managed through changes in lifestyle and working approaches.

Thankfully, with awareness of what to look out for and putting in place some positive behaviors and routines, stress can be overcome so you can enjoy a rewarding and mindful career journey.

Got a question or want to share your own experiences of workplace stress? Let us know in the comments section below.

Originally published on September 28, 2017.