How to Beat Work Stress (and Get Away With It)

WORK STRESSI’d like to tell you that when I have work stress (or any other kind of stress) I listen to quiet music and meditate until I calm down.

But I’d be lying.

Normally what I do is call my sister, speed-eat chocolate and swear violently.

No, it’s not the healthiest way to deal with stress, but it’s very effective.

According to The American Institute of Stress, work stress is the biggest source of stress for most of us, and I’m guessing you’re probably right on board with that.

No matter what you do for a living, you’re no stranger to work stress.

If you’re anything like the clients I talk with every day, it  leaves you feeling tired, stuck, depressed and sick.

How do you cope with work stress? 

The thing is, if you don’t deal with it effectively (see my tactics above – or worse), and you let that go on for a while, it takes a toll – a big one.

That’s why it’s important to understand work stress, what I call your “work stress profile”, and what you can do about being stressed at work (short of quitting).

Let’s dive in to see how to take control of your work stress.


Work Stress

I’m sure you’ve heard before that a little stress is good. Without it your brain just wouldn’t be challenged.

The thing is though that sometimes the work stress gets to be too much. Things become unbearable and we just want it to stop.

We feel trapped, hopeless, overwhelmed and helpless.

It’s no way to live. 

In fact, it begins to effect every aspect of your life, from your personal life to your health.

Is it happening to you already?


The Definition of Work Stress

Google defines work stress as “the harmful physical and emotional responses that can happen when there is a conflict between job demands on the employee and the amount of control an employee has over meeting these demands.”

Notice that stress is about the physical and emotional fall out because you don’t have the control you need to actually do your job. We’ll talk more in a minute about this.


What Circumstances Create Work Stress? 

Why do we feel stressed at work?

How many times have you wondered “Am I crazy, or is this my job/boss/co-worker/this project nuts?”

Instead of realizing that most people would find a situation stressful, we usually don’t have an objective way to measure whether the situation is stressful and we begin to question ourselves.

We wonder if we’re tough enough, if we’re doing something wrong, or if we’re missing something.

There’s obviously still some amount of interpretation in every situation, but if you can look at a situation and identify one or more of the red flags, you can be pretty sure that what you’re dealing with isn’t all about you.

So what are these red flags that create work stress and lead to burnout? Here they are:


Red Flags that Create Work Stress and Lead to Burnout

  • Excessive workload
  • High-stress settings, including being on the front line (“in the trenches”)
  • Sense of powerlessness or minimal or no control
  • Frustration about bureaucracy
  • Insufficient resources
  • Inadequate opportunities for reward, promotion, or professional growth (feelings of stagnation)
  • Inadequate supervision and/or training
  • Interpersonal tensions or strains
  • Lack of fairness or perception of fairness
  • Value or ethical conflicts
  • Feelings of isolation or disconnection from family or friends regarding the traumatic and/or otherwise challenging nature of one’s work

Source: Vicarious Trauma & Resilience, S. Megan Berthold, PhD, LCSW, CTS, 2011

Reading over the list, you’ll probably recognize one or more of these items in your own job. Do they seem familiar?

If yes, they are likely taking their toll on you, and you’re feeling it. The a Harris interactive survey from 2013 measured what stresses people out at work. You probably won’t be surprised that among the top are bad pay, bad commute, too much work and annoying co-workers.


Burnout and Control

While actual trauma and torture is far different from having to endure your work day, the feelings of loss of control and helplessness can be similar and some have similar effects.

Feeling like you don’t have control over how you do the work you’re supposed to do, like you don’t have adequate resources, that your environment isn’t supportive or is even hostile, or any of the red flags mentioned above can lead to these feelings which in turn can lead to anxiety, depression, helplessness, health problems and more.

It’s of note that the exact tactics employed by abusers (creating a sense of loss of control and helplessness) are the same that the modern workplace has created. It’s not the intention of your boss or coworkers (in all but the most extreme cases), it’s the way the modern work place is set up.

Between the hierarchy, the demands to do more with less, and little to no regard for what people are passionate about, the classic workplace is a perfect place for people to feel stressed, trapped, a loss of control and hopeless.

But stress is highly personal. What stresses me out might not stress you at all. And what stresses you might not stress me.

In fact, according to

Stress is a highly personalized phenomenon and can vary widely even in identical situations for different reasons. One survey showed that having to complete paper work was more stressful for many police officers than the dangers associated with pursuing criminals.

What does seem to be constant is the “perception of having little control but lots of demands [which] have been demonstrated to be associated with increased rates of heart attack, hypertension and other disorders. ”


Work Stress Profiles

Obviously, people have different personalities, and different things stress different people out.

I believe your personality and what how you react under stress, or what things you find stressful, form a “work stress profile,” or pattern of how you carry stress at work.

Who are you at work? What is your “work stress profile”? Maybe you’ll recognize your pattern among the profiles below.

Overworked/Underpaid: Classic story, this employee takes on or is given too much work, but isn’t compensated for it properly. Unfairness leads to feelings of stress.

Overlooked Go-Getter: Closely related to the Overworked/Underpaid profile, the Overlooked Go-Getter actually seeks out additional work and responsibility, believing it will earn recognition (but later finds out s/he is mistaken).

No Support/Can’t Ask for Help: This employee is also overworked, may be underpaid, but the hallmark of this person is that they can’t ask for the help or resources they need to get the job done. Consequently, they are always drowning in work and feeling alone in it.

Doormat: The Doormat can’t say no. They feel obligated to take on every project and do everything they are asked. They don’t object when people treat them badly either – they usually pass it off with some explanation. The Doormat is too nice, and it ends up costing them.

Always-on-Call: You can spot an Always-on-Call out of work, because they are the ones leaving the restaurant to take a call, who miss a date with friends because they had to work late, or who aren’t paying attention at the movies because they’re checking their email. They have no boundaries between work and life, and it makes them inattentive at best, unreliable at worst. They might not even realize how much work has taken over their lives, or if they do, that they can do something about it.

Still There? Like the Always-on-Call, the Still There? is constantly working. The difference is, the Still There? doesn’t actually leave work. They’re the last ones to leave the office, the first ones in, and if it’s possible, they might even sleep there! They believe there’s so much to do and that it has to get done by them – right now! Life is still happening outside of work, but the belief that they need to be in the office makes thinking about leaving difficult. Balancing it all becomes incredibly stressful!

Scapegoat: The Scapegoat is just that – a scapegoat for the boss, the manager, or sometimes the entire department or company. Sometimes people need someone to blame, and if you’re it, it’s extremely stressful.

Magician: The Magician is asked to perform miracles at work. They’re expected to do more with less, make contracts appear, pull together projects with non-existent resources. The stress of doing something with fewer and fewer resources, and more demands of time and expectation is very stressful, and it takes a Magician to make it all happen.

The Invisible Man: Nothing ever goes right at work for The Invisible Man. They’re passed over for promotion, they don’t get recognition for a job well-done, their co-workers always steal the thunder. This person seems invisible, no matter how good their work is. Trying hard but never getting anywhere is a recipe for giving up – but in a job that you have to continue to work at to keep, your stress levels will rise.

The Grouch: What may be a decent place to work is seen as a really terrible place by The Grouch. Because of their stress levels and their dissatisfaction with their job and how they have been treated, they really have soured on the whole place and can’t see anything good about it at all. When The Grouch stays at this job too long, this attitude starts to seep into their work relationships and even spills over into the rest of their lives.

Which one do you fit? Do you recognize your co-workers? Did I miss any? 

[Tweet “Which of the 10 #workstress profiles do you fit? Find out here: #stress #worklifebalance”]


The Work Stress Test

Did you know there is a way to scientifically measure work stress?

There is a work stress test called The Copenhagen Burnout Inventory (CBI). It measures personal burnout, work burnout, and client burnout.

Get a sense of your degree of burnout by taking a look at the questions and thinking about your answers with the English version of the test.


Work Stress and Health

There are well-known symptoms of chronic stress, as well as less known symptoms you need to be aware of and when you’re under chronic stress, there’s huge consequences for your health including heart issues, anxiety and depression and many other stress related conditions.

Work Stress costs an estimated $300 billion dollars in the US alone. There are many reasons why this is true, including increased healthcare costs, absenteeism and turnover.

Work Stress Relief

It’s preferable to prevent stress, but once you have it, work stress management is essential. How can you get some relief from the stress you have? Here are some tips:

  • Pay attention to self care, including sleep, nutrition, exercise.
  • Maintain work life balance as much as possible.
  • Do something fun, even mini-breaks are beneficial.
  • Don’t make things worse with overuse of alcohol, or drug use.
  • Personal and professional support systems can be extremely helpful.
  • Get medical or psychological help for depression, insomnia, heart issues, etc. that you may be experiencing.
  • Be creative.

Take It From The Pros: How Trauma Professionals Deal With Work Stress

Trauma professionals have jobs that are inherently stressful, and while the work environments themselves may sometimes may be supportive, there is no guarantee that they are any more supportive or less stressful than the average workplace.

Also, the nature of the work can be traumatizing, and workers may have feelings of isolation or disconnection from others who don’t understand what they face at work every day.

So how do these professionals – people including fire fighters, police officers, EMTs, social workers, nurses, doctors, therapists and more –  deal with stress at work and survive burnout?

What takeaways do they have that you can use? 

Leave work at work

Finding a ritual that allows you to leave work at work can be very helpful in separating your work time from the rest of your life.

For example, you might put away work papers or clear your desk at the end of the day.

Create a strict no-call or no-email after work policy.

Changing out of work clothes as soon as you get home.

Create a transition time between work and home

Walking or biking home through a beautiful neighborhood.

Reading great book while taking public transportation home from work.

Taking 5- to 10-minutes of quiet or meditation when you get home to shift gears mentally and emotionally.

Exercising after work.

Playing with your pet or family right after work.

Talk about it with people who get it

Talk with a supportive friend, family member or professional who can help you cope with your feelings about work.

Talk with others who share your same work experiences to process what the work challenges are like.

Feel free to use humor – even dark humor – to help you cope, but make a decision about how you want to come across to others, and don’t cross that line.


Beating Work Stress and Getting Away With It

The truth is, every job has some amount of stress, and unless you learn how to deal with it effectively, you’re going to be suffering the consequences.

Understanding work stress, how to deal with it, and having insights into your particular work-stress profile can help you manage your stress levels even if you can’t quit your job right now.

You can beat work stress and get away with it by knowing yourself and how you react to stress, working consciously to identify stressful situations and combating them and reducing the stress symptoms you do have.

How do you plan to counteract the work stress you have from your job? 


Bad Jobs, self care, Work Life Balance

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