Some days, the mere word “work” can make our chest tighten with stress and take our attention away from the present. Thinking of work stress—whether we’re at work or not—can lead us into an unhealthy inner dialogue about how much work stress we have—and how that stress is bad for us—which only serves to further stress us out!
I’m certainly not perfect when it comes to work stress. In fact, I was inspired to write this article to help me, too! After a few weeks of unusually high and constant work-related stress, I knew it was time to revisit some healthy strategies for living with stress. I’ve picked five common sources of work stress, but I understand that there are more than this list entails and that we all experience work stress in our own ways, but hopefully these tips can be tailored to particular situations you encounter.
Before I jump in, I want to address a concept that’s foundational to a balanced approach the stress: Stress will happen. You are not at fault for experiencing stress. Adopting the mentality that to cope with stress is to avoid it altogether will give way to unmet expectations (trust me, I’ve been there!). Rather, it’s far more productive to acknowledge the source of stress and consciously tailor our response to it.
The dreaded d-word of the work world. There’s nothing like a looming date—or time of day—to send some of us into a flurried panic. I’ve found that if I’m stressed about a deadline, it’s not because I don’t believe I can accomplish a task in time, it’s because I’m not sure when or how I will do it, and I feel like the situation is in control of me—not the other way around. This is where planning can ease your mind about an upcoming deadline. Sitting down to divide the task into smaller tasks and then assigning yourself those tasks between now and the due date can make the situation feel a bit more under control, freeing up some of your energy for other important things. That’s not to say that you will no longer feel stress about the deadline—you will—but this stress can be channelled into actually working on the project.
If there are extenuating circumstances that may actually prevent you from meeting your deadline, discuss this with your supervisor as soon as possible. Establishing a pattern of honestly when discussing timelines and expectations may feel daunting at first (and be its own source of stress), but it’s actually one way of illustrating that you take ownership for your work.
Healthy stress response mantra: I have a voice in my project timelines.
Mistakes—or the fear of them—are my greatest sources of work stress. I think this anxiety comes from the misconception that those who view my work and see my mistakes will associate me with my errors and will find me incompetent. I think what’s really happening is that I’m making that judgment about myself and assuming others share it. But this isn’t necessarily the case.
When you do make a mistake and experience the sinking feeling of oh this sucks! remind yourself that this stress is indicative of how much you care about producing quality work. There are many mistakes we can learn from. To avoid making the same mistake in the future, I’ll make a note in my work notebook like “always double check xyz.” Other mistakes that happen simply because you’re not a perfect machine should be acknowledged and then let go.
On a final note about mistakes: We all make them, but not all of us take ownership of them. The ability to acknowledge that you made a mistake without giving excuses (unless there were circumstances beyond your control) is a skill that belongs in everyone’s professional arsenal.
Healthy stress response mantra: Mistakes will happen. They are an important part of my professional development, but they do not define me as a person/employee/creative.
Professional development-related stress can hit us in a few ways. Perhaps we feel that we are in over our heads and in constant anxiety about measuring up and being good enough. These pains, may in fact be growing pains, however. A former professor once mentioned that when you feel like ideas or abilities are beyond your reach, that’s when you’re really learning. This may cause stress, but remember that this is a productive process.
Another source of professional development-related stress may come from feeling stuck or not sure what your next career move will be. I have certainly felt stressed about not knowing what I should be doing with my life at various times. Here, it’s valuable to acknowledge that uncertainty and unanswered questions are natural sources of stress, but when it comes to choosing a life path, uncertainty is normal. Another professor once told me (how are they so wise?!) to “live in the questions” rather than try to avoid them or find immediate answers. Living in the questions is just one stage of your career journey.
Healthy stress response mantra: I trust my professional struggle. What may feel like a dead end may be a sign to move on, which is valuable in its own right. My timeline of success may differ from those around me, and that’s okay. My definition of success may differ from those around me, and that’s okay.
Personal Life Spillover
Sometimes we have to show up at work when we’re experiencing personal drama. It’s hard to leave personal problems at the office door and just turn on work mode. There may, in fact, be times when your personal life demands that you take a day off. But for smaller yet nagging issues, it may be helpful to go to work as normal, and when you have a few moments, jot down what you’re feeling. This will help you feel that the issues are acknowledged, at least for the moment. Although it may be necessary to give them more attention later, one way of responding to this source of stress is to take a break from it while you’re at work. Note that this is not the same thing as permanently avoiding the matters. In fact, your mind will likely be working out solution to them “in the background” while you tackle your to-do list.
Healthy stress response mantra: It’s important to give attention to my personal matters outside of work (or take a personal day when necessary), but I can also turn to my work as a sanctuary to give myself a rest from outside struggles.
I’m come to crave constructive criticism—it’s truly a gift when someone takes the time to show you how to improve. Anticipating feedback and receiving even thoughtful advice, however, can be a source of stress. I think this is because it’s so, so easy to internalize that feedback (I still do this despite the fact that I value productive criticism).
As a graduate student, I was told to view feedback on my writing as feedback on the writing—not feedback on me the person. This is easier said than done sometimes, but I think it’s a worthy goal. When we’re able to disentangle ourselves from our work products, we are better able to view them more objectively, which prepares us to either evolve or abandon them when appropriate.
Healthy stress response mantra: My writing/ideas/contributions come from me, but any critique of them is not a critique of me personally but of the products themselves.
What are your trusted and healthy ways to respond to work stress?
Related: Finding Your Career Purpose
Get more like this–sign up for our newsletter for exclusive inspirational content!