There’s no shortage of factors that make us feel stressed. Even though pandemic restrictions have wound down, COVID-19 is lingering alongside the rest of life’s major stressors — and it’s taking a toll.
If that wasn’t enough, more than three quarters of U.S. workers suffer from some kind of stress in the workplace.
The negative effects of stress on productivity and employee health are real. If left untreated, chronic stress can cause everything from fatigue to burnout. Stress can also cause physical health problems like high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease.
Americans lose 15–30 minutes per day they could’ve spent being productive to stress. And it’s a significant driver behind absences — up to 54% of workers miss one to two days of work each year because of job stress.
You can’t change what’s on the news. But you can mitigate the effects of workplace stressors. The first step is learning how to identify them, and we can help with that.
Signs of stress at work
Not all stress is bad. Sometimes your body’s stress response can improve your focus, energy, and ability to rise up to the task.
But it’s a fine line between “I have to get this done” and “This is too much for me, I need to step back before I burn out.” And when you push too hard, you put yourself at risk of experiencing a number of psychological and physical symptoms.
The psychological signs of stress include:
- Irritability or outbursts of anger
- Low mood
- Low productivity coupled with feelings of underachievement
- Cynicism and defensiveness
- Nervousness and feeling “on edge”
- Inability to switch off from work
- Poor decision-making
- Lack of motivation
Some of these signs are more subtle than others. You might not notice you’re more cynical or irritable than usual, especially if you’ve been stressed for a while. That’s why it’s worth journaling, meditating, or asking a loved one if they’ve noticed changes in your mood — you may have been less than pleasant to hang out with lately.
Stress can also manifest through physical symptoms, including:
- Insomnia and tiredness due to lack of sleep
- Over-reliance on caffeine or alcohol
- Back pain
- Musculoskeletal disorders
- Undesired weight loss or weight gain
- Shortness of breath
- Frequent or long-lasting colds
In small doses, these symptoms might not seem like a big deal. But they’re signs your body is tired from feeling stressed all of the time.
When you’re stressed, adrenaline, epinephrine, and cortisol (your body’s natural stress hormones) course through your veins. This constricts your blood vessels, raises your blood sugar, and increases your heart rate.
These physiological changes are meant to protect you from real or perceived threats, which is why they’re colloquially called your “fight or flight response.” But, long-term, they can wear you down, leading to more serious conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
That’s why it’s important to find relief when you can. Your body needs time to recover from the acute effects of stress hormones.
4 categories of common workplace stressors
There’s usually more to a job than simply completing your tasks. You have to attend meetings, update your boss on deliverables, and navigate interpersonal relationships with your colleagues — all of which can become sources of work-related stress.
With so many potential causes, it can be difficult to identify where your stress is coming from. We’ve organized the most common sources of stress into four distinct categories:
1. Task design
Stressors can be related to your tasks at work. Some examples are:
- Workload. A heavy workload will inevitably boost your levels of stress. But you can also experience stress if you don’t have enough work, leading to lethargy and boredom.
- Pace and variety of tasks. Tight deadlines, long hours, and shift work are common causes of workplace stress.
- Lack of control. If your boss is a micromanager, it’s hard to feel invested in your work. You can’t put your heart into it because you don’t have the freedom to make your own decisions. But sometimes, you can’t resist — and all of those changes stress you out.
- Lack of support or training. It’s easy to drown if you’re thrown into the deep end with little support. If you’re new to a role or task and don’t receive adequate training, instead of relishing in the challenge, you’ll probably feel overwhelmed and stressed.
- Little or no appreciation for your work. If you’re up until midnight completing that last line of code, it would be nice to receive a thank you. Regular appreciation can boost your morale and make you more likely to stay in a job. It’s also reassuring. Without praise, you might spend hours fretting about your job performance.
2. Role in the organization
Sometimes stress is unavoidable thanks to your position in your company’s hierarchy. Here are some potential ways this can play out:
- Too many supervisors. If you report to multiple bosses, and their requests conflict with each other, you might spend more time clearing things up than completing your work.
- Role ambiguity. You’re uncertain about your job demands, responsibilities, expectations, or where your work fits in the big picture, which makes you nervous and on edge.
- Level of responsibility. You’re a leader in your organization and are responsible for other people’s work. This causes you to feel an extra weight on your shoulders.
3. Career development
You might have hit a dead end and feel uncertain about the future. Some stressors in this category are:
- No opportunities for advancement. You might have plateaued in your current role and want a promotion, but there are either no opportunities in your company.
- Too much advancement, too fast. On the flip side, you might have been promoted too quickly. A healthy challenge can be fun, but the stress adds up when you feel out of your depth or like an imposter.
- Job insecurity. If you don’t have enough to do, you might fear being laid off — especially if the economy is struggling or your company is undergoing significant organizational changes.
4. Workplace relationships
Your relationship with your superiors and colleagues can play a significant role in your stress levels. In fact, 35% of employed Americans say their main stressor at work is their boss.
Here are some ways relationships can affect impact your stress and well-being:
- Toxic leadership. Organizational culture starts at the top. If your company’s leaders are toxic, it can negatively impact your working conditions and lead to stressful situations.
- Difficult coworkers. You might have a coworker who is a bully, borrows your stuff without asking, or talks too much. Constant work interference is enough to raise anyone’s cortisol levels.
- Prejudice or discrimination. The effects of workplace discrimination on stress are well-documented. Women who experience sexism at work are more depressed and have lower self-esteem than women who feel respected. Black Americans and LGBTQ+ people report similar mental health outcomes if they feel stigmatized at work. If you feel unfairly targeted because of your identity, that’s not just grounds for stress — it could be grounds for a lawsuit.
Coping with a stressful work environment
Dealing with workplace stress is difficult. Ideally, you could remove your stressor quickly — whether that means asking for a quieter workspace to avoid interruptions or quitting your job in favor of a less stressful position.
But if you can’t immediately change your situation, you’ll have to learn how to cope. Here are some tips on how to deal with stress at work:
1. Track your stressors
Keep a record of situations that cause you the most stress. You want to identify patterns around what’s causing your stress and how you react.
In a journal, try asking yourself:
With this information, you can develop coping strategies. If you regularly experience interruptions after lunch, try to complete important tasks in the morning when you’re focused. These stress tracking efforts will help you learn how to structure your day.
2. Use healthy coping mechanisms
A tub of ice cream is comforting every once in a while. But relying on junk food, alcohol, or cigarettes for stress relief can harm your health. Instead, try these self-care strategies:
- Exercising regularly
- Enjoying nature
- Seeing your loved ones
- A good night’s sleep
It’s important to build a healthy work-life balance, especially if you’re working from home. You can try:
- Turning off your phone after a certain hour
- Going for a walk after your work day is over
- Scheduling your downtime with non-work activities
4. Look for ways to switch off
You might still feel anxious about work long after you’ve clocked out. Pulling your thoughts from work will help your body re-calibrate to regular hormone levels. To do this, try focusing on something else for a while. Some productive distractions include:
- Solving a jigsaw puzzle
- Learning a musical instrument
- Losing yourself in a book
- Playing a challenging video game
5. Talk to your supervisor or human resources
If your trust your company, you can ask HR or your boss for help. They can refer you to an employee assistance program, a psychosocial support system that can help with your stress management.
6. Lean on your support system
Connecting with friends, family, and loved ones will help you relax. These people can also offer an outside perspective on your situation and maybe even tips to help you cope.
You might also benefit from talking to a mental health professional. If your stress is causing depression and/or anxiety, they can help put you on a path to recovery.
Navigating workplace stress is hard work
Identifying your workplace stressors is the first step toward coping with them or eliminating them altogether. If you have a difficult coworker, you can try to communicate with them differently to improve your relationship. If you’re worried about your task list, you can learn to delegate. Or, if you’re in a truly toxic environment, you can look for a new job.
It’s okay to ask for help if you need it. Whether it’s a friend, a coach, or a therapist, reaching out to someone you trust is the first and most important step in managing chronic stress.