De-stress at work

American workers are more stressed out than ever. The American Psychological Association just released its annual “2008 Stress in America” poll and the findings aren’t surprising — the economic downturn is taking a physical and mental toll. Half of Americans surveyed say they are increasingly stressed about their ability to provide for their family’s basic needs. Fifty-three percent report fatigue, 60 percent report feelings of irritability or anger, and 52 percent report difficulty sleeping as a result of stress.

All this stress obviously affects American workplaces, particularly morale and productivity. Short fuses dramatically increase the potential for problematic or dysfunctional behaviors that affect everyone from upper management and co-workers to customers.

Managing stress is vital to overall workplace and employee health. Here are some suggestions for what you can do to cope better:

  • Pay attention to your body’s stress signals. Holding your breath, rapid heart rate, stomach in knots — muscle tension is your body’s way of trying to tell you something. Identify your best “self soothing” strategy when you recognize these signs. For many, deep conscious breathing (belly breathing) helps, not the shallow breathing most of us do when we are in pain or in stress.

Your breath is always with you, so deep breathing is a technique you can always count on.

Other strategies like meditation or listening to relaxing music can help “ground” you.

  • Take care of yourself, physically and mentally. Stay active. Exercise releases endorphins, which make us feel better, and is a proven way to reduce stress. Find ways to “chill” — yoga, watching a funny movie, etc. For those who can pull it off, taking a short catnap can do wonders.
  • Surround yourself with positive people and reminders of the “what matters” in your life. Avoid those who are vexations to your spirit and cause you unnecessary stress.
  • Disconnect from the stream of constant bad news. If you find yourself obsessively checking your 401(k) balance or the plummeting stock market — stop! Keep perspective; focus on what you can control and avoid fretting about what you can’t.
  • Tough times like these frequently mean we are being asked to do more with less. Coach’s tip: give up “perfectionism.” Ask your boss to prioritize your work load; if your boss drops additional work on you, ask what part of your normal work load you can give up to accomplish the new task.

If saying no is a problem for you, get some coaching help. Trying to do it all is a never-ending hamster wheel.

  • Plan. Planning helps lessen being overwhelmed by providing focus and control in your workday. Start each work day by creating your “to do” list and prioritize those tasks that must get done. Knock these out when your energy is high (for most, this is in the morning).
  • Remember humor and fun are good for the workplace. Researchers from California State University Long Beach determined that people who have fun at work are more creative, more productive, work better with others and call in sick less often. Enjoyable activities are good for team building and effective stress relievers.
  • Get enough sleep. Stress and fear release cortisol and adrenaline, which increase heart rate, making it difficult for many to sleep. Another good reason to exercise: it will help you sleep better.
  • Find support. Friends, family or a therapist can provide emotional support to help you through the most difficult times. Industry and professional associates can provide community and shared experiences. Professional coaches can help you get unstuck, navigate through difficult times and provide unbiased perspective.

In the midst of a crisis, we look to our leaders to provide calm, order and direction. See next week’s column for tips on leading during turbulent times.