Workplace stress has been a topic of research for many years but the condition itself seems to be on the rise – with one study finding increases year-on-year since 2015. The “Work-related stress, depression or anxiety statistics,” published in late 2018 by the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines work-related stress as “a harmful reaction people have to undue pressures and demands placed on them at work.” Sound familiar? And the primary causes of the work-related stress detailed in this report all revolve around workload pressures including tight deadlines, too much responsibility, and a lack of managerial support.
My SysAid colleagues recently conducted a Future of ITSM 2019 survey in partnership with ITSM.tools which highlighted that the issue of workplace stress is prevalent within the IT industry. It found that “just over half of respondents feel that working in IT is adversely affecting their personal wellbeing.” And with 84% of respondents also believing that working in IT will get harder over the next three years, I think we can safely assume that, without sufficient attention, working in IT is going to be even more stressful.
To help, this rather long blog offers ten tips for managing workplace stress.
The dangers of work-related stress
Stress can have a hugely negative impact on people – ranging from headaches and trouble concentrating, right through to losing sleep, triggering anxiety, and even jeopardizing personal relationships. Small amounts of stress in the short-term can actually help you to focus and be more productive but too much for too long can lead to a myriad of health issues.
The problem with stress, and particularly work-related stress, is that it often builds up slowly over time which makes it harder to notice what’s happening until something major goes down (like having a panic attack or experiencing burnout). By this point, recovery becomes much tougher than if the stress had been handled before it had a chance to bring the person to their knees.
The research within the 2018 HSE report on work-related stress found that 15.4 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression, or anxiety in the UK alone during the period 2017-18. This figure made up 57% of all working days lost – which shows just how deep the problem actually goes.
While discussions around mental health and workplace wellness have risen in recent years, it’s clear that organizations still have a lot of work to do to protect their staff. Yet, while it’s the responsibility of employers to ensure that staff are cared for, it’s also important for us all to take responsibility for our own health by learning how to recognize and manage any stress we experience.
10 tips for handling workplace stress
1) Be aware
We all experience stress – some more than others, sure – but nobody goes through life completely stress-free. Well, nobody working in IT anyway. Although we all experience stress we don’t all respond to it in the same way. Some get angry, others suffer from low self-esteem, you might find that you can’t relax, are eating more, or have trouble getting to sleep. There are lots of different ways that stress can manifest, so identifying how you respond is important.
Instead of ignoring your stress signs, you need to become aware of what triggers these feelings such that you can take immediate action when you feel it creeping over you. Do you start feeling overwhelmed when your email inbox gets out of control? Do you feel irritable if your manager asks too much of you? Do meetings make you want to run far, far away?
Gaining awareness of what’s stressing you out, and how you respond, is the first step to being able to manage your stress. Once you can identify your triggers you can work on management techniques to reduce your stress levels.
2) Talk to someone
Ideally, this will be either your team leader or line manager. When work-related stress is caused by too much work, unrealistic deadlines, or too much responsibility, for example, it’s time for these folks to step in. But they can only do this if you speak with them. It’s not easy but know that it shows a real strength of character to admit when things are too much. A decent manager is going to want to support you where they can and won’t make you feel terrible about raising the issue.
It’s not always that simple though, is it? Sometimes our managers/supervisors don’t know how to help us, or they’ve their own stresses to deal with and can’t give us the attention we need. Sometimes they’re even the cause of our stress, or we just can’t face bringing up our issues with them. When this happens, your next option is to seek out someone in HR or another IT manager that you trust and respect but don’t have to report to. If you really can’t bring yourself to talk to anyone at work, then find someone outside of the office. If you’re really struggling to face people, call a helpline such as The Samaritans who are there to listen to any emotional troubles you might be experiencing.
Talking out loud helps you to sort through your thoughts such that you gain perspective, and an outsider point of view can highlight something you might not have thought about yourself. At the very least it can help to release some tension that you may be unconsciously holding onto.
Plucking up the courage to talk can be difficult but you’ll likely find that once you’ve made that first step you feel a little lighter. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help whenever you feel like you need it.
3) Work your way
It’s important not to let others dictate your day. Yes, you need to get your work done and, yes, you probably have multiple tasks on the go but trying to deal with them all at once is the quickest way to be overwhelmed. Feeling overwhelmed can lead to you becoming irritable or upset and if the pressure doesn’t reduce it can lead to a lack of motivation and a distinct lack of care for the job you might have once even loved.
Try dividing your day into tasks. Give yourself time to respond to emails but once that time is up don’t allow yourself to become distracted by them again (until your next dedicated email session rolls around). Have a list that prioritizes your tasks with the least important ones at the bottom. When something urgent comes in, deal with it and then return to your list. Having a list helps you to keep track of where you are such that when your work is interrupted you can pick up where you left off more easily.
Don’t be afraid to say no when you need to either. If someone slips a meeting into your calendar with little/no notice, then decline it. If you’re asked to do something that you think can wait let them know you’re too busy right now. Our colleagues can be wonderful people but they’re dealing with their own stresses and deadlines and sometimes they can make unrealistic demands without even realizing what they’re doing and the strain they might be putting you under. Kindly let them know you’ll fit them in when it’s convenient for you.
Working in this way also helps to ensure that people don’t begin to take advantage of you. When you get a reputation for being the one who’ll drop everything at a moment’s notice, people then tend to lean heavily on that for their own benefit.
4) Do your best (and give yourself a break)
When you’re working in IT, it’s important to accept that your inbox will never be empty, your work tasks will never be complete, and urgent jobs will always muscle their way to you at the most inconvenient times. Accepting these truths can help your battle against stress because you can reduce the pressure that you put on yourself.
When work-related stress is caused by work overload it’s common to try to tackle everything in an effort to feel in control. But, even if you manage (in one week, say) to successfully get everything completed, that workload will continue coming and there’s no way you’re going to be able to keep up the same pace of work for very long (trust me, I’ve tried it and it didn’t end well).
The other danger is that, when you do miraculously keep it up, this is the level of work that people will come to expect from you. So, stop piling the pressure on yourself and just do the best you can in the hours you have. If you’re frequently taking work home with you and not giving yourself (and potentially your family) the attention you deserve, you’ll soon begin to loathe both your job and the company you work for.
Talking to someone can help here, but if overload is your problem this isn’t going to go away overnight. Let’s imagine that you work on the IT service desk, and you talk to your manager about feeling like there’s too much to deal with. While they can begin to put something in place to help you out, they can’t control the number of calls coming through or the number of tickets that need actioning. It’s going to be up to you to get comfortable with knowing that there’s only so much you can do. As long as your manager is happy with your performance and you’re meeting your agreed targets give yourself a break.
5) Take your lunch break
In my experience, too many people in IT are working through their lunch breaks. I used to see it all the time myself and I used to be one of those who’d grab something from the vending machine or forget to eat altogether. The result was that by three o’clock in the afternoon I’d be tired, aching, and grumpy. People can easily think that they don’t have time to take lunch because they’ve too much to do but the fact of the matter is – by not taking a lunch break you’re going to get less work done. Afternoons will become unproductive because nobody can concentrate for eight or nine hours (or more) a day without a break, it’s that simple.
Lunchtime is your time so use it wisely, this is completely within your control. Science tells us that exercise can help us to deal with stress because it releases endorphins, those wonderful hormones that encourage happiness. So, take yourself for a walk, get some fresh air and a change of scenery such that you return to your desk with some motivation ready to take on your afternoon.
And eat well too. It’s no secret that junk food gives us a burst of energy but is then followed by heavy fatigue. Whereas decent nutritional meals give a slow steady stream of energy throughout the day. Banish the sugar crashes by choosing healthier options in the canteen or bringing your own lunch to work.
6) Embrace change
Organizational changes are commonly a big factor when it comes to work-related stress. The “2017 Work and Wellbeing” survey published by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that “workers experiencing recent or current change were more than twice as likely to report chronic work stress compared with employees who reported no recent, current or anticipated change (55% vs 22%).”
Now, a lot of this comes down to the organization to ensure that it’s handling organizational change effectively but learning to embrace change can help to reduce the stress you might feel when faced with it. This is all about learning to accept what you cannot control.
If you don’t feel like the change is being communicated well, then ask your manager for more information. Try not to join in with any office gossip and definitely don’t get sucked into rumors. If it’s not clear, then ask. Maybe the organization is changing the software you use – so, instead of being annoyed at the inconvenience see it as an opportunity to learn a new skill. Perhaps you like your manager but a hierarchical change means you’ll be reporting into somebody new. Give your new manager a chance, you don’t know how it’s going to work out. So, instead of thinking the worst, think of the positives instead – it’s a chance to build a new relationship and an opportunity to learn from someone new.
By reshaping how you see something and accepting that the change is inevitable, you can reduce your feelings of stress. Often, we can get worked up about what we think is going to happen when in reality our assumptions could not be further from the truth. Talk about a waste of time and energy.
7) Learn breathing techniques
There are various deep breathing techniques out there, so it’s a good idea to do some research and practice until you find one that works for you. Try this belly breathing exercise at work when you notice yourself feeling tense. If you don’t want to do this at your desk take yourself off to the restroom for a little more privacy: Take a deep breath in through your nose and let the air fill your belly. Your belly should expand. As you’re breathing in count slowly to five.
- Breathe out through your mouth, again counting to five.
- Repeat this way of breathing (without pauses or holding your breath) for at least three minutes.
Deep breathing reduces feelings of stress because the act tells your brain that it’s time to calm down and your brain lets your body know this. So, you start to feel relaxed and your muscles soften as tension lifts and stress is relieved. It’s a great exercise because it can be done in the workplace and can work wonders for preparing you before a big meeting or stopping overwhelm from stressing you out.
8) Look after yourself outside of work
If you’re going to effectively deal with work-related stress, then you need to look after yourself outside of the workplace too. This means eating healthily, exercising, engaging in hobbies, connecting with others, and giving yourself the space and the time to switch off from the office. Life in IT can be tough because it often feels like a 24/7 job. Technical issues don’t just happen during office hours and maintenance and changes generally occur once everybody else has gone home. If you’re feeling like you have no time to yourself, then you need to bring this up with your manager to get support. Often the expectation remains because people grumble silently but don’t highlight to those higher up just how many extra hours they’re having to put in.
Make time to do what you enjoy and make healthy choices. For example, chilling out with a beer after work is alright some of the time but if you’re turning to alcohol specifically to deal with stress on a regular basis, then you could be putting yourself in danger. Not only will you build up a tolerance to the numbing effects that alcohol has on your stress but it also “changes levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain, which can worsen anxiety.”
9) Sleep well
A lack of sleep can increase feelings of stress because when we’re tired, we’re not able to think as rationally or control our emotions as well as we might when we’re feeling fresh. When we frequently fail to get a decent night’s sleep this can lead to brain fog which means our ability to concentrate is hampered. This can make us feel grumpy, irritable, and can bring on those feelings of stress. A job in IT means lots of screen time and the need to concentrate, so try to reduce your screen time at home. An hour before bed is a good time to turn off the TV and read a book instead.
10) Take control
This theme has cropped up throughout this post but it’s still an important one to highlight individually. Stress can be exacerbated when we don’t feel in control of what we’re doing. Work-related stress can be a culprit because we feel like we can’t control our workload, the actions of our colleagues, or the deadlines we need to meet. While this is true you can take control of what you’re able to deliver, how you deliver it, and how you engage with those around you.
If a toxic colleague is bringing you down, talk to them or bring it up with your supervisor. If your workload is too big, tell your manager that something needs to change. If unrealistic deadlines are constantly forced upon you, advise that you need more notice.
Whatever the situation there will be ways in which you can look to take control as long as you have the help and support of your leadership team and organization.