This post was updated on February 27, 2020.
For reliable productivity, quarter after quarter, year after year, it’s important to have strategies for managing stress in the workplace.
Stress is an unavoidable part of our lives. Sometimes it’s just everyday stressors that accumulate, and sometimes it’s those everyday stressors piled on top of major life events.
According to Gallup, almost 80% of Americans report being stressed. This is eight out of ten of your team members working hard to be productive in spite of their increasing stress levels.
Managing Stress at Work May Be Easier Than You Think
Sometimes it may seem like an insurmountable feat to manage the stress generated by a busy office, but breaking it down can simplify it. Here are 10 strategies for you and your employees to be more effective at managing workplace stress.
1. Take Control of Your Distractions
Being distracted at work makes you less productive
Distractions, both internal and external, can be real obstacles to effectively managing stress in the workplace.
Constant distractions are stressful, whether external, from other people and your technology, or internal, from running down your to-do list in your head all day in an effort to try to remember everything.
When you’re distracted at work, you’re not focused, which makes it extremely difficult to be productive and get important work done. Yet accomplishment makes us feel more satisfied at the end of the day, so the stress is more from the thrill of the challenge (good stress) instead of stress caused by fear of not getting enough done.
And this accomplishment tends to promote more of the same, creating a positive cycle of productivity. Becoming aware of your distractions—and what may be distracting your employees—allows you to start controlling them, and paves the way for greater productivity.
Keep internal and external distractions in check
Allowing distractions to take you off course interrupts the productivity cycle and diminishes your short-term and long-term productivity. External distractions such as email notifications, desktop clutter, or colleagues who stop by for a “quick chat” may seem like small things, but they sideline your priorities.
Internal distractions can be equally harmful to your productivity. That sudden thought about what else you need to be working on—which leads you to the next thought and the next thought—scatters your focus and leaves a trail of undone tasks in its wake.
2. Disconnect from Work
Take a break from technology
Our relationship with technology is complicated. It’s designed to make our lives easier, make information more accessible, and help us be more efficient workers. But what I find with many leaders is that it’s impacting your effectiveness in a negative way.
It may seem like you’re being more productive when you answer emails at all hours and put in the extra time, but these behaviors may, in fact, be damaging your productivity. Working too many hours (even if you love it) means your brain never has a chance to disconnect and relax.
Get focused away from work
In order to be less stressed at work, you have to be less stressed from work. This means taking a break and focusing on other things in your life that you enjoy. Get outside and into nature. Spend time on your favorite hobby (or enlist in a new one).
Make space for tech-free time every day. Setting clear work-life boundaries can help relieve workplace stress. The bottom line is when you get focused away from work, it can help you with staying focused at work.
3. Make Your Vacations a Work-Free Zone
First off, take your vacations
One of the biggest mistakes many professionals make is not taking their vacation time. They tend to view time away from the office as more trouble than it’s worth, putting them further behind in work.
The truth of this is that vacations can make you more productive once you’re back in the office. The time away gives you space to renew your focus, develop new ideas, and better control over managing stress in the workplace when it arises (because it will).
Make vacation dedicated “away” time
Once you’re on vacation, it’s important to be on vacation. This means disconnecting from work as much as possible. (And yes, this includes checking email from the beach!) Here are some key strategies:
Set expectations with your team that you will not be available while you’re out of the office.
Make sure you have a back-up person who can answer questions and solve problems in your absence (see strategy #5).
Most importantly, return the favor with your colleagues. Encourage them to take their vacations and respect their off time in the same way you’d like them to respect yours.
Time away from work—evenings, weekends, and vacations—is one of the most obvious strategies for managing work stress. If you feel like you “just can’t,” remember that no matter how many hours you work, there will always be more work to do, so you might as well work a reasonable amount of hours and take care of yourself.
4. Give Up on the Idea that Multitasking is Effective
Task switching keeps you from staying focused at work
Researchers have been saying for years that multi-tasking does not help us in the way we like to believe that it does. In fact, multi-tasking–or what’s actually called “task switching” or “cognitive switching”– is in truth undermining our ability to be productive.
When we multitask, things take longer, are lower quality, and we often miss key details, which impairs working memory and our ability to learn. Contant task-switching can even lower your IQ! One of the most effective ways as a leader you can start managing stress in the workplace is to get focused on one task at a time, so you can do it quickly and well.
Don’t create a culture of multi-taskers
If you’re a leader, it’s important to manage your own multitasking because your role is likely to have the biggest consequences. But also, you set the tone for how your teams work. Encourage your employees to cultivate behaviors that support staying focused, and be careful about promoting multitasking. It’s not useful behavior. Promote the idea that undistracted work time is important.
5. Using “Office Hours” is Another Key Strategy for Managing Workplace Stress
Being unavailable can make you more productive
While it’s important for leaders to be accessible, being available to your team all the time makes it hard to get important work done. And, it can accelerate the path to burnout. Instead, make sure to have uninterrupted time to work on your own priorities.
Remember, productivity leads to more productivity and being productive is a great way to manage workplace stress. The feeling of accomplishment balances out the overwhelmed feeling people often have when their to-do list is a mile long. (And isn’t it always?)
Away time builds your team’s independence
When you take a break from being constantly “on-call” for your team, it challenges your employees to be more independent and solve problems on their own. This helps to build your team’s autonomy and helps them feel empowered to take responsibility.
Setting boundaries on your available time for your team can also help leaders be less distracted as work, as this practice distills requests down to where your expertise is truly needed.
6. Get Enough Sleep
Being well-rested is key to managing stress in the workplace
If you live in a constant state of sleep deprivation (and you probably do since the CDC calls it a “national health crisis”), you’re not physically or mentally equipped to manage the different stressors that come at you every day on the job.
One of the most important things that you can do as a leader to help you navigate the day-to-day stress and get focused on what’s important is to get plenty of rest.
Stop letting work distract your sleep
In addition to getting enough sleep, it’s important to ensure that it’s also good sleep. When you check email before bed, keep your phone beside your bed, or spend the moments before you fall asleep worrying about what needs to get done the next day, it can have a detrimental impact on the quality of your sleep.
One way to improve the quality of your sleep is to establish a workflow management system. This will relieve your brain of the burden of “remembering” all the things that need to get done that you wrote on sticky notes and that left-behind page of your favorite notebook.
7. Leave Busy for the Bees
Being Busy Doesn’t Help with Staying Focused at Work
It seems today that people walk around wearing their busy-ness as a badge of honor. Stop now. Being busy is not the same thing as being productive.
You can easily be distracted at work and spend all of your time on low-value tasks (like checking your email all day) and not make progress on what’s actually meaningful.
Shift your focus
When you adjust your mindset to being “happy busy” and how that can fuel productivity, it allows you to be accomplished, but not harried. Instead of feeling stressed by the chaos of your ever-growing to-do list, your brain will focus on what you’ve achieved, and encourage you to tackle more.
8. Recognize Productivity Can Happen Outside of the Office
Stop getting hung up on “face time” in the office
There’s the lingering idea that as long as you show up to the office, you’re actually “working.” The truth is that productivity isn’t about where you work, it’s about how you work, and you can be just as unproductive in the office as anywhere else.
If you manage others, let go of the idea that face time in the office is a measure of productivity or dedication. Sometimes a quiet space away from others is more effective than trying to focus with office distractions. Learn to manage distractions to make sure your “fact time” is focused on achieving what’s important.
Give your teams flexibility to work where they’re productive
One of the great benefits of technology and flexible work schedules is that it allows people to determine the work time and environment that allows them to be most productive. Set up systems and expectations for your team that are based on outcomes and results, rather than how many hours they spend in the office.
When people can create their own ideal work environment, this is a useful strategy for managing stress in the workplace.
9. Another Excellent Stress-Reducing Strategy: Find a Quiet Place to Work
Open office spaces can make you more distracted at work
More offices are moving to an open space concept. While this might help to foster collaboration, and it certainly reduces real estate costs, it can also provide more distractions and increase employee stress. Workers may end up spending more time worrying about whether or not it looks like they’re working.
Get focused in a quiet space
If you have an open office, find quiet spaces where you ca step away and focus. Distraction-free spaces allow you to quiet your mind, reducing stress and leaving space for new ideas and creativity to flourish.
10. Pay Attention to When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed
Listen to your body
Are you frequently tired, cranky or hopeless about getting everything done? These are signs of burnout which is becoming increasingly more prevalent. The World Health Organization has even added Burnout to the International Classification of Diseases, making it an official medical condition.
Pay attention to what’s happening in your body. Make downtime a priority.
Help your team stay healthy
Offer nutritious snacks (not just what’s convenient) and filtered water. Encourage your employees to take mental breaks and disconnect from work. All of this will go a long way to managing stress and helping your team stay focused at work.
The Best Big-Picture Strategy for Managing Stress in the Workplace: Practice Attention Management
All of these strategies have one thing in common: they all require that employees practice a skill set I call attention management.
There’s a common misperception that we’d all be less stressed if only we had the time to do what we need to get done. You have all the time in the world. The real issue is not with how we manage our time, but rather, understanding that time management is only relevant to the extent that we also manage our attention.
When professionals implement a workflow management system based in attention management rather than time management, it provides a strategy for controlling actions and outcomes, reducing stress in the workplace and increasing productivity.
To learn more about attention management and how it can help you or your team, you can get started by assessing your own skills with my new Attention Management Assessment.