work stress

Work got you stressed? Let’s fix that!

Here’s the ultimate guide to kick stress’s ass and take back your happiness and sanity at work.

Workplace stress is serious business. In fact, the thought “it’s called work for a reason” is an all too familiar explanation, as many of us accept it as a norm and, hell, many even wear it like a badge of honor. The problem is that excessive worrying on the job isn’t a good thing and has far-reaching consequences (both in and out of the workplace).

This guide aims to take a brief dive into the history and biology of stress as it relates to our evolution as human beings, the main causes of stress in the workplace, and how you can kick its ass to regain your health and sanity both in and out of the workplace.

A (very) brief history of stress.

Stress is an experience that happens when the demands in front of us outweigh the resources that we have to cope with and handle the demands, which prompts our bodies to respond in a way that will keep us out of harm’s way. When we experience stress, our bodies activate branches of the autonomic nervous system that causes us to fight, escape, or even freeze when that is determined to be the best course of action.

From an evolutionary standpoint, stress is the bomb! as it is a crucial, evolutionary function that has helped humans survive threats of bodily harm for thousands of years. Basically, it’s why our ancestors were able to evade the jaws of hungry saber-tooth tigers and other predators. Our stress response today acts similarly to Spiderman’s Spidey Sense, or the more recent and laughable Marvel reference as Peter Parker’s Peter Tingle – this quick response that allows us to avoid imminent danger. Think of it as our ability to jump out of the path of an oncoming car. It comes on fast and subsides quickly after we are safe from harm.

Look at that – you came here to learn about stress at work and found out that you pretty much have superpowers. You’re welcome.

However, here’s the bad news. Because, we as humans, are also very clever beings and regularly think in terms of the past, the future, or other kinds of threats – such as losing our job or our social status – we can very easily escalate our stress to a whole new level.

The biology of stress.

What makes stress good?

Alright, alright, alright – ugh, don’t you hate it when your inner Matthew McConaughey creeps out of nowhere? Anyway, we know that stress is an evolutionary trait in humans that triggers our autonomic nervous system and unleashes our superpower to quickly respond and save ourselves from harm. We are equipped to deal with this acute stress. Acute means that it comes on quickly but doesn’t last long.

When we experience stress, the branches of the autonomic nervous system that activate are the sympathetic nervous system, our fight or flight response, or the parasympathetic nervous system. We commonly hear about the fight or flight response, but our bodies can also freeze if it’s deemed the most appropriate response to save our hide. Think playing dead like an opossum or stopping in our tracks if we’re in the path of an angry Tyrannosaurus Rex. This is the parasympathetic response.

How does this all happen? During a stressful event, our sympathetic nervous system activates the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis, which is a portal between our brain and our circulatory system. The HPA releases stress hormones like adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine that will raise our heart rate, and blood pressure, and redirect blood flow toward our big muscles and away from non-essential organs. This activity allows our blood to clot more easily and increases our blood sugar, which puts us in a position to survive the stressful experience.

Stress also shifts the way that our brains perceive and process information. Sensation, perception, information processing, and even memory are biased toward self-preservation so these stressful events also trigger our brains to simplify these processes to do what will keep us safe in the situation. This means that our brains will overlook the finer details that probably aren’t needed to evade a monster like Scooby-Doo and the gang but are typically important when it comes to getting things right at work.

What makes stress bad?

Stress has helped to keep us from becoming dinner or roadkill for thousands of years, so the question becomes: How does stress turn into something that is so problematic to our health and well-being?

Most of the scientists and really smart people who have made understanding stress their livelihood believe that there is a mismatch between the way our bodies have evolved to help us handle challenges and the kinds of challenges and threats that we come across today in our work lives. Our stress response is our Spidey Sense which allows us to make in-the-moment decisions that allow us to survive. We’re hit with the hormone(s), we evade danger, the response subsides, and we live to fight another day.

Today’s stress is so much different and not often about an immediate physical threat. We are haunted by things that have happened, something coming up in the future, or an outcome that can have implications on our reputation or social status.  Today’s chronic stress is constantly swarming around us like a swarm of pissed-off bees hoping to deal us a similar fate as Macaulay Culkin’s character in the 1991 movie My Girl. If you aren’t familiar with the movie – he dies.

Holly crap! That is a twisted, dark comparison. I know, I know. But it does highlight some of the grim consequences of carrying chronic stress without taking some positive steps to address it.

A professor from Stanford University, Robert Sapolsky, wrote a 1994 book called Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. He uses a cutesy title but highlights some of the grimmer effects of chronic stress. The chronic stress of today can endure for days, weeks, months, or even years and puts our body into sympathetic overdrive, which means that the sympathetic system stays activated, pumping the body full of stress hormone(s) that keep our blood pressure high, builds up plaque in the blood vessels and increases the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Think about this – in larger municipalities such as New York or Los Angeles, the link between job stress and heart attack is so well acknowledged that any police officer who suffers a coronary episode on or off the job is assumed to have had so much work-related stress that they are paid for the medical care and lost wages. In some places, these “off-the-job” events can still be covered even if the officer is fishing on vacation or gambling in Las Vegas.

Furthermore, this sympathetic overdrive caused by chronic stress weakens the immune system over time, increasing the risk of infection and disease, ulcers, premature aging, and increases the risk of cancer. Not to mention it’s just unpleasant, where it impacts our sleep, our happiness in life, and our relationships, and puts us at risk for depression and anxiety.

Not to be a Debbie Downer, but this pervasive, chronic stress that we deal with today is not only making us unhappy but is also literally killing us.

That sounds dreadful. Please say there is a silver lining?

Some stress is inevitable.  We spend more than half of our waking hours doing things that have consequences, are time-sensitive, and that can be wrong, disliked, or epically crash and burn – so stress happens, and it would be impossible to eliminate it altogether because it is so ingrained in modern work culture.

What we can do is build a healthier relationship with stress. Just like having a body system that allows us to use stress as an advantage, we also have body systems for undoing and recovering from stress.

The human capacity for burden is like bamboo – far more flexible than you’d ever believe at first glance.

Jodi Picoult

We are resilient and capable of dealing with more than we think.  Just as the body can stretch stress into a chronic problem, we can also strengthen our resiliency to get better at undoing our stress in a timely manner at work.

Main causes of workplace stress.

Studies show that job stress is the major source of stress for adults. No crap, right? I’m sure you feel it, and you aren’t alone. Consider this information from the American Institute of Stress:

  • 80% of Americans reported feeling stressed at work.
  • 40% reported that their job was very or extremely stressful.
  • 25% view their jobs as the number one source of stress in their lives.
  • 26% said they were “often or very often burned out by their work”.

While we know that stress is part of being human and is a major reason that humans are still here today, the problem is that the modern workplace tends to trigger our stress response far too often and we weren’t designed to deal with it.

The workplace stress triple whammy.

While stress is an individualized experience and impacts each of us differently, most studies agree that there are three main sources: Working too much, uncertainty, and a lack of control.

Let’s look at each of these to help understand what they are and how they get triggered.

Working too much.

According to the Internal Labour Organization, “Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers.” In the U.S., 40% of workers work more than 50 hours per week, while 20% put in more than 60 hours.

The number of hours worked lead to higher stress levels and lower overall quality of life. Award-winning psychologist Dr. Ron Friedman found long hours make it harder to communicate, collaborate, and make good decisions, which negatively impacts our performance at work. Without time to unwind, take care of your home, spend time with loved ones, enjoy your hobbies, connect with friends, and generally live a more balanced life.

RELATED CONTENT: Slow down and enjoy your life more.

So why do we work long hours?

The primary culprit causing us to extend our workday or not enjoy our time off is guilt. Guilt that we aren’t meeting the expectations that surround work culture, particularly in America.  Guilt that we aren’t doing enough to get ahead.  Guilt that others seem to be working longer and harder than we are.   We’ll work on getting over this notion because the science shows that this type of behavior doesn’t actually make you a more productive employee.


Increasingly more jobs are becoming knowledge jobs – analysts (finance, systems, etc.), accountant, programmers, engineers, managers, etc. – and come with self-directed roles, where the only stipulation is meeting business goals. This can leave workers unsure of it they are working on the right tasks. Whether or not they are on the right track requires feedback, which can prove to be elusive, unhelpful, or inadequate. Many organizations struggle, where those responsible for feedback are waiting on receiving their own feedback or are busy and struggling with their own responsibilities and fail to give the feedback workers are hoping for. What this means for workers is that they don’t know where they stand or where they need to go for progress, resulting in more workers being unmotivated, frustrated, and stressed out.

People are often uncertain about their futures as well. A recent Stress in America survey from the American Psychological Association found that “nearly a third of Americans say economic uncertainty is a source of stress.”

Workers are uncertain before they arrive at work each day. Couple that with the feelings of uncertainty at work because of a lack of direction and guidance, and you can see why uncertainty is the source of stress.

A lack of control.

Too many hours without time to unwind and uncertainty result in people trying to cram as much as possible into the workday to feel like they’re in control. The reality is that we can easily in fact bite off more than we can chew. The irony is that we do it to feel more in control but taking on more lessens our control. We all do it, too, and then struggle to keep our heads above water.

Why do we take on so much? We’re uncertain about our careers, concerned for our futures, and want to impress our bosses (even more so if they are a cause of our stress). So, we take on more whether or not we actually have time to do it – resulting in more stress.

Tackling workplace stress to improve happiness and productivity.

happiness at work

Now that we have a better understanding of the main sources of stress at work, we’re in a better position to alleviate it so that we can work happier and be more productive without chronic stress weighing us down.

Avoid overworking.

Working too much will inevitably lead to burnout, which is a state that leaves us constantly tired, overly cynical, and generally feeling as though nothing we accomplish matters.  It’s important for us to set appropriate boundaries for how much we work.

The willing horse is always overworked.

Charles Darwin

Leave work on time without feeling guilty.

We often extend our workdays because we feel guilty that we aren’t working as much as others, or that leaving at a reasonable means that we aren’t doing enough to get ahead and be successful.  One study from Stanford University, however, debunks that belief. In his research, economics professor John Pencavel found that productivity per hour declines sharply when a person works more than 50 hours a week. After 55 hours, productivity drops so much that putting in any more hours would be pointless. And those who work up to 70 hours a week are only getting the same amount of work done as those who put in 55 hours.

Setting boundaries and leaving work at a reasonable hour have numerous benefits. Here are some tips to help you regain balance and get out without feelings of guilt.

Set a hard “quit” time.  

Parkinson’s Law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Basically, your work will take as much time as you have to complete it.  This is why it’s easy for the workday to extend when you don’t really have anything to do afterward.  You can get over this by setting up something to do.  Schedule an appointment that is long overdue.  Make plans to go to a fitness class (by yourself or with a friend) and pay for it in advance.  Promise your spouse or significant other that you will be home to cook dinner tonight.  Start getting into the habit of having something to do with your time outside of work. 

Establish an end-of-day routine. 

Routines, in any form, can help to get you motivated and focused to get things done.  Some of the things very successful people include in their end-of-day-routine include: 

  • Clean up your desk, and save and close everything that you’re working on.  
  • Review your task list and check off everything that you accomplished that day.  You’ll feel better after seeing what you got done.  
  • Plan tomorrow’s to-do list with a quick win on top of the list so that you can start your day by getting something accomplished. 
  • End on a positive by jotting down three good things that happened that day.  This will help to free up your brainpower so that you can enjoy your time away from the office. 

Be more realistic when it comes to planning your day.  

People suck at planning time.  I once remember telling my wife I was going to put together our youngest son’s bed before we moved all of our belongings into our new house. I’d start at 7:00 am and be done by 9:00 am, leaving us plenty of time to unload the rest of the day.  At noon my wife was unloading things by herself with a pissed-off death stare every time she looked at me because I was still working on the bed.  This is called the planning fallacy, where we are overly optimistic about how long things take and thus underestimate how long something will take. This can result in missed deadlines because you’re backed up with tasks that you thought would have been done.  Start reminding yourself of this and plan less to get done that day.  A shorter task list can actually help you get more done, counterintuitive as it sounds. This will allow you time to take care of those surprise requests from people who needed something done “yesterday”.

Re-frame the way you think about “leaving work”.

It’s just perspective.  Nothing about leaving impacted how hard you worked all day or the quality of your work.  You’re going home because of something – to enjoy time with your family, to go to the gym to take care of your health, to catch up on The Masked Singer because you’ll die if you don’t find out who the White Tiger is.  You worked hard all day so that you can enjoy other things that matter. 

Make leaving work on time and enjoying your time away a priority. It will make you happier and more productive when you’re working.

Take more meaningful breaks during the day.

It may sound counterintuitive to take breaks to get more done in less time, but breaks will allow us to keep our minds and bodies refreshed. Research shows workplace performance improves after a period of rest and recovery, even among people who enjoy their work.

When you take your breaks will depend on your own schedule, but here are a few suggestions for making the most of them:

Get outside. 

Harvard physician Eva M. Selhub, the co-author of Your Brain on Nature, says a drop of nature is like a drop of morphine to the brain since it “stimulates reward neurons in your brain. It turns off the stress response which means you have lower cortisol levels, lower heart rate, and blood pressure, and improved immune response.”

Being stuck indoors creates what health experts call “Nature Deficit Disorder”, which results in depression and anxiety from spending too little time outside. Getting outdoors can do great things for your health. Reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, and improving immune function are among nature’s health benefits. What’s more, incorporating elements of nature into your workday can also give your brain a boost, resulting in increased productivity, focus, and creativity.

Give your eyes a break.

Digital eye strain is a terrible thing that can cause sore, tired, watery, or blurred eyes, as well as neck strain. Taking a break from all your screens, smartphones included, is necessary to keep your eyes sharp and avoid unwanted strain. The 20/20/20 rule is a method that aims to help reduce ‘digital eye strain’ and advised by the American Optometric Association put together this simple handy infographic.

Refuel with the right food by taking a real lunch break.

Chaining yourself to a desk or scarfing down your lunch in your cubicle isn’t a recipe for success – it’s a recipe for disaster. These breaks are essential in helping employees destress and recharge for the rest of the workday. It’s been proven that stepping away from your workspace helps to boost productivity, improve mental well-being, and boost creativity.

When you do step away from your workspace for lunch, skip the chips and snacks and opt for foods with high protein to stop the dreaded post-lunch crash.

Cutting out uncertainty.

Our workdays can be filled with uncertainty. We have unclear goals, inadequate or vague feedback, and no way to track our progress and know that we’re doing well. Most of us rely on our jobs to support ourselves and our families, so we face genuine concern over whether we will continue to be gainfully employed. Uncertainty makes work more frustrating and stressful and is going to require a willingness on your part to get the feedback that you need to limit the uncertainty that you feel.

Removing uncertainty from our work experience can help to drastically reduce the stress that we feel but doing so can be difficult because it requires us having the willingness to have some uncomfortable conversations with our boss. This is likely going to be difficult for both of you. As an employee, it can feel like there is a hidden shame in telling your boss that you’re overwhelmed and not sure of your performance – you may feel like you should just be able to handle what work throws at you because you’re paid to do it, right? Admitting that you’re struggling would feel like you’re waving the white flag, but that simply isn’t true.  

It can be difficult to know where to start, but here is some guidance to get you through talking to your boss.

Gain clarity on your responsibilities and performance by asking for feedback.

Feedback helps clarify what you’re doing well (or wrong) and solidify a path forward. But feedback isn’t always easy to get – most managers are not comfortable giving feedback, and it’s likely that even more employees aren’t comfortable asking for feedback. But not doing so leads to continued uncertainty and stress.

At some point, you just pull off the Band-Aid, and it hurts, but then it’s over and you’re relieved.

John Green

Feedback helps clarify what you’re doing well (or wrong) and solidify a path forward. But feedback isn’t always easy to get – most managers are not comfortable giving feedback, and it’s likely that even more employees aren’t comfortable asking for feedback. But not doing so leads to continued uncertainty and stress.

Here’s some advice on how to rip off the band-aid and get the feedback you need to know where you stand and what to work on from our friends at Glassdoor:

Ask at the appropriate time and place.

The best way to solicit feedback from your manager is to set up a time with them when they know that’s the topic of the meeting.  Email them.  Explain that you want to make sure you are meeting expectations and looking for ways to improve your work performance. Ask for a 15-minute appointment when you can discuss it.

Have a specific agenda and document the feedback.

Make sure that you have an agenda that isn’t too broad, such as “Ah, what’s up boss? How am I doing?” Ask for feedback that covers a specific time frame, work assignment, or key areas.  The idea is to keep things simple.  Make your inquiry about performance clear and specific, not vague and general. At the same time, don’t bombard your boss with a list of 20 items. That would be draining. Focus on the several areas where you most want your boss’s input.

Put the feedback to work.

Be proactive after the meeting. Outline the actions you are going to take to enhance your performance and set a realistic timeframe to make progress. Maybe that is 30 days or within the next 3 months.

Talk about workplace stress with someone who can help (preferably your boss).

Research by the American Psychological Association claims that 75% of Americans believe dealing with their boss to be “the most stressful part of their workday”. This is a common feeling. As someone who has been in the trenches with managers and employees for a number of years, I will say that, in general, most managers and businesses would prefer employees speak up when something prevents them from operating at peak performance. They understand burnout is a growing problem and are willing to help you recover and return to a more reasonable workload. If you approach your boss with a clear idea of why you’re burned out, and practical suggestions to resolve the issue, they will likely be willing to work with you to resolve burnout issues.

Now, there are some hard-ass bosses out there who might not be willing to budge to support you.

It can be unpleasant if you run into this situation, but at least you learn where you stand. The HR department or another member of the leadership team would be a good place to start. The worst-case scenario? You learn that you might need to start exploring new opportunities with a company that better supports the well-being of its employees. At the end of the day, it’s better to have these conversations and know where you stand to cut out the uncertainty, rather than continue to wonder what if. You’ll either get the support that you need or learn that the grass is likely greener elsewhere.

Regaining control.

There is so much that vies for our attention and focus throughout the day. Tasks and requests come at us from all directions that we lose control (and time) essentially just throwing bologna at a wall to see what sticks. We can take control of our workday by eliminating the belief that we have to be perfect, by using and sticking to a daily schedule that makes sense, and by getting into a flow on work that matters and energizes us by communicating in “bursts” to help avoid distractions.

Screw trying to be perfect.

Early in my career, I had a boss, Mike, who was Awesome (yes, with a capital A!).  He had this unique mindset when it came to working and often recited the quote, “Don’t let greatness be the enemy of good.”  It was a bit of a riff on a Voltaire quote, but Mike made it his own. What he did was create a work environment where it was okay to not be perfect but to seek a satisfactory outcome that met what needed to be done and run with it.  There should be more people like Mike in the workplace. But, even if you don’t work for a Mike, there is a practice that you can work into your work existence that helps to make work suck less – it’s called satisficing.

Satisficing is nothing more than being able to accept an available option as satisfactory. Here’s another way to look at it:

Done is better than perfect.

Sheryl Sanberg

The added stress and pressure that we allow work to pile on us wastes a lot of energy and makes us less confident in our work and the decisions that we make and drives up our stress and anxiety because, well, none of us are perfect.  You need not beat yourself up striving for perfection in all your tasks at work.  A lot don’t even require it – done is better than perfect in most cases. 

To satisfice, you simply need to:

  • Set criteria upfront and work out what needs to be accomplished to meet the requirements.
  • Search for an option that meets the requirements.
  • Stop searching once you find an option or solution.

Know what the requirements are for a good outcome and then look for and work toward the outcome that satisfies them. That’s it. You’ve done what needs to be done and can move on to the next item on your list.

Create a daily schedule to map out your time.

The daily schedule is one of the best tools that very few people utilize with any real thought. We schedule (or are scheduled to attend) meeting after meeting, and we then try to find 20-minute windows (if we’re lucky) where we can actually get productive work done. This isn’t a great way to combat workplace stress, but our schedule can allow us to gain control to do just that.

A great way to combat stress is by being able to focus on productive tasks that allow us to achieve results that matter. Author Cal Newport calls “deep work”, which are tasks that require a level of concentration and focus that the chaotic nature of the modern workplace doesn’t often afford us. This deep work allows us to get into a state of flow, which is attributed to positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  Flow is a state of mind you achieve when you’re fully immersed in a task and can lose track of time. These are the tasks that deliver real results and help you to feel accomplished and engaged in your work and your job. Flow isn’t limited to desk jockeys and those who can hide away from others at work.  Studies show that front-line workers, like nurses and nursing assistants, can achieve flow as well.  The key is enjoying your job and having tasks that you love, find important, or find challenging and creating opportunities to engage in them.

The way to make time for these tasks? Schedule them into your day. It really is that simple. If you have less control over your workdays, or they’re less structured, you can follow the advice of time management expert Elizabeth Grace Saunders and schedule “margins” on your calendar.

To others, this just looks like other commitments and they won’t try to book your time. While for yourself, this extra space gives you a chance to clear your head and provide space to plan and prioritize work.

Focus on what matters by warding off the communication rabbit hole.

Focusing on deep work and getting into a flow sounds great, I know, but can become difficult if you’re phone is blowing up and your monitor keeps pinging new incoming emails. Ever have that “quick” email result in the rest of your day spiraling out of control? Email in particular is a great communication tool but can quickly become a pain-in-the-you-know-what if left unchecked.

A study by RescueTime, a company that offers award-winning tools and courses to help workers become more focused, productive, and motivated, conducted a study that revealed – get this:

Most knowledge workers can’t go 6 minutes without checking email or instant messages at work.

Scheduling work that matters sets us up to work in “bursts” to get things done and be more in control of our time, but we need to focus on avoiding distractions by always being available. Being effective at working in bursts requires effective communication. Talk to your teammates about how you communicate during the workday, what a reasonable response time is, and how to deal with urgent vs. non-urgent messages. The more condensed your communication, the less stressed you’ll all be.

Stress, particularly at work, is a major drain on our happiness and well-being, and it isn’t ever going away. But the above information and tools with help to put you in a position to strengthen your resilience to stress and build a healthier relationship with it. Doing so will help to reduce the chronic stress that can overwhelm (and kill) us, freeing you to live a happier and healthier life both inside and outside of your place of employment.

But before we go our separate ways…

Prioritize self-care and forgive yourself.

We often are the source of a lot of our stress. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to do well and beat ourselves up when we fall short of the expectations that we set for ourselves. This doesn’t make dealing with stress any easier.

People who are self-compassionate and accept negative feelings like stress as being simply part of life tend to fare better than those who fight their negative emotions. Those who accept negative emotions even seem to feel fewer negative emotions overall than those who fight them in the first place.

When dealing with workplace stress, you need to be aware of it. But also forgiving of it. One way to become more forgiving is by ending each workday on a positive. Before you leave, take 5 minutes to jot down three good things that happened that day.  It can be things you accomplished or things that others did for you.  This practice will leave you feeling better.  Even if it was a rough day, leaving on a positive note will allow you to enjoy your time away from work and be in a better place mentally to take on the next day.

Final thoughts.

What we can accomplish at work can have a tremendous impact on our self-confidence and satisfaction in life because, whether we like it or not, work is a big part of our identity and takes up a large portion of our life. However, work can still suck. So, if we want to enjoy the positive benefits of work, it’s super important to be able to manage the stress that it can cause us as well.

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