All of us feel overworked sometimes – and luckily stress can be a good thing that helps us do our jobs well. “It motivates us and helps us perform,” says workplace psychologist Dr Marny Lishman. “But when there’s too much stress, we end up being overworked. We want to find a sweet spot, so that we’re experiencing good stress and not impacting our wellbeing.” After a few difficult years workwise, with increasing work demands and – for many – working from home, followed now by returning to the office or learning to adjust to a hybrid arrangement, it’s no wonder most of us are feeling a little more stress than usual. But when we learn how to manage work stress, we can enjoy all the good things it provides us, including a purpose, sense of achievement, financial security and social connection. Follow Dr Lishman’s expert guide to discovering key strategies for managing work-related stress and tips on how to make your work life more stress-free.
When we experience a lot of change related to work, including changing where we do our work, or the changes that are happening aren’t done in consultation with us, we can feel uncertain about what lies ahead. “In a lot of industries, things have become very fast-paced and a lot of change has been imposed on people,” says Dr Lishman. “This uncertainty turns on the stress response.” To get through this, she suggests focusing on the things you can control. “There are lots of little things in your daily tasks that can create certainty for you,” she says. “That might include sticking to the routine you normally have, which will help to make you feel more settled and able to deal with your anxiety.” Regardless of whether it is done in a workplace kitchen or virtually, scheduling in a quick catch-up with a colleague each day, as well as regular WIPs with your manager, will help put structure into your work life.
When we complain about work to friends and family, a common theme is the people we work with. In a work team there are many different personalities and ways of working, with each team member dealing with a variety of work and personal stressors. All of this can create a melting pot of uncomfortable stress. “It’s really important to learn to communicate well with the people you work with,” advises Dr Lishman. “That includes putting your own boundaries in place, and becoming strong in having uncomfortable conversations. This means you’re more likely to resolve an issue rather than ruminating on it. These are skills you can learn.”
Many of us are now WFH (working from home) and WFA (working from anywhere) for some or all of our working week. This in itself can create extra stressors. “Our brains like certainty and schedules, and now we all need to adjust constantly to different environments,” says Dr Lishman. “In order to adapt to this, we need to set up some predictability, so that the brain knows what it’s meant to do.” This includes sticking to regular work hours, taking your standard breaks and having a designated area that mimics the office environment. Connecting with your work team is also a great way to reduce the stress of being separated. “Try to have an online lunch together or regular catch-ups no matter where each of you is working from,” suggests Dr Lishman.
“There are a lot of new, innovative ways of working that have had to be put in place recently, and some people don’t feel confident in knowing how to do these things,” says Dr Lishman. “When we don’t feel like we’re competent or confident in our tasks, our stress response comes on really quickly.” The best way to deal with anxiety when working is to be proud of yourself for making progress. “You need to adopt a mindset that isn’t seeking perfection, but is instead happy to get things done well enough,” she says. “It’s also important to adopt a growth mindset: even if you can’t do a task now, it is something you can learn. Talk with your manager about the resources you’ll need to learn a new skill – it’s time to be honest and vulnerable about that.”
If you’re feeling overworked and under pressure, you’re not alone. “A lot of people are feeling like this lately, and getting stressed out by their heavy workloads,” says Dr Lishman. It can be tempting to work longer hours to try to catch up, but this can lead to more stress. “Often, we’re better off taking the time to go for a walk or do some mindfulness in order to be at our most efficient,” advises Lishman. “It’s about practising as much self-care as possible to make sure you’re operating at your best. You need lots of antidotes to stress in your days: exercise, social connection, having free time and practising relaxing meditation.”