How to Deal with Stress at Work


For the past four years, Everest College in Washington has conducted a “Work Stress Survey” to find out what weighs most on Americans about their jobs.

With a survey framed as pointedly as this, you’re apt to find what you’re looking for — but still, I found it unsettling. A full 80% of respondents said that something about their work elevated their stress levels. The top stressors were low pay, the commute, an unreasonable workload, and annoying colleagues.

Granted, low pay or a crushing workload are legitimate problems. Long commutes are hard on your health. The co-worker who hogs the spotlight at every staff meeting without pulling her weight is crazy-making. But beneath the despair, there’s an assumption that needs questioning: the idea that work should be stress-free.

If there’s no stress, can you call it work?

Fact is, stress is what makes work possible. It gets you up in the morning, it helps fuel accomplishments and drive success. It’s stress (deadlines, proposals, even budget constraints) that pulls a team together. The point isn’t to eradicate stress at work, but to harness it. Enter: resilience. When you can use all your resources, internal and external, to rise to the occasion that stress presents, you are better able to cope with it.

Your work is one of the major facets of your life. You have a relationship with it, and it should and can be fruitful, rewarding, and even fun—and yes, sometimes a little tense, just like any relationship outside of work. And that’s okay.

In a piece inspired by Kelly McGonigal’s work, I wrote about how critical it is to reframe stress so that rather than the bogeyman, it becomes just something you adjust to.  Because as McGonigal says, the people who stand to suffer the most from stress are those who fear it!

If you expect that work should not be stressful, you’re going to be disappointed. But if you go in knowing that you are equipped to cope? Different story.

Here’s how to keep stress from getting the best of you at work:

Turn negatives into action. It’s one thing to complain about how hard things are at work, and it’s another to take ownership of what you can and let go of the rest.  Because work is so sprawling and eats up so much mental real estate, it is in fact a great opportunity, perhaps the best, for finding ways to cope. If you are resigned to the problems of work, or wrapped up in anger about them, you won’t have the mental and emotional resources to push for the changes that will make your work life better.

I know of a teacher who discovered that she was being paid far less than her male colleagues for equal work, even though she was more qualified. Talk about stress! She fought for pay parity for six years—and when another teaching position came up at a different school, she took it. It broke her heart to leave her job — she loved her colleagues, her students, her many duties, the school’s philosophy. But the financial disadvantage and the injustice of her situation were too much, so she let go of the struggle and moved on.

Know your purpose—and your worth. This woman knew why she was at this job and she knew her value as a professional. Those two pieces of information sustained her in the struggle; they helped her know what she was responsible for, what she thought she could change, and when it was time to let go. They were her home base as she made hard decisions and took big risks.

Why are you in the job you are in? Are you inspired by the work itself? Are you supporting your family? Find your bedrock and you’ll be better able to weather harsh winds. (Read more on finding your purpose at work.)

And do you know what your worth is to your employer? What are you bringing to the table? How do you both stand to gain from the best and smartest use of your talents and abilities? And be honest and realistic–if you can’t articulate your value in this job, then bingo, that might be part of why it’s stressing you out so much.

Own up to what you want. Just as you must take responsibility and advocate for yourself in any relationship, so it goes with work. There will always be looming deadlines and annoying coworkers, and big battles to fight. And there are also some things you simply let go, as our editor Terri Trespicio wrote about in “Don’t Let It Get Your Goat: The Art of Disregard,” where she points out that being able to disengage with the things that work you to a frenzy can be the healthiest, wisest decision.

So, read the surveys with all of this in mind. Know that headlines warning you about stress have a job to do (get you to read them!). Stress is an integral part of what makes work work, but it doesn’t mean you’re doomed to fall apart at the seams. I don’t believe that. Just because stress levels are rising, doesn’t mean you can’t learn to swim.