Workplace Stress: What You Can Do to Manage It
Workplace stress is becoming a widespread problem in today’s busy society. It seems workers are being asked to do more, workdays are becoming longer, and the space between work and personal life is becoming smaller. Occupational stress can lead to health risks for employees, including problems sleeping, anxiety, depression, increased blood pressure, weight gain, and heart problems. Organizations also lose quite a bit to occupational stress; rates of absenteeism and turnover get higher, along with healthcare costs, workplace injuries, workplace violence, and lost productivity. Clearly, workplace stress can be a real problem.
Anyone familiar with Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) will tell you that using behavioral principals may be helpful. In a nutshell, ABA is the science of creating socially significant behavior change through the analysis and management of the environment.
When applying behavioral principals to workplace stress, harnessing the science of ABA would mean evaluating what in our daily surroundings we can change to make our stress responses occur less often. However, completely changing our environment is not always possible. What if you are not a CEO or own your own company? What if you have no say in the development of policies at your company or how the company is run? Even if you find you have limited influence at your organization, there are still some strategies using behavioral principals you can take advantage of.
Below are a few things you can do on your own, and a few things you can do at work that take advantage of behavioral principals to help reduce your stress responses.
What you can do on your own
1. Get in touch with your values. From a behavioral standpoint, values can be considered reinforcers. Reinforcers are things that increase the likelihood of our behavior, or, more simply, they are our rewards for doing the things we do. They are our “why.” Knowing your values can be helpful when you find yourself facing a difficult decision, or when you are overwhelmed and need some guidance figuring out what to do next. When it comes to working, knowing your values will help you understand when it is a good idea to take on more responsibility, when to decline taking on that optional project, and when it may be time to move on. Values are sort of like our guiding light in life and can help guide you through your career. However, getting in touch with your values is easier said than done. It takes time and deliberate reflection. I personally have found a couple different exercises helpful:
- From Forsyth and Eifert’s book, The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety, borrowed from the Funeral Meditation: Imagine you are watching over your own funeral. What do you want people to say about how you lived your life? Do they say you were hardworking, compassionate, and fearless? Did they say you were worldly, a dedicated parent, or a great friend? To apply this exercise to your working life or career, think about what you would want your colleagues and supervisors to say about you if you were to move on to a new job. This is a good exercise when you are just beginning to brainstorm about your values.
- Here is an exercise borrowed from an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) class I took through Kaiser: print out the following worksheet, and with your work life in mind, circle 3-5 values you find the most important. Don’t overthink this, just circle what immediately jumps out at you as important. Narrowing it down to 3-5 can be difficult, but this helps you take the first steps in really weighing your values. Be honest! This is highly personal and there are no right or wrong answers! You can take this same exercise to start brainstorming your values in other areas of your life as well, like friendships, parenting, leisure time, or your personal health. If the list below doesn’t have a value you come up with on your own, simply add it. You can also check out https://corevalueslist.com/ for a list of over 500 core values.
I highly encourage you to write down what you come up with. I keep my values written down in a little notebook by my bed; I reference it every now and then when I need a little encouragement or a little guidance from my clear-headed self. You may want to revisit your values when appropriate; maybe every year or in times of change. I personally have updated my list a few times in about 3 years as my life and career have changed.
Finally, some people even take these exercises a step further and rank their values in order of importance. This can be especially helpful for when you find yourself faced with a difficult choice. For example, I personally value economic security and health, but I value my health more and I choose not to compromise my health for the sake of economic security.
2. Track behaviors that you use to reduce stress. What do you do each day to help you reduce the stress you feel from work? Do you have a glass (or three) of wine? Do you watch TV and eat potato chips? Meditate? Go for a run? Take a bath? It can be very insightful to track how often you engage in wanted or unwanted behaviors. It can help you better understand your behavioral patterns, see where your triggers may lie and begin to think about what you can change in your surroundings.
Try to be as specific as possible with the behavior you are looking at. It may be a good idea to start with tracking no more than 2 behaviors. These can be behaviors that you wish you did more of or less of. Just track whatever behaviors you currently use to deal with stress. For 1-2 weeks, don't change anything, just track how often you engage in your chosen behaviors. Let’s say that I identified watching TV and running as a couple of my behaviors that help me reduce stress. Below is an example of how I would track those behaviors:
Something as simple as even a post-it note on your fridge or on your bathroom mirror can be used to track your behavior. What is important is that you track it!
Here’s a graph of my behaviors over the two weeks of tracking (graphed in Excel):
The data and the graph above help me identify some of my behavioral patterns. It seems that on Friday nights, I watch a lot more TV than any other night. It also seems that the more I watch TV, the less I seem to go running, and I seem to run generally the most on weekends. Armed with this information, I can try to figure out what it is that is different about Friday nights and weekends. After tracking for 1-2 weeks, you may be happy or upset with the behavioral patterns you see. However, once you can see your patterns more clearly, you can begin to change them.
3. Compare your values with your tracked behaviors. Now that you have some familiarity with your values and your patterns of behavior, you can begin to compare the two. While watching TV may be an effective way for me to reduce my stress level, it does not fit into any of my values. If I were to spend my time watching TV on reading books or doing yoga, I would not only be reducing my stress, but I would also be honoring my values of education, tranquility and physical health.
If you find you are engaging in a behavior that doesn’t fit your values more often than you would like, create a list of at least 5 behaviors you could engage in instead that fit your values. Choose things that you would truly enjoy, that you would actually do, that you can do, and would help you cope with stress. Here are just a few examples:
- Exercise: sign up for a 5k, go to dance classes, go for a bike ride, train for a Tough Mudder, join a Zumba class at a local gym, or simply walk around your favorite park
- Socialize: start a regular date night with your partner, start a game night with friends, have dinner with your family each night, have coffee with your sibling, eat your lunch with co-workers
- Hobbies: learn to play a musical instrument, pick up photography or painting, start reading through your book list, do crosswords or sudoku, take a cooking class, or volunteer to a cause important to you
- Meditation: try out one of the many styles of meditation on any of the free apps on the market today, listen along to a meditation video on YouTube, take a free meditation class at a local meditation center, or simply take 3 deep breaths and focus on how it feels.
4. Set some goals and celebrate when you achieve them! Now, pick 1-2 behaviors from your lists that you created in step 2 or 3. These can be the same behaviors from step 2 if you wish. Set a simple goal for the behavior(s) you choose to either increase or decrease how often you do them. Make the goal specific enough that you could track it, know when you achieve it, and is realistic but slightly challenging. If you chose a behavior that you want to reduce, include at least one goal for increasing a replacement behavior. Use the data you collected in step 2 to see what might be attainable within a reasonable timeframe. Then, write down the rewards you will give yourself for achieving your goals, and the values your goal helps you live by. Here is an example:
I chose to reduce my TV watching to only 55 minutes a day, and increase my running to at least 10 minutes, which was somewhere around where I started when I was first tracking the behavior but a little more in the right direction. Continue to track your behavior as you did in step 2. Once you achieve your goals, reward yourself!
What you can do at WORK
1. Try to live your values at work. If you’re looking to reduce work stress, you probably need to draw new boundaries around your work life. Since many of us can’t just simply change jobs or go part-time due to financial obligations, try instead to re-focus your work life.
First, another exercise. Set aside 5-10 minutes, and within that time write down every single task that you complete on any given workday. Organize those tasks into “MUST DO” and “MAY DO.” Once the 5-10 minutes are up and your list is complete, circle the tasks that you enjoy. It is likely that those circled tasks fit somewhere within your values.
Begin to fully commit to those work tasks that allow you to live your values and minimize the rest. Communicate this with your boss if you feel it is appropriate, and if possible, see if you can negotiate ways for your daily responsibilities to be in better alignment with your values. For example, if you value community, excellence, and teaching at work, and one of your responsibilities involves training new employees, perhaps request to take on more trainees or take on projects to help develop training programs. If you value balance, independence, and family, perhaps you can negotiate to work from home one day of the week, or to adjust your schedule so that you can be home in time for dinner with your family.
Of course, we all likely have work tasks in the “must do” category that do not remotely touch upon our values. Complete those tasks as required of you as quickly and efficiently as possible, and then you can devote your focus to the tasks that you value.
2. Know when to say, “no,” and when it is time to go. Of course, this comes back to knowing your values. It is so, so important. Knowing your values will help you know where to trim the fat when you simply have too much on your plate, and when it may be time to consider moving to a new company, or to a new career.
Does taking on that extra project or helping a co-worker allow you the opportunity to work within your values? If the answer is an outright “no,” then it may be best to politely decline in the interest of keeping your stress levels down. Once you have decided upon your personal boundaries, respect them and don’t feel bad for sticking to them.
Look back at your list of work tasks. If you are finding that you can’t think of even a single task in your work life that you enjoy or fits your values, it may be time to consider if this is really the right job for you. Of course, financial considerations are important and not everyone can leave their job simply because it is too stressful. If that is the case, see if you can negotiate ways to adjust your work tasks so they better align with your values and reduce any unnecessary workload. If your employer values the health of the organization, he or she will value the health of employees and should take your concerns about stress seriously. If you are finding the stress of the workplace is constantly overwhelming, referencing your values will help you know when to decline extra tasks, and when it is indeed, time to move on.
3. The little things matter. If leaving your job is simply not an option, but you find yourself overwhelmed with stress throughout your workday, there a few other small things you can try to reduce your stress level:
- Set availability hours: If you have a job that requires you to take calls or answer emails, set hours that you will be “available” and “unavailable” if it isn’t otherwise required of you to be available 24/7. Inform your clients, customers, and co-workers of your hours of availability, and stick to them.
- Take vacation time/sick time: It is estimated that 41% of American workers still do not take their vacation time. Use your vacation time, it is there for a reason!
- Take regular breaks: Take your scheduled breaks and honor them. Don’t answer emails or talk with clients while on your lunch break. If it’s easier to avoid distractions, leave the office and take a walk around the block, go to a quiet room and breathe for a bit or lock the door to your office and enjoy some cat videos. It may be helpful to put out signals to your co-workers that you are on a break where you can, like putting up a sign on your office door. Get up periodically throughout the day for movement breaks; you can set alarms to help remind you.
- Use time-management tools: Organize your work life by using a schedule or a planner. Once you begin a scheduled work task, set a timer to complete the task and focus on that task only. Don’t check your email or help a co-worker with something non-urgent until you are done. You can even schedule quick breaks from tasks.
- Set up your space to make you smile: If you have a desk or office, try to make your space as pleasant to be in as possible. Keep your space clean and organized to reduce stress related to simply not being able to find work materials. Something as simple as a few plants, a splash of color or pretty pictures can make your workspace somewhere you enjoy being. Adding pictures of you doing things you value with people you love can help remind you of why you are at work daily.
- Socialize when you can with co-workers: If you share a lunch break with a co-worker you enjoy, invite your co-worker to eat lunch with you at a nearby park. Take a movement break to grab some water and say a quick hello. Developing positive relationships at work may help your work environment be more pleasant to be in and may help you develop support systems if you need help sharing a workload.
- Know your job description: Refer to your employee handbook or to your supervisor to review your job description. You may find that you are completing extra work that is not within your job description or that you are working overtime and still unable to fulfill your job description. In either scenario, it may be time to negotiate your daily to-do list or refer to your list of values and see if this is the right job for you.
Workplace stress can seem overwhelming. Highly effective changes could come from your organization implementing company-wide policies and procedures informed by ABA principals. However, if that is not likely to occur, you can take some steps on your own to manage your own workplace stress. Some of these suggestions might seem like very small steps, but they can have quite the snowball effect. What do you have to lose? You might just find that you are less overwhelmed by stress and thus healthier, happier and more productive at work!
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Jones, W. D., & Daigle, K. (2018). Rest & Rejuvenation: Managing Workplace Stress. Professional Safety, 63(1), 14–16.
Shepard, M. (2015, February 19). WHY core values? Retrieved from http://www.marcishepard.org/2015/02/
Author: Alicia Beaudoin, M.S., BCBA has been working with children with autism in home, clinic and school settings since 2012. She has always had a passion for health and fitness, and combined this with her passion for Applied Behavior Analysis during her undergraduate studies. After experiencing severe burnout accompanied by a behavioral "stand still" as a graduate student, Alicia began heavily integrating ABA into her personal life to manage her stress and improve her own health and wellness. As a result, she was able to graduate and successfully became a Behavior Analyst in 2016. Since then, Alicia's desire to help others improve their own health and wellness has grown immensely. She is currently pursuing her doctoral degree in Health Psychology at Northcentral University, and hopes to one day help improve the lives of others through building a health coaching practice and contributing to health behavior literature.