How to reduce stress at work: Tips from a Psychologist in Downtown Los Angeles
Reducing stress at work is both simpler and harder than it seems at first glance. As a psychologist who specializes in anxiety and works in Downtown Los Angeles, I want to give you a few tips to reduce your stress at work… and be more productive.
Meet Ian. Ian just accepted a new job at a law firm in Downtown Los Angeles. Ian’s excited, and willing to put in whatever work is required to prove his value as a lawyer. The first 2 weeks go well, and while he’s tired, he also gets a bit excited when he gets an email from a client on a weekend – he doesn’t mind replying, after all, it seems to be expected of people at his firm.
But 2 months into his new job, Ian is exhausted. He realizes the things that he loves are less exciting. He used to go on hikes on the weekends, but now he needs to be around his phone in case a client calls. He wishes he could couch in at the end of the day and not check email, but he feels an implicit pressure to answer emails immediately, even late at night. Now he isn’t sleeping well, he’s not enjoying things he used to, and he is having trouble calming down.
Slowing down the Stress Train
Have you ever felt like Ian? Each of us comes up against tasks, whether in our professional or personal lives, that feel too overwhelming. Our anxiety or overwhelm is often a signal that we’re “red-lining”, that our brains are taking in too much information to regulate effectively. While stress is a normal experience, it becomes problematic when the body can’t calm back down. This inability to regulate anxiety is what constitutes workplace stress and overwhelm. As a way to manage the stress, often we work harder. Here’s a list of common behaviors people engage in when they experience chronic stress at work:
- Taking on more projects, despite busy schedule
- Checking work email during personal times or breaks
- Working or responding to email during weekends
- Social expectation to match work load or habits of others
- Giving unrealistic deadlines for finishing projects
How many of these behaviors do you struggle with? Often they co-occur – people stressed at work do all of these to a varying degree as a way to reduce their anxiety. The trouble is, working harder to avoid stress doesn’t work – it seems to entrench the person in the same exhausting and stressful pattern. Let’s call it the “Stress Train”. The more you respond to your anxiety by working harder, the faster the train goes, and the more difficult it is to get off. There’s a different way to manage stress that can actually slow down the train: caring for yourself and setting boundaries. In fact, what if I told you,
Caring for yourself increases, not limits, your productivity
It’s true. The only way to escape the Stress Train is to slow down. And when we escape the Stress Train, we actually free ourselves up to work in a more productive way… a way that’s actually backed by neuroscience.
How can this be? We usually think of “self care” or “setting boundaries” as something warm and fuzzy. Something that’s for “me” at the expense of work or other obligations. Yet there’s more going on here. Think about it this way: You wouldn’t drive your car without changing the oil, or getting regular maintenance, especially when the warning lights come on. Caring for your car isn’t simply about making the car feel good, it’s about the reality that a car has a very finite ability to push itself without receiving the care it needs to continue functioning.
Just like a car’s warning lights, when we don’t listen to our overwhelm, we increase our chances of getting sick, suffer from lack of focus and lower energy. You know the feeling, don’t you? I’m sure you’re familiar with how well your body performs on a task when you’ve had good, peaceful rest. The opposite is true when we don’t listen. We start to break down, effecting our mind and body’s performance in all areas. There’s a few common things our bodies feel when they’re trying to get us to slow down and take care:
- Lack of energy
- Lack of focus
- Irritability at work
- Inability to be present in personal life and relationships
- Lack of restful sleep
When we don’t listen to these signs, it’s impossible to avoid the cost of overwhelm. The only way to move past these things isn’t more caffeine, or a fresher cold-pressed juice. There’s 2 ways to reduce your stress at work, the short way and the long way. I think you’ll find both apply to most situations of stress at work.
How to reduce stress at work: The Short Way
Your brain is made to swing like a pendulum between two primary modes: active and passive processing. Active processing is when your mind is actively working on a task. Your brain receives, processes, and acts on information it receives from its environment. Passive processing is what your brain does when it doesn’t have a task to do. Rather than turning “off”, your mind actively sorts through all the connections made during active processing, pruning them back and retaining the important details.
If we don’t ever give ourselves room to pull back from a stimulus, our minds struggle to find new ways of approaching a problem and to stay focused on what’s important. When we never pull back from our task, we slowly lose energy, and approach tasks repetitively. Doesn’t sound like the smartest way to work, does it? Here’s some quick things you can do to allow that pendulum to swing back toward passive processing, so you can regain energy and slow down the Stress Train:
TURN OFF EMAIL NOTIFICATIONS. This is a quick win. You want to protect the time you spend away from your desk, so you can allow your mind to enter passive processing. Turn off email notifications on your phone. In fact, you can experiment with taking email off your phone, that way you’re only checking it when YOU decide to. Take Gmail off your phone, see what it feels like for 24 hours.
WALK. Put down your phone, and take a walk in the middle of your work day. Maybe that means going out to lunch without your phone, or parking farther away from work so you need to walk. This is an easy way to give your mind space to passively process. Notice the energy you have when you return to your desk.
NEGOTIATE REALISTIC DEADLINES. You might consider, just as an easy rule to start with, to extend your deadlines for projects by 25%. Most of us have a future bias concerning time, meaning we overestimate the free time we’ll have in the future. Account for this extending your expected time to complete a project. If you finish it early, you’ll have another win. Plus, you’ll be setting a different expectation for others about how available you are.
SET APPOINTMENTS. Instead of jumping on the phone immediately with a client or colleague, give them appointment slots they can apply for.
“BUT! I can’t do those things!” Let’s think about this. There are some very real things that seem to inhibit you from following this list. You operate within a powerful culture of ceaseless work, constant availability, instant access. I’m very aware that I’m directly pushing back against that.
But let’s think about what happens if you don’t make these changes. There is an unavoidable cost to being constantly available. You’ll likely spend at least 50% of your waking hours at your job for the rest of your adult life. And these costs add up. The Stress Train won’t slow down, and it will be difficult to actually get off on weekends and holidays to enjoy your life. Maybe you can already feel the costs, which is what made you read this article. You feel the exhaustion, the burnout, the “why did I get into this job?” feeling. So what is it worth to you to slow down the train? Is it worth possibly disappointing your co-workers? Or losing a client? Or having to find a different job?
Because on the other side, there’s a real possibility that slowing it down won’t just make you happier, it’ll help you work better too.
How to reduce stress at work: The Long Way
One very common voice that pops up, even as we consider letting go of being constantly available, is “I don’t want to”. The truth is, many of us, for many reasons, don’t want to make these changes. It’s not that we can’t, it’s that we won’t. The mind is like that – sometimes very divided and at-war with itself. We don’t just have a foot on the break pedal, there’s another foot on the accelerator that likes the speed.
Let’s take a look at some of the common reasons people like the speed of the Stress Train:
I enjoy feeling overwhelmed
“People pay attention to me when I’m busy”
“I’m only valuable when I’m busy, I feel good about myself when I accomplish a lot”
“I feel powerful when I’m busy and stressed”
“I’ve always had to do everything for myself, at least I have control over my life”
If I slow down I’m afraid worse things will happen
“People won’t understand my need to slow down, they’ll look down on me”
“People will be angry with me if I don’t meet expectations”
“I’m afraid I’ll be discarded if I don’t produce the value I feel is expected of me”
Now I realize often there are real expectations we’re up against. Our job may require a certain amount of hours or deadlines. However, it’s my experience that the speed of the Stress Train isn’t set by your employer. It’s set when your employer has an expectation, and the worker doesn’t respond with realistic boundaries. If we’re not careful, the employer can unknowingly collude with the parts of us that WANT to pick up speed, pressing two feet down on the Stress Train’s accelerator. Only when we’re self-aware can we notice this happening and slow down. Slowing down means being willing to negotiate, to encounter conflict, and even disappoint someone – if it means keeping the Stress Train at a reasonable speed.
So I challenge you today to slow down the Stress Train a few clicks, no matter how difficult that might seem. Set a realistic boundary, even knowing it might invite a difficult conversation. A more productive and happier life is on the other side.
Connor McClenahan, PsyD
Psychologist in Downtown Los Angeles
Anxiety, Depression, Couples Issues