10 ways to lower your stress levels at work

SME Publications/ SME XPO 2024

By Thijs Launspach, below, psychologist and keynote speaker

In order to manage the stress in your life, you need to take care of yourself first, even if others are demanding your attention. The choice for a less busy life is yours and yours alone, but to be able to make that choice you need to be armed with sufficient self-confidence and self-knowledge. Here are 10 ways to lower your stress levels at work:

  1. Take care of yourself (sleep, eat, rest)
    Do you get enough sleep and at the right times? Do you eat well? Do you get enough exercise? Do you have enough time to relax, to ‘switch off’? If you answer ‘no’ to any of these questions, you need to change your lifestyle. Your physical fitness has a major effect on how you feel. If you don’t take care of your body, you will automatically experience more stress than when you are rested and fit. That’s why one of the first steps when tackling stress is: take good care of your body, especially when you feel like you don’t have the time to do so.
  2. Turn off all notifications on your devices
    One of the main sources of stress is the many different devices we use throughout the day. Our telephones, laptops and tablets overload us with information, even when we’re not looking for it. Once you receive a notification it will stay in your head until you do something with it – that’s just the way our brains are wired – including when you are busy doing something else. Turning off all notifications will result in fewer interruptions, less switching and consequently less stress. You will still have access to all the information, but only when you decide to access it yourself.
  3. Ask yourself these four questions
    Whenever you are unsure about whether a particular responsibility is yours or not, ask yourself this question: ‘Do I have to do this now?’ This simple question can be applied to any request or task. It works like a kind of Inspector Gadget tool: you can break it down into four separate constituent parts, each of which pertains to a different aspect of the question.

The first part is: Do I have to do this now? Is my contribution absolutely essential or could I get someone else to do it? (Follow-up question: Is there a smart way of outsourcing the task to someone else?) The second part is: Do I HAVE TO do this now? Is it imperative that I take on this task or do I have a choice in the matter? (If you have a choice, ask this question: Do I actually want to take this on?). The third part is: Do I have to do THIS now? Would I not be better off spending my time on something more urgent? Is this the best way I can spend my time at this moment? And finally, the fourth part: Do I have to do this NOW? Is this really the thing I should be focusing my attention on right now? Does it have to be done now or can it wait until later? Is there something else that is more important?

Do I have to do this now?
Do I HAVE TO do this now?
Do I have to do THIS now?
Do I have to do this NOW?

If your answer to any of the above is ‘no’, then you don’t have to worry about addressing the task immediately.

  1. Check your e-mail no more than three times a day
    Research has shown that people who check their mail only three times a day are happier, more efficient and less stressed than people who check their e-mail continuously throughout the day. This suggests that you can cut your stress level dramatically simply by checking your mail less often: for example, early in the morning, after lunch and at the end of the day. Let’s be honest, before the invention of e-mail no one spent the entire day in the hall waiting for the post to drop through the door.
  2. Recognise and react to warning signs
    Stress does different things to different kinds of people. While one person may suffer headaches, another will experience pain in their neck and shoulders. Others have trouble sleeping or feel like they are always in a hurry. Some become cynical or develop a temper. It is essential that you learn to recognise your own warning signs and react appropriately when required. It is only when you know how stress affects you that you can react in an effective manner.
  3. Keep your head as empty as possible
    The human brain is not great at storing stuff. It is actually designed to remember things that are important and to forget the rest. When the working memory in your brain becomes overcrowded with information the result is usually chaos. Picture a desk piling up with a constant stream of new files until there are so many it is impossible to continue working. Similarly, when your brain is under too much mental pressure it becomes difficult to concentrate and think clearly. Write things down whenever they pop into your head so that you don’t have to go to the trouble of remembering them.
  4. Plan like a boss
    Good planning involves creating an overview, setting priorities and making sure the most important things always get done. Ideally, it allows you to concentrate fully on whatever you are doing at the moment. And that helps immensely when it comes to keeping a clear head. The aim of efficient planning is to make you more flexible, not less. It should also make you more motivated and less stressed. If that is not the case then you have too much on your plate or have failed to clearly identify your priorities (Do I have to do this now?). Having so many plans that it stresses you out is not a smart strategy. Remember, life is a marathon not a sprint, so make sure that you schedule enough free time for yourself and always keep some time free in your work diary as well.
  5. ‘Good enough’ is good enough
    Stress is often the result of feeling overwhelmed by your work. This is especially true if you happen to be a perfectionist: it is impossible to do everything perfectly and extremely quickly at the same time. Try experimenting with lowering the bar in terms of what you demand of yourself. Chances are that others will not even notice – if you’re a perfectionist, your personal standards are probably a lot higher than what others generally expect from you. The secret to living a more relaxed life is the ability to allow yourself to make mistakes. Naturally, some things have to be perfect, like brain surgery for example, but not many of us are required to do that kind of work. This means it is very important to create the capacity to be just ‘good enough’ at certain things. Try asking yourself the question: ‘Is this something that needs to be perfect or is ‘good enough’ good enough?’. Opting for ‘perfectly fine’ instead of ‘perfect’ will allow you to save your perfectionism for those few moments when perfection is really required.
  6. Train your attention
    When the pressure is on, it is essential that you can concentrate on whatever happens to be your top priority at that particular moment. In these days of constant distraction, being able to focus your attention is like a superpower. Luckily, there are ways to train your ability to focus. Mindfulness exercises can be a great help and sometimes help comes from the most unexpected places. Our mobile phone, so often a source of stress and distraction in our lives, can also help us to improve our concentration. In recent years, numerous apps have appeared on the market offering us better powers of concentration and improved organisational abilities. Many useful mindfulness apps have been launched, too.
  7. Just breathe
    Breathing, you do it all day long. However, by becoming more conscious of how you breathe you can lower your stress level in a matter of minutes. Breathing deeply slows down your heart rate and lowers your blood pressure, which results in a less troubled mind. You can delay or even eliminate your stress response simply by doing a few breathing exercises. It helps just to breathe calmly in through your nose and out through your mouth for a few minutes. For a deeper form of relaxation try breathing in less frequently but more deeply using the 4-7-8 technique: inhale for four sec- onds, hold your breath for seven seconds and exhale for eight seconds. Sounds simple, but it works like a charm.

Thijs Launspach is a psychologist, TEDX and keynote speaker and author of Crazy Busy: Keeping Sane in a Stressful World.

SME Publications/ SME XPO 2024