Is Your Job a 'Stressfest'? These Strategies Can Help

Stress in the workplace has reached epidemic proportions, according to author and stress management consultant G. Gaynor McTigue. While some jobs tend to be more stressful than others, no industry is immune to the "rampant" stress McTigue sees in today's workplace -- from the factory floor to the corner cubicle.

"Because of the tight economy today, companies are trying to get more out of their workers, thinking in the long run that it will make them more profitable," McTigue said. "My feeling is they're going to be less profitable because when you have stressed-out workers you have more absenteeism, more sick days, more disgruntled workers and high turnover. And as a result of the increased sick days, you have higher health insurance premiums."

Add to that any stress that workers are experiencing at home. McTigue believes that stress at home and stress on the job tend to work synergistically.

"I always say people bring personal stress to the workplace and work stress home," McTigue asserted. "There's a lot of overlap."

Feeding all of that stress are the core capitalistic values of competition, achievement, materialism and all the other pressures we place on ourselves -- and advertisers place on us -- to realize the American dream.

"The self-esteem, competition, peer pressure, the fine home and the good schools, the fancy car -- that all adds to our need to work more and work harder," McTigue said. "It adds to stress."

Some experts believe that some stress is good for us. But excessive, chronic stress can contribute to a host of health problems, from heart disease to diabetes to high blood pressure, according to McTigue.

"When you're under constant stress, when your whole life is almost a crisis situation, you're constantly churning out harmful hormones and weakening your immune system," McTigue said. "It's been known to age you prematurely when you're stressed out."

It's a grim picture. But McTigue, author of "Why Make Yourself Crazy? Strategies for a Stress-Free Life," believes that most of our stress -- both at work and at home -- falls into the category of "retail stress," meaning that "these are everyday things that we have control over."

In this three-part series, McTigue will offer 15 easy tips -- five tips a day -- to relieve stress on the job and at home.

These first five tips are designed to tackle some common workplace situations that contribute to stress.

  1. Speak up early. Don't allow unhealthy work stress to fester. If your current workload or a deadline-oriented project is impossible to complete "without pulling your hair out or suffering a stroke," don't bottle it in. Internalizing that unhealthy stress will just erode your performance anyway. Tell a supervisor, and instead of complaining about it, offer solutions. For example: "I could do that project but I'll need more time, or I'll need more help, or I could do part of the project in the allotted time without help."
  2. Don't be afraid to delegate. A lot of supervisors and managers live by the credo, "If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself." But taking that approach can lead to micromanaging, which "stifles others' participation and growth" and adds to everyone's stress levels, McTigue explains. "People have to take a leap of faith, delegate, assign responsibility to others and get it off their backs," McTigue says. "You don't have to do it all at once; you can do it gradually to gain confidence and minimize error." However you do it, unburdening yourself of the "oppressive minutiae" associated with micromanaging is a way to relieve your stress -- and others' stress -- quickly.
  3. Take frequent breaks. Spending hours and hours on the same tasks without a break can lead to cramped muscles, poor circulation and a tired mind. McTigue recommends giving your body a "quick tune-up" at least 2 to 3 minutes every hour by getting up (if you're sitting down), stretching, touching your toes, bending from side to side, walking -- anything to get the blood flowing. "Each time you come back you'll feel fresh and energized."
  4. Schedule cushions. Don't schedule appointments, meetings and projects on top of each other without any time in between. Otherwise, "it's a guaranteed stressfest," McTigue says. Aggressive scheduling distracts you -- "you always have one eye on the clock" -- rushes you and makes you more prone to mistakes. Giving yourself a time cushion in between appointments allows for the inevitable delays and gives you time to collect yourself, return phone calls and prepare for the next event. In the long run, you'll be less frazzled and more productive.
  5. Keep meetings short and sweet. "Meetings are great tools for focusing on objectives and assigning tasks and motivating a group, but they're also horrendous time wasters," McTigue says. And wasted time can add to stress: Every minute wasted is multiplied by the number of people in the meeting, according to McTigue. So how do you avoid frivolous meetings? For starters, don't schedule a meeting unless it's necessary -- "make sure it's not something you could take care of with a couple e-mails or phone calls." Secondly, make sure meetings stay on-topic and on-task. (Be aware that meetings often become a forum for people to showcase their oratory skills, often making it necessary to cut them off.) Lastly, Stagger the arrival and departure of participants who don't need to be there the entire time. "If the first thing you talk about involves three people but not the fourth person, don't' have that person come in at 11. Have them come in at 11:30 [when you're done talking about the first topic] so you're not wasting a half-hour of their time."

Tomorrow, we'll look at stress-management strategies to make the most of your breaks, your leisure activities and your mornings.

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