Managing Stress at Work

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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

April is National Stress Awareness Month. If you’re like me, you may have been so stressed out that you didn’t even know that there’s a month recognizing and dedicated just to stress! The purpose of this recognition is to help bring attention to the negative impact that stress can have. We’ve probably all been stressed out at some point in our lives, and quite often, work is the source of that stress. 

I’ve found that my workplace stress and stressors have shifted over the past several years. What stressed me out pre-pandemic seem like distant afterthoughts now. In this “post-pandemic” world, I’m no longer operating in survival mode, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not still stressed out. As a DEI practitioner, I know that stress can negatively impact your health. Stress is an inherent part of the job. While it can be very rewarding to do this work, and I consider it a privilege to do this for a living, confronting systemic inequities and interpersonal conflicts daily is a quick ticket to burnout and fatigue. 

As a chronic overachiever and recovering perfectionist, I had to nearly burn out to truly get a sense of how to manage and mitigate my own stress. I can’t pretend that I have it all figured out (spoiler alert– I still get stressed out all the time!), but I’ve been able to curate a list of ways to manage myself when I can feel my heart rate rising and anxiety creeping up. Here are some approaches that I personally find helpful:

Talk about it!

I find that verbalizing my emotions and feelings helps me avoid bottling them up inside. Sometimes, the person you’re talking to can even help brainstorm possible solutions, but even just the simple act of telling someone else you’re feeling overwhelmed can be a huge relief. Journaling is a good alternative if there’s no one around to talk to. 

Take a walk.

Even a quick walk around the block has been found to be helpful for boosting your mental health. 

Set boundaries.

Setting boundaries is one of the hardest things I do because my natural inclination is to say ‘yes’ to everything and everyone and take on as much as possible. Sometimes, this practice looks like delegating some of my work and tasks (an easy way to think about work is to ask yourself, “What can ONLY I do?” and work backward from there). I am a fan of the Eisenhower Matrix framework and use this to help me assess my task list for delegation purposes. I also proactively manage my calendar by blocking off time to eat lunch (I’m no use to anyone if I’m hungry), work out (if I don’t build in this time, I’ll easily spend 8+ hours hunched over my laptop), and practice self-care (summer Fridays are essential for my long-term well-being, given how short summers in New England tend to be). 

Go to therapy.

I can’t say enough positive things about the value of good therapy. Having a neutral third party to help me unpack the underlying sources of my anxiety or stress has been an invaluable tool for me in terms of managing my mental and physical health.

Practice box breathing.

Sometimes, I need to alleviate stress in the moment quickly. Box breathing is one of my preferred ways to recenter and ground myself. Box breathing is also known as 4×4 breathing. To practice this technique, slowly inhale in while counting to four. Then, hold your breath for four counts. Slowly exhale out for four counts, and finish by holding your breath once more for the final four counts. I find this practice so helpful that I have a big sticky note with the words “4-4-4-4 BREATHE” on my office wall as an immediate reminder whenever I need it.

Take a break.

Taking a break can involve setting a 10-minute alarm on your phone and scrolling through social media for that length of time, taking a nap, hopping offline early on a Friday afternoon, scheduling vacation time, or even taking a sabbatical.

There are many additional ways to manage stress, especially workplace stress. These are just a few techniques that have worked for me.