If your job is causing you a lot of stress, you’re not alone. In a 2014 survey in the US, almost a third (31%) of the workers reported that they typically feel tense or stressed out during the work day. This number is even higher among millenials (18-34 year old workers) than among any of the older generations.
What are the most common causes for stress at work?
So many issues can cause stress at work. The survey lists the following, with the most commonly experienced stressors on top:
- Low salaries
- Lack of opportunity for growth and development
- Uncertain or undefined job expectations
- Job insecurity
- Long hours
- Too heavy of a workload
- Unrealistic job expectations
- Work interfering during personal or family time
- Lack of participation in decision making
- Inflexible hours
- Problems with my supervisor
- Physical illnesses and ailments
- Problems with my co-workers
- Unpleasant or dangerous physical conditions
- Personal life interfering during work hours
Does any of this sound familiar when you think or your own job?
What can you do to manage stress at work?
When you search for “stress management techniques”, you’ll mainly find different versions of relaxation techniques. While being able to relax is a good skill to develop and practice, it only gets you so far. It doesn’t really help with most of the work stressors we’ve found here. Also, since there are so many different causes of stress, there is no one remedy that will help them all. Nonetheless, here is my suggestions for a specific technique that can get you started. I call it the “Sort and Tackle” Technique. All you need to begin with is a stack of index cards.
The “Sort and Tackle” Technique
Keep a stack of index cards nearby at work. Whenever you notice that you’re stressed out or frustrated about something, write it down on one card. Once in a while (you can do this as often as you want), do a “sort and tackle”:
1. Sort the cards. There will be some cards that describe stressors you have no control over whatsoever. For example, you may not be able to negotiate your salary. However other cards will describe issues that you may be able to improve in some way, if you are willing to invest some effort, take some risks, or just try something new. For example, you may be able to resolve a conflict with your co-worker, or change some habits to improve your own time management. Move the cards to the top of the pile that describe something you may be able to change. Move the other cards to the bottom that describe issues out of your control. If there are cards about which you are not sure, leave them in the middle for now. You can revisit them later and give them some more thought.
Extra credit: Use the back of each index card to list all kinds of ideas (even bad ones) of how you could improve each stressor. There’s no need to tackle all your problems at once, but collecting your ideas whenever they occur to you will give you something to choose from, once you’re ready to take specific steps.
2. Tackle one. Once you’ve sorted your cards – with the most hopeful, potentially improvable issues on top – pick just one among your top five cards that you want to tackle next. Make a specific plan about how to deal with this issue. For example, if you want to discuss your workload with your boss, you might start by scheduling a meeting with her, or you might start by asking a friend for advice on how you might approach the issue with your boss. Whatever your next step is, define it specifically as to what you are going to do when. It’s better to have a small next step in your calendar than a big but vague “to do” in your head.
And what do you do with the rest of the cards? For now: nothing at all. Until you can come up with reasons to move them to the top of the pile, that is. As long as you have no idea how you could improve the situation from your end, there is also nothing you need to do about it.
Here’s the beauty of this technique: even though you’re only tackling a small part of your problems at any time, this often has positive side effects on all of your stressors. Namely, knowing that you are taking active steps to improve your situation where you can, will give you more peace of mind about the issues that remain out of your control. It truly helps to acknowledge that there are parts of your work that simply suck. Since you can’t do anything about them, there is no point in worrying about them. So don’t throw any of the cards away – keep the whole pile and add to it whenever something new (or old) comes up that stresses you out. However, focus your active efforts and interventions on the top of your pile: on the issues you might be able to improve and are ready to tackle next.