How to Deal With Stress at Work: 21 Ways to Regain Control
There’s a lot that can stress you out at work: a growing to-do list, an important upcoming presentation, an irritating colleague, or the rumor of layoffs. But stress — especially when it’s chronic — can lead to poor performance, health issues, and burnout.
Here’s how to get on top of your schedule, tackle work problems head-on, and turn workplace stress into office zen.
Signs of Stress at Work
Here are the symptoms to stress to look out for.
Signs of stress at work:
- Losing interest in your job
- Not caring about missing deadlines or poor performance
- Getting irritated or angry at colleagues
- Feeling overwhelmed when you look at your to-do list
- Worrying about work excessively outside of work hours
Physical signs of stress:
- Difficulty falling and staying asleep
- Changes in appetite
- Stomach aches
Mental signs of stress:
- Feeling irritable
- Losing interest in hobbies or socializing
- Crying or losing your temper easily
- Feeling overwhelmed
How to Deal with Stress at Work
Here’s how to regain control over your work schedule and get back your work-life balance.
1. Prioritize Your To-Do List
It’s not enough to simply write a to-do list. If you’ve got a lot on your plate, you need to start prioritizing what you’ll work on first.
And be realistic here, don’t set yourself 10 tasks to get done each day — this will only add to your feelings of stress and overwhelm.
Write everything down you need to do then pick three priorities each day.
If you get them all done, great! Move on to another task on the list. If not, at least you’ve been working on the most important tasks, instead of tasks that are less urgent.
2. Break Down Big Projects into Small Chunks
Nothing is more overwhelming than a huge project on your to-do list. Break it down into smaller chunks and work through these chunks one by one.
Breaking larger projects down will make them feel more manageable, and give you a place to start when overwhelm is making you procrastinate.
For example, instead of “Create presentation for sales team,” you might break this down into:
- Speak to the team to get their sales figures from this quarter
- Brainstorm new sales techniques to implement for the next quarter
- Create slides for presentation
- Practice presentation
- Give presentation
3. Practice Mindfulness or Meditation
Meditation has been shown to ease stress and calm anxiety. You can build it into your daily routine — try meditating on your way to work or on your lunch break, for example.
Research shows that meditating before a stressful event can reduce the adverse effects of stress itself. So, take a few deep breaths before diving into a busy day, heading into a difficult meeting, or getting up to give a presentation.
4. Take Breaks
Your brain needs time to rest and recharge, especially when it’s stressed.
Schedule breaks into your workday, and try to avoid skipping your lunch break. Ideally, you’d get up from your desk, get outside, and go for a brisk walk or quick workout.
But, if you don’t have time for this, even the shortest of breaks can help.
Grab a glass of water and cuddle your dog for a few minutes, or if you’re in the office, head over to a colleague’s desk for some light-hearted small talk.
Try to keep your weekends free from work to give yourself time to decompress each week.
If you find yourself worrying about work over the weekend, schedule fun activities with friends and time practicing sports or hobbies to keep you occupied.
5. Ask Your Colleagues for Help
Whether you need an extra pair of hands on a project or someone’s advice on how to tackle a problem, reach out to close colleagues to help. Even the act of talking through what you’re stressed about can help to make you feel less alone.
If you manage a team, try delegating bigger responsibilities to those you think can handle them.
6. Talk to Your Boss
If it’s a hectic schedule that’s spiking your stress levels, talk to your boss about ways to fix this.
You may need to cut down on your workload, bring in a colleague to help on a project, or push back a tight deadline if you can’t get the work done in time.
Making long-term changes, like reducing your working hours, giving up a certain client, or ending the practice of always being available on weekends can help, too.
7. Take Time Off
This tip might not always be possible, but if you can, schedule some vacation days when you feel your stress levels rising.
Even just one day away from your desk spent resting or doing things you love can help you reset.
If you know a busy work period is coming up, schedule some days off for when it’s over, so you have these to look forward to.
And on that note, take all of the vacation days you’re entitled to.
Bonus tip: Put an out-of-office message onto your emails when you take time off and try your best not to check any work messages while away.
8. Get into Flow State
Sometimes, you just need to get your head down and get a particularly tricky piece of work done. But that can feel impossible when your inbox is always pinging and colleagues keep popping in for a chat.
Put your phone on do not disturb mode, head somewhere private — or work from home if possible — and set a timer for 25 or so minutes. Aim to work solidly on one task, and one task only, until your timer goes off.
You may find you get much more work done, and that stress-inducing to-do list starts getting smaller.
9. Ask Your Boss What Their Priorities Are
If your boss keeps piling your to-do list sky high, ask what their priorities are and what tasks in particular you should be working on first.
For example, if you’re already working on a report for Friday, and your boss asks you to brainstorm ideas for a new marketing campaign, rather than taking on the new task and instantly exploding from stress, you can ask which one is more important.
Try saying something like:
“Sounds great, I’d love to work on that. I already have the legal report due Friday, however. If the marketing campaign is more important, we could push the report back to next week? If not, happy to get started on brainstorming ideas for the campaign on Monday.”
10. Avoid Multitasking
Feel like you’re juggling 101 things? Put them all down, and focus on doing one thing at a time.
Multi-tasking doesn’t make you more productive, and you actually lose time when you mentally switch from writing a report to checking email, then back to writing the report again.
Close down all the tabs you don’t need open and stop trying to squeeze in some extra work while half listening to a Zoom call.
11. Push Back on Tight Deadlines
Before agreeing to any deadline, take a look at your schedule and ask yourself if you can realistically get the work done by the proposed date. If you can’t, ask to push the deadline back.
You’ll reduce your stress levels by giving yourself more time to get the work done, and you won’t run the risk of having to ask for an extension after agreeing to the deadline — or worse, missing the deadline altogether.
If it’s your boss who keeps proposing tight deadlines, politely remind them of the work you’ve already got on your plate. They may not even realize how much you’re working on, or how long certain tasks take you.
12. Leave Your Desk on Your Lunch Break
Resist the temptation to work through your lunch break and actually use it as a break from work.
Get up from your desk, get outside, and get some fresh air and movement into your day.
Use this time to disconnect from work. You could listen to a podcast, read a book, grab lunch with a colleague and talk about non-work related topics, or squeeze in a workout class.
13. Look at the Bigger Picture
Many of the things that stress us out at work won’t matter in five weeks’ time, let alone five years’ time. When your stress levels are skyrocketing, zoom out and look at the bigger picture.
- Is this as big of a deal as your mind is telling you it is?
- Is this a matter of life or death?
- Will people remember this next year, or even next month?
14. Set Boundaries and Stick to Them
Take some time to think about boundaries you can set to build a better work-life balance. Depending on your job, you may have more control over things such as which projects you take on and when you take calls and meetings.
Boundaries you can set include:
- Not taking on work from outside your team
- Saying “no” to new projects when your schedule is full
- Not responding to emails or Slack messages on weekends or evenings
- Taking every vacation day you’re entitled to
15. Manage Your Micromanaging Boss
Got a boss who’s always hovering over your shoulder and demanding check-in calls? Take steps to loosen their grip.
You can deal with micromanagers by:
- Speaking to them directly about how their behavior is impacting your work performance and stress levels.
- Over-communicating and keeping them in the loop on projects you’re working on.
- Building trust, so they learn to delegate more to you and not get so involved in your day-to-day work.
16. Avoid Office Gossip
Gossiping about annoying coworkers can feel great in the moment, but it can easily go badly.
By gossiping, you’ll not only be focusing on the negatives of workplace relationships, you’ll be running the risk of someone hearing you — your boss or the person you’re talking about — and be making yourself look bad to whoever you’re talking to.
Steer clear of workplace gossip by removing yourself from any conversations that start heading this way, changing the subject if someone starts gossiping with you, and politely saying you’d rather not talk about colleagues if pressed to do so.
If you need to vent, talk to a friend who doesn’t work at the same company as you.
17. Speak Up When Treated Badly
Difficult coworkers are almost inevitable, but that doesn’t mean you should let yourself be treated badly in the office. Speak up when someone speaks over you, takes credit for your ideas, or undermines you in front of the team.
If that feels too confrontational, try speaking to your boss or HR, if needed, or set up a meeting to discuss the problem directly with your colleague.
18. Eat Well and Exercise Regularly
The healthier your body, the better it will be able to manage whatever challenges come its way.
Remember to eat a healthy and balanced diet and make time for exercise each week. These things are some of the first to go when you’re going through a stressful and busy time at work, but schedule them into your diary as you would a meeting.
That could include:
- Meal prepping healthy lunches for the week every Sunday afternoon
- Booking three workout classes each week, and going to them without fail
- Going for a walk on your lunch break, rain or shine
19. Prioritize Sleep
When you haven’t been getting enough sleep, everything in life feels harder and more overwhelming. But when you’re stressed, it’s harder to get the sleep you need.
Break the cycle with good sleep hygiene. This includes:
- Avoiding bright light and screens in the run-up to bedtime
- Making sure your bedroom is dark and quiet
- Going to bed and waking up at the same time each day to regulate your body clock
- Making time to wind down before bed, especially if you’ve had a fast-paced and stressful day
Even naps have been shown to help reduce stress, so squeeze in a midday snooze, especially if you’ve been struggling to sleep at night.
20. Speak to HR
If workplace bullying, harassment, or serious conflict with colleagues is causing your stress, don’t suffer in silence. Speak to your colleagues, your boss, and — if needed — get HR involved.
While it’s tempting to ignore these things or power through, it’s better to handle workplace conflict head-on and with the right people involved.
21. Talk to a Therapist
Don’t let workplace stress take over your life or drag down your mental health.
Reach out to a therapist to talk through issues like:
- Imposter syndrome
- Conflict at work
- Worries about being laid off
A therapist can help you develop coping strategies and discuss ways you can move towards a less stressful work life.
Just like when sharing problems with colleagues, sometimes even just the act of talking and opening up can help relieve some of your stress.
Stressed about things outside of work too? We’ve covered how to deal with stress in general.