Ten ways to make your job less stressful this January

Timothy Barber
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It might seem like a mental issue, but stress is the result of the body’s instinctive reaction to a perceived threat – what’s known as the “fight or flight” response, in which adrenaline and cortisol are released into the bloodstream. Great if you’re fending off a predator, highly problematic if you’re sitting at your desk – you become tense, restless and short of breath, with headaches, muscular pains, indigestion and fatique among the symptoms. “When you’re stressed it has an impact on all your body’s functions, and you have to recognise it rather than battling through,” says Neil Shah, director of the Stress Management Centre. “If you stay in that state for extended periods, it can lead to depression, burn-out and eventually break down.”

It’s the simplest solution, but one that can immediately reduce anxiety by 10-15 per cent, according to Dr Stefania Grbcic, psychologist with consultancy Flower Associates. “When you go into a panic state, your breathing will become much shallower and quicker,” she says. “Taking six deep, slow breaths in a row will send more oxygen to the brain, and causes it to relax. A purposeful yawn is also effective.”

When you’re in a hyper-stressed state, it’s tempting to reach for another cup of coffee or a calming cigarette – or worse, resort to alcohol or drugs. “When you’re stressed your body is already in a stimulated state – the body goes into sugar-burning mode to create fuel for immediate bursts of energy,” says Neil Shah. “Adding stimulants will only make it worse.”

When one area of your work is causing you stress, you can become swamped by negative feelings about the entirety of your job. That’s when you need to apply some rational perspective. “You need to recognise all the other things you have done well and completed, rather than letting the area you’re struggling in dominate your perception of things,” says Dr Grbcic. “If you can separate out the things that are causing stress you can address them proactively, while feeling more positive about your job as a whole.”

If you don’t feel you have control over how you manage your workload and your objectives, and instead find yourself constantly bending to the whims of your manager, feelings of helplessness can result. “Micromanaging by bosses is a killer,” says Professor Binna Kandola of business psychology firm Pearn Kandola, “and giving people autonomy tends to have a positive impact on profitability and productivity.” Press your line manager about increasing your autonomy, and if they aren’t responsive, discuss it with their superior.

If micromanaging causes stress, so does a lack of communication from the boss – do you know exactly what your manager expects of you? “If it’s not really clear who is responsible for what or why, stress and conflict can result on both sides,” says Dr Grbcic. She recommends writing down everything your job involves, and then having a meeting with your boss to compare whether you’re both on the same page. “It’s good because it shows you being proactive about your role, but be prepared to adjust as you clear out ambiguities,” she says.

It’s in our nature to work purposefully towards things, and people become stressed when their jobs seem directionless, repetitive and without proper objectives. Dr Grbcic says that creating small goals to work towards will help break down that sense of aimlessness. “Goals can be divided into several categories: goals for the day that you set yourself each morning, weekly goals and longer term goals,” she says. “Reminding yourself of these stops you getting pulled down by the grind of what you’re doing, or your workload.”

By taking on an ever greater workload you might seem like a go-getter and an achiever, but it can be your undoing. “Your body consumes more energy through stress than through physical activity, so you’ll be even more exhausted,” says Neil Shah. “Your home life and relationships will suffer, and instead of achieving more you’ll end up falling behind with your basic tasks as well as the extra work you’ve taken on. You’ve got to know when to hold your hands up and say no.”

It’s true that having a healthy, active body can contribute significantly to having a healthy, active mind – and even a small amount of physical activity can help out at stressful times. Exercise will burn off the stress hormones while creating positive, mood-balancing substances like serotonin and endorphins. Of course, you can’t dash off to the gym every time you’re feeling stressed, but a brisk walk round the block or up and down a flight of stairs will help. “Even stretching at your desk will make a difference,” says Dr Grbic. “As soon as your circulation improves it helps your concentration and you’ll focus better on the tasks you need to do.”

Set aside an amount of time during the day to tear your eyes away from the computer screen and your mind away from the job. “It’s very healthy to introduce a relaxation technique into your day,” says Neil Shah. “Close your eyes and listen to some music, or find a quiet room in the office and sit in there for a bit; don’t sit eating your lunch while reading emails, get out of the office and wander.” You also need to ensure you sleep properly, rather than squeezing in a few hours kip while the mind continues to race. “Your bedroom should be your sanctuary for sleep,” says Shah. “Take out computers, TVs and other clutter, because it interferes with your sleep.”