4 Causes of Stress at Work and How to Cope

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Author Name: Mia Barnes
Date: Friday March 26, 2021

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Is your job stressful? Even if you answered that question with a resounding “yes,” you might have a bigger challenge stating why. 

However, understanding the underlying trigger for feeling overwhelmed in the office can help you take corrective action — and possibly save your career. Here are the four causes of stress at work and how to cope with each one. 

1. Time Stress

Management consultant and author Dr. Karl Albrecht identified four principle types of stressors, which translate directly into the workplace. Time stress is the first one — it occurs when you have 12 hours of work to squeeze into the standard 8-hour day. 

You’ll know you experience this type of stress when you find yourself working late nearly every night and taking work home with you. You might react with irritation to minor requests, like a colleague asking you to show them an Excel formula one more time. 

How to Cope 

When time stress puts on the pressure, here are four ways to create more minutes for getting things done. 

  • Identify your most productive time: Tackle your toughest duty then. While it’s generally advisable to do your most disagreeable chore first, if you are not a morning person, save work that needs your utmost concentration for your peak. 
  • Get organized and schedule: Use a planner to write down your daily tasks. Assign a time estimate to each one. If there’s no realistic way to accomplish it all, you know it’s time for a heart-to-heart with your manager. 
  • Delegate: Do you have to reply to each email? Can someone else tackle data entry? 
  • Ask for help: In a healthy workplace, asking for help isn’t a weakness. If your schedule shows that there’s no way to accomplish everything without pulling overtime every day, talk to your manager. While you might not get the immediate response you want, they can hardly offer help if they don’t know you’re struggling. 

2. Anticipatory Stress 

Anticipatory stress often strikes in college the night before final exams. It’s anxiety over what might happen in the near future. Sometimes, those fears have a basis in reality, while at others, they are mere phantoms. You must take care not to let worries become self-fulfilling prophecies, though. 

For example, while the U.S. is in a recession, that doesn’t mean you will lose your job tomorrow and end up homeless the day after that. However, if you toss and turn every night out of layoff fears to the point where you can’t perform on the clock, it can lead to substandard reviews or critical mistakes that could cost you your position. 

How to Cope

Mindfulness is the best tool in your arsenal against spiraling future fears. Try one of these 1-minute exercises the next time you grow overwhelmed at work. 

  • Yawn and stretch: Take a nice, deep breath and stretch your arms overhead. Then yawn it out — fake it if you must. Notice any tightness in your shoulders or jaw. 
  • Stroke your hands: Take the index finger of your right hand and trace the left, then switch. Try not to think of anything other than the sensations you feel. 
  • Have a snack: Let a piece of chocolate dissolve in your mouth while you do nothing else — you can fake looking at your screen if your boss appears. Focus on the flavor and texture on your tongue. 

These exercises take you out of the future and return you to the present — where whatever you fear most isn’t happening. 

3. Situational Stress

Situational stress is more common in professions like medicine and law enforcement. Dealing with a fleeing criminal or a bleeding femoral artery is enough to get anyone’s adrenaline going. 

However, it can occur in more mundane situations, as well. For example, you might experience situational stress if a single client presentation determines whether or not you get a coveted promotion. 

How to Cope

Sometimes, situation stress is positive — it reminds you of the nature of the circumstances and compels you to action. An ER doctor who didn’t spring to their feet at the sound of an ambulance could face substantial liability. 

However, in most situations, ask yourself if it will matter in five years. Sometimes, this advice is more challenging to heed than others. For example, if an accident keeps you from arriving on time to a job interview, you might feel like you blew the opportunity of a lifetime. 

However, do you really want to work for a company that doesn’t understand things happen? If you left suitably early, but an unavoidable 10-car collision hindered you, you’d probably be happier in five years working elsewhere. 

4. Encounter Stress 

Finally, encounter stress occurs from too many or unpleasant interactions with other people. The degree to which it affects you depends on your innate personality. Those who identify as introverts tend to need time to recover from social contact, while extroverts thrive on it. 

However, everyone has a limit for dealing with others. If you find yourself wanting to snap at a colleague when they ask something innocent — like whether they can borrow your stapler — you might suffer from this cause of work stress. 

How to Cope 

How you cope with encounter stress depends on how extroverted you are. Outgoing folks might only need a short break, while more introverted people may need to consider more drastic measures. 

  • Take some time away: If a mental health day (or two) leaves you returning to work feeling refreshed, plan a way to use your paid leave for routine breaks. 
  • Walk away for a minute: It’s okay to say, “I need a moment to research my sources,” and put a disagreeable customer on hold. The fact that you use that time to stand up, stretch, or even walk out to your car and scream is inconsequential. 
  • Consider a career change: Take it from those who have been there. If you are an introvert trapped in a client-facing role that leaves you stressed after each shift, talk to your supervisor. You may be able to move to a different department, but if not, it might be time to dust off your resume. 

Cope With These 4 Frequent Causes of Stress at Work With These Tips 

Now that you know the four most frequent causes of stress at work, which one plagues you the most? Please use the tips above to cope. 

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