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American workers have a lot to grapple with: They put in long hours at the office, only for their phones to buzz with emails all evening at home. And they’re often asked to take on more and more responsibility as companies try to keep their staffs lean.
We’re becoming a nation of workaholics, and the stress is affecting us both at the office and at home. A 2018 survey found 44 percent of respondents lose sleep over work-related stress. And 61 percent of Americans cite work as a somewhat or significant source of stress, according to the American Psychological Association’s annual stress study.
Nov. 7 is Stress Awareness Day, and to mark the occasion, Know Your Value spoke to stress management experts for realistic, effective tips for workaholics. Here’s what we learned:
1. Recognize and flip the natural tendency to focus on the negative.
For workaholics in particular, it’s easy for everything to feel like a crisis: "If I don’t get this done today my boss will think I’m a flake!" or "I have to knock this presentation out of the park or I’ll get fired!" While some projects in our career might indeed be truly make-or-break, those are generally few and far between. Yet we may see even standard work challenges as emergencies — because our brains are equipped to do so.
“Nature equipped us with a negativity bias, so we’re likely to overestimate threats and underestimate our capability to handle them. That’s true of all of us, but for workaholics the feeling of threat is magnified,” said Bryan Robinson, Ph.D., a North Carolina-based psychotherapist and author of the book “Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics.”
But we can flip that balance, Robinson said, in part by understanding that Mother Nature gave us the negativity bias for a good evolutionary reason: It made us likely to run and protect ourselves from threats.
“These days the threat is a slideshow presentation, not a lion, but the negativity bias remains the same,” Robinson added. “When you understand what your brain is doing, you can slow it down and reverse the bias. Taking a moment to put things in perspective, recognizing this deadline isn’t a major crisis and that we’ve met these challenges in the past with our hard work, can make all the difference.”
2. Be clear in your purpose and priorities.
“To me this is the No. 1 thing, based on research in biological health as well as management,” said Leah Weiss, Ph.D., who teaches leadership courses at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and wrote the book “How We Work: Live Your Purpose, Reclaim Your Sanity, and Embrace the Daily Grind.”
Weiss added, “If you can ask and answer the question, ‘What is my purpose, and what’s the most important thing in this moment to serve that purpose?’ then you have your place to start.”
This might sound a bit obvious, Weiss acknowledged, but “you have to remember that when we’re in stress mode we are not thinking clearly. We often have so many things on the to-do list that we can’t think straight and we self-soothe by crossing off easier things on the list instead of getting the important things done.”
If you find that you’re struggling to understand your purpose within your company’s broader mission, or are routinely bogged down with tasks and aren’t clear on what to prioritize, Weiss suggested scheduling a chat with a supervisor to get feedback. Otherwise, this ongoing confusion will likely cause ongoing stress.
3. Take five minutes, close your eyes and focus on the sounds you hear.
When you’re in the moment, however, all that clarity may momentarily dissipate. Stress “constricts the mind as well as the body,” Robinson said, explaining that as we start to feel anxious we may experience physical effects like increased heart rate and more rapid, shallow breathing.
This cycle can easily perpetuate itself, but you can just as easily stop it from happening. Set a timer on your phone for five minutes, step away from your desk and close your eyes. Focus on anything in the present moment: your breath; the sensations you feel, like your hand on your chair or your clothing on your body; or any ambient sounds such as an air conditioner or traffic in the distance.
“Many people feel intimidated by meditation, but this is all it is: focus,” said Robinson, who covers this topic at length in his new book “#Chill,” which will be published in December. “And you don’t need to do it for 20 minutes every morning – even though that’s great if you can. Even just five minutes at your desk can start to lower blood pressure and clear the mind, stopping the cycle of negativity and giving you renewed focus on what you need to do.”
4. If work is bleeding into home life, set boundaries – but ensure they’re realistic and flexible when needed.
It would be nice to decide we will never, ever take work home with us. But with email and smartphones, that isn’t possible for most folks — especially workaholics. The key is not to let responding to one emergency email turn into hours of non-emergency work, or for one truly busy week to set a precedent.
“It’s all about planning with intention: ‘This week I have extra work that needs to be done, so I will work for 60 minutes every night after the kids go to bed,’” Weiss said. “I set a timer so I don’t wander into other tasks, and then the following week I ensure I engage in self-care and reconnect with my family.”
Also, consider setting up an after-hours work structure that you can bend when you really need to. For example, telling yourself, “I don’t answer emails after 8 p.m. unless it’s a bona fide emergency” cuts out the unnecessary post-work work while being realistic about urgent matters that may crop up occasionally.
Overall, the experts agreed, it’s paramount that we learn to recognize stress and appreciate it for its protective qualities, without letting it take over.
“Demonizing stress is a bad idea, because our reaction to it is what hijacks our cognitive resources,” Weiss said. “When we can appreciate stress as a reality and recognize it as it’s happening, that’s when we can step back, calm down and begin again.”