A Surprising Way To Decrease Stress At Work

Is your job stressing you out? If so, you might assume that putting in even more effort will reduce your anxiety. Perhaps you believe that if you could finish that next task quickly and perfectly, you could finally relax. That means committing 110% of yourself to the task at hand. Right?

Not necessarily. It is true that focused effort can reduce some kinds of workplace stress. For example, if you’re nervous about an upcoming presentation, setting aside some time to practice can help you feel more prepared. However, if you spend all night obsessing over every word and gesture, your exhaustion and anxiety will make it harder to perform.

In the same way that you wouldn’t want to overprepare for a presentation, it’s also a bad idea to put in too much effort at work. If you continually empty your cup without refilling it, eventually you will have nothing left to give. Ironically, aiming for perfection can prevent you from doing your best work.

Many Of Us Already Work Too Hard

American culture idealizes the “hard worker.” Professional achievement is so important to us that we often give up our health and relationships in exchange for increased productivity. We believe that the only way to succeed is to keep grinding away. If we stop, we think everything will surely fall apart.

This “always-on” mentality has driven more than half of us to end each year with unused paid vacation days.[1] Even when we do manage to carve out time for a vacation, it’s hard to disconnect. Thanks to modern smartphone technology, we hear every instant message and email come in even as we lounge on the beach, sit at the movie theatre, or dine out.

We feel guilty if we don’t promptly answer, even during our personal time. In fact, we pride ourselves on being available. The busier we are, the more important we feel. The resulting stress is killing us, but we can’t seem to help ourselves.

Worse yet, we are often reluctant to express how exhausted and overwhelmed we are to our colleagues and superiors. We don’t want to appear weak, unstable, or unreliable. So we bury our emotions and “grin and bear it.” Our growing exhaustion, stress, and efforts to “stay positive” have driven many of us to the breaking point.

Is Your Devotion To Your Job Exacerbating Workplace Stress?

If you’re a busy professional coping with high stress levels at work, you may have responded by working even harder. There’s nothing wrong with hard work, but dealing with work-related stress requires a balance between your own needs and those of your company. The following symptoms are signs that you may be giving too much of yourself over to your job:

  • You feel burned out and apathetic
  • Anxiety keeps you up at night, so you depend on sleep aids and/or caffeine to regulate your alertness
  • You feel unappreciated, especially considering how much you’ve devoted to the company
  • You are reluctant to take time off or delegate tasks because you believe the business cannot continue operating normally without you
  • You’re easily annoyed by your coworkers’ mistakes and comments
  • You enjoy the job less than you used to
  • You don’t know how to stop thinking about work during your time off

If three or more of these resonated with you, there’s a good chance you’re also experiencing physical and interpersonal struggles. Stress has a measurable effect on bodily systems, so you may be having digestive and cardiopulmonary problems. Mood swings, angry outbursts, and difficulty concentrating are probably cropping up. Your relationship with friends and family may also be suffering. Worse yet, you may not have gotten the satisfaction you expected in return for your sacrifices.

Does any of this sound like you? If so, I invite you to take a step back and consider whether your devotion to work is truly worth the sacrifice. Do you want your job to be the primary focal point in your life? Or are there other things that are also worthy of your attention?

Having worked too much is one of the most common regrets cited by those nearing end of life. People living under palliative care say they regret dream vacations never taken, missed family events, and time lost with those dearest to them. Don’t wait until you’re old and grey to consider how you’ve spent your life. Take some time to think about it now.

How To Care Less About Work

The secret to focusing less on your job? Focus more on yourself, your health, and your loved ones. Before you pick up the phone during dinner to answer your colleague’s question, ask yourself, “Is this person more important than my partner or family?” Before you skip your morning gym trip to catch up on emails, ask, “Is getting ahead at work more important than my health?” or “How productive will I be if I’m not healthy?”

Reminding yourself of what’s at stake—and recognizing that your time is limited—can empower you to make more mindful decisions. Instead of habitually giving in to work demands, you’ll step back and evaluate what matters to you.

When you’re faced with the question of what to prioritize, consider what else is going on in your life. If you’re preparing a presentation for your company’s biggest-ever client, staying late at work that day might make sense. However, if your child is competing in a sporting event that is important to them, it might be better to put off work until the next day. If you’re not sure what to prioritize, you might compromise by going to the event and responding to a few emails from the stands.

Learning to set and maintain boundaries at work takes practice. Here are a few tips to help you decrease stress at work by focusing more on yourself:

  • Consider marking off an hour each day or a day each week when you’re not available for scheduled appointments. That will allow you to catch up on other work. Or time allowing, you can take a long lunch or extended coffee break.
  • Treat relaxation and leisure time with the same deference you would a business appointment. Schedule time on your calendar for personal time and mark it as “busy.” When you’re not at work, stay focused on the activity at hand. If you wouldn’t take a personal call in the middle of a business meeting, don’t respond to your boss’s messages in the middle of a dinner party.
  • Recognize the difference between thoughts and reality. Many people who are highly devoted to their work tend to ruminate. They also view things as more pervasive or permanent then they genuinely are. If you ever have thoughts like “This is all my fault,” “This mistake will ruin everything,” or “This is never going to change,” don’t automatically believe in them. Look for evidence to the contrary to find out what’s real.
  • It can be hard to let go of the productivity mentality after work, but resist the temptation to overschedule your free time. There’s nothing wrong with getting into a self-care routine, but try not to worry about it if you occasionally miss your Wednesday yoga class or Sunday tee time.

As a licensed therapist specializing in professional development, I can show you healthier ways of coping with stress at work. I can also teach you how to stop thinking about work during your personal time. Visit my executive coaching page to learn how working with a therapist can help relieve some of the pressure you’re under or schedule a free 20 minute phone consultation with me.


[1] “Paid Time Off Trends In The U.S.,” 2019