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11 Research-Based Practices to Reduce Stress & Boost Well-being at Work

Published: October 13, 2021

Last Updated: January 31, 2023

  11 min read

By: Michelle Cadieux

Dealing with stress at work? This article offers ideas on how to reduce workplace stress so you (and your employees) can be happier and more productive.

For many people, work is a primary source of stress. If you're reading this, I'm assuming that this is the case for you. 

At work, stress can be felt in many ways.

At best, it’s a mild annoyance that may actually push you to perform better. At worst, it can spread like a bad virus, creeping into your personal life, infecting the mood in your home, and disrupting your bodies' base functions like your appetite and sleep. 

Because work stress can be so debilitating, it often leads us to point the finger -- we want to blame it on something (or someone).

Take, for example, the pervasive problem of having a lousy boss or irritating colleagues.

When dealing with difficult people at work, it’s easy to attribute your rising stress levels to them. In reality, the truth is a little bit more nuanced than that. 

For example, consider:

  • How do you respond when they act badly? Can you disconnect when you get home, or do you ruminate and complain constantly to your spouse or friends about how this colleague is a terrible worker or about how your boss is such a jerk?

To be clear: Having an awful manager or coworkers can make even the best job a total nightmare. And toxic work environments can be truly detrimental to our well-being.

But, it's also important to remember that all workplaces have their fair share of unsavoury characters. And while you can't pick your coworkers, you can adopt healthier coping tactics that help minimize life's inevitable stress.

Individual’s role in managing stress

I know what you’re thinking: If employees are stressed or burned out, aren't companies to blame? 

Companies do play an important role. And sadly, many cultures support unhealthy practices and tolerate conditions that harm employee well-being. The broader economic climate and cultural beliefs about work (such as the 40-hour workweek) amplify these issues. 

In short, external factors are critical when looking at the root causes of chronic stress and burnout. Nevertheless, people have a lot of control over their work habits. And research demonstrates just how drastically certain habits can raise (or lower) our stress levels.

Suffice to say, providing a workplace is not profoundly toxic; every individual has tools within them to cope with stress and, ultimately, create a better work experience for themselves.

This starts with an honest assessment of the following areas:

  • Your Direct Environment: The external circumstances in which you work that can be negotiated and adjusted to a degree. (i.e. your workload, duties, process, etc.)

  • Your Thinking: How do you perceive your work environment (i.e. Are you constantly thinking about worst-case scenarios or ruminating over issues long after they have been resolved?)

  • Your Behaviours: How you act at work. These are the habits you form that impact how you feel. (i.e. how you respond to problems, how you communicate with your coworkers, etc.)

Managers will also find this knowledge valuable in helping their employees control their stress levels. And ultimately, prevent employee burnout where they can.


11 Research-Based Practices to Help Reduce Stress and Boost Well-being at Work

Identify the stressors in your environment and speak up to make changes where you can 

Many people jump into "fix it" mode to resolve their workplace stress and anxiety issues. 

  • For example, they try increasing their self-care with yoga, exercise, and maybe even a vacation. These actions can be helpful, but they don't address the most important thing -- the source of your stress. 

In other words, you can do all the meditation and yoga you want, but if your workplace (or life) is full of stressors, you're surely going to feel stressed. Or as Psychologist Nick Wignall recommends in his guide on burnout, do a "Stressor Inventory."

  • For example, let's say your boss frequently sends you "urgent" emails in the late afternoon. You feel obliged to respond to these emails even though you are rushing out the door to pick up your kids at daycare. This obviously causes you a lot of stress. 

In this situation, you can't get rid of your boss (although I'm sure you wish that were possible). But what you CAN do is discuss this behaviour with them. 

If you feel you can't bring up this request with your manager, maybe that's a sign of a deeper issue within your workplace lack of psychological safety, for example. And this might be grounds for considering switching jobs.

Tips for managers: Managers can help employees manage their stressors by prompting this conversation, asking employees what their top work-related stressors are, and making adjustments where possible. 

Re-evaluate your own standards

In our culture, success and achievement are celebrated, and excellence is idolized. These cultural beliefs are most evident in the workplace.

Even though it's admirable to strive for achievement and perform exceptionally, these traits can backfire and cause people a great deal of stress if they're not kept in check.

In this Psychology Today article How to Conquer Perfectionism Before It Conquers You, organizational consultant Gustavo Razzetti states, "The pressure to become better and better has turned into an epidemic. The World Health Organization links severe anxiety disorders to the excessive standards we hold for ourselves."

In other words, the standards you hold yourself to will follow you wherever you go. 

For example, do you tend to:

  • Say "yes" to everything (even if you really want to say no).
  • Take on more than you can handle.
  • Have difficulty asking for help.

The reality is, you only have a finite amount of mental and physical energy. To manage your workplace stress in the long run, you'll have to adjust your expectations about what you can realistically accomplish.

In practice, this might look like this:

  • Asking for help more often.
  • Delegating a task that someone else can take care of.
  • Kindly saying "no" when your energy is low or your plate is full.

A recent psychological study has shown individuals with perfectionist personalities may be at increased risk for depression. As such, re-evaluating your expectations for yourself can be a powerful way to reduce your stress in the long run. 

Tips for managers: Looking out for employees who have this "perfectionist" tendency and helping them control it (instead of taking advantage of it) is an important tactic to help employees reduce workplace stress and improve their overall well-being.

Minimize multitasking where you can

Multitasking was a stubborn work habit that personally made my stress level skyrocket. It’s a simple thing to solve -- just stop doing it! Right? But it’s one of those things that are easier said than done.

Worse yet, many work cultures view “multitasking” as a skill that is required in job descriptions. Admittedly, for many workers, frequent multitasking is an everyday reality. 

But science has a lot to say about the long-term impact of multitasking on workers’ productivity, but most importantly, their mental health. 

Scientific research shows that multitasking increases chronic stress. And you may think you’re productive, but studies show that constant task switching reduces our productivity by 40%.  

The neuroscience is clear: our brains aren’t built for multitasking. We perform much better when focusing on one task at a time.

As such, controlling your tendency to multitask is a great first step to minimizing workplace stress. This habit is often deeply ingrained and can be difficult to break. So one of the best techniques to start ending multitasking is simple and easy to implement -- time blocking!

Use time blocking technique

Switching between your inbox and chat all day may feel productive, but chances are you are not getting much real work done. Constant task switching is "busyness," not productivity. And this habit can fuel procrastination, drive greater stress, and be detrimental to our mental well-being.

Conversely, getting into the habit of making time for "deep work" is one of the best ways to improve performance and curb stress. The concept was coined by Cal Newport, a Computer Science professor at Georgetown University.

According to research, time blocking "deep work" has many benefits. In addition to improving focus and concentration, it also helps to curb procrastination. Because procrastination is a major factor contributing to anxiety and stress, controlling procrastination is an effective way to combat stress in the long run.

For example, a study in the British Journal of Health Psychology showed that time blocking prevents procrastination and had a “dramatic effect” on participants’ behaviour. In short, time blocking motivates people to get things done.

Adopting this new work habit can also mean keeping your team in the loop when you are in "deep work" mode. Having a block of time in your public calendar marked as "do not disturb" will let your team know you are busy. Or simply tell them ahead of time!

You will be astonished by how productive you can be without distractions. 

Tips for managers: We recommend asking your employees if they have enough free time to use the time blocking technique. Encourage them to turn off their notifications so that they can achieve a deep work state, with as few interruptions as possible.

Be conscious of the pace at which you work

Many people treat every task at work as urgent, no matter how far away the deadline is.

Even worse, when "urgency culture" reigns in a workplace, you'll feel even more pressure to get everything done quickly. As a result, your body may feel tense; chronic pain in your jaw and back are common symptoms as well.

Operating on this mentality will only result in you feeling depleted at the end of the day. It's not a sustainable way of living for anyone. And is a sure way to create unnecessary stress for yourself.

If you want to keep your long-term stress levels in check, abandoning an "urgency" mentality is an important step. 

On an individual level, this means allowing yourself to slow down and take your time when necessary to get work done, especially if there is no immediate deadline. 

Suppose you find yourself consistently working at a furious pace because you have too much work and several tight deadlines looming. This means going back to point number one on this list: speaking with your manager directly to let them know that the pace and workload are having a real impact on your well-being. And consider switching jobs if the organization you work for is unable to help you achieve a healthier and more sustainable way of working.

Share your appreciation and gratitude

A common way of reducing workplace stress is to audit the environment and remove "negative" factors leading to stress like excessive multitasking or 4 pm emails. 

But it's important to remember improving well-being isn't just about removing the negative. It’s also about consciously adding more positives to your life.

You can cultivate more positive sentiments by practicing appreciation and gratitude with those around you. Research even shows that gratitude helps lower cortisol levels in the body.

For those who are doubtful about the power of recognition, a recent 2021 study of manufacturing workers showed that workers who felt valued were less likely to say they feel stressed out on a typical workday (16% vs. 66%). That's huge!

That said, you may find it incredibly hard to do this when you're feeling unheard or unappreciated yourself. But hear me out...

If you share your appreciation with someone, you will immediately have an impact on their mood. And chances are they will return the favour and say something kind back to you.

And you don't need to write a long, overly sentimental message to make an impression. 

  • For example, you can start small by offering more signals of trust or positivity, like saying "great idea" or "that's a good point," when talking to your coworkers. And make sure you use people’s names when talking to them.

Small steps like these will help restore trust between people and reduce collective stress levels. In addition to improving your work relationships, you will also improve your individual stress levels.

Perform kind deeds more often

When your workday is mired in anxiety and frustration, you not only feel physically exhausted in your body, these negative feelings cloud your thinking and distort the lens through which you see the world.

When you feel overly stressed, you are more easily irritated and less patient. The result is more strained interactions with coworkers, less trust, and the cycle of stress continues.

Breaking this cycle and restoring trust with coworkers is an essential step to controlling your workplace stress in the long term.

Incorporating a "kindness" practice into your workweek is a simple but powerful way to break the cycle of negativity and build trust. Research shows that small acts of kindness effectively decrease stress and boost your happiness. Increasing their frequency, therefore, is an effective way to do both. 

  • For example, consider offering random acts of kindness to your coworkers, such as buying them coffee, offering a small treat, or helping them with a task to lighten their workload.

As social creatures, reciprocity is in our DNA. You'd be surprised how contagious kindness can be. By doing something nice for another person, it will ripple out and increase the chances of them doing something nice for someone else, and so on.

Tips for managers: If your team is going through a difficult time, be the instigator of kindness. Consider offering small acts of kindness, and you will likely notice that others will soon follow your example.

Don’t forget to breath

Headspace, a meditation app, says "one of the most overlooked — yet most effective — stress management tools is something we involuntarily carry with us throughout every second of the day: our breath."

Are you still not convinced? When you're working, pay attention to where your breath is coming from. Is it your chest or your abdomen?

Unconsciously, we breathe from our chest when stressed. And stress can actually be provoked from shallow breathing alone. Research even shows that chronic shallow breathing can harm our long-term mental and physical well-being.

That said, learning how to breathe more consciously does not require complicated breathing sessions or doing any meditation at all.

You can practice this by simply tuning into your breathing a few times a day. Setting a notification on your phone is a good trick to help kick-start this habit.

If you notice you're taking shallow breaths out of your chest, try shifting consciously to a slower, more steady breathing pattern from deeper in your abdomen. You will quickly notice just how powerful this simple breathing exercise can be on your stress levels. 

And over time, you will begin to breathe naturally from your abdomen; you won't even have to think about it! Which will effectively help you cope with stress in the long term.

Learn to detach from work 

Lack of work-life balance or “not being able to unplug” has been cited as one of the biggest struggles for employees that work from home. Even when working from an office, technology allows us to stay connected to work 24/7. 

As a result, many people struggle to set boundaries with themselves and disconnect from work. Either sending emails in the evening or sneaking a peek at your chat before going to bed. 

But having ample time to rest and enjoying quality moments with the people you love is critical to your emotional well-being. 

We all know these habits are harmful, but we still do them anyway. Learning to disconnect from work is often an essential first step towards managing your work stress.  

“Disconnecting” can mean deleting that chat app from your phone or leaving your laptop at work at the end of the day. That said, if your company culture is supporting harmful work practices and subtly expecting employees to be connected 24/7, this can be incredibly difficult to do. And if you are stressed to the point in which you are burnt out, you may want to consider leaving that job for an environment that cares more about your long-term well-being.

Tips for managers: You can start by setting new expectations around “off-hour” communication or encouraging employees to turn off push notifications on their chat tools while away from work.

Prioritize rest and breaks

Rest is the best antidote to stress. It restores and replenishes us. When rest is effective, it renews your body and mind with a boosted sense of vitality and energy. It’s a great feeling! 

But if you’re like many overworked individuals, a 2-day weekend or even an entire week off might not leave you feeling refreshed and rested at all. Why does this happen? 

Most people associate rest with activities like watching TV or sleeping. However, rest is so much more than that. Humans are complex with various mental, emotional, and physical needs; we need more than just sleep to recharge our batteries. 

For example, Dr. Sandra Dalton-Smith explains in a TED column how there are seven different types of rest. Mental rest, for instance, is allowing your mind to take a break from the world or any task at hand. Dalton-Smith asserts, “the good news is you don’t have to quit your job or go on vacation to fix this. Schedule short breaks to occur every two hours throughout your workday; these breaks can remind you to slow down.”

Tips for managers: Helping educate your employees on the different types of rest is an excellent first step to applying this knowledge. In addition, encourage employees to take frequent breaks throughout the day, offer them autonomy and let them set their break schedules (if the nature of your work allows it.)

Recognize the early warning signs

This last point is not as much practice but knowledge and awareness to help you manage your stress in the long run. 

Remember: You don't have to wait until the brink of exhaustion or a breakdown to make changes to the way you work. In fact, you shouldn't wait that long.

For some, stress can have a mental impact like a negative outlook on life and more cynicism. In contrast, others experience stress as physical symptoms; they suffer headaches, jaw pain, and a persistent sense of being on edge.

Stress can quickly reach critical levels if you don't listen to your body or mind and recognize when levels are going up.

This Psychology Today article on "subtle signs that you're stressed out" is a great resource to help people recognize when stress levels are rising and how to respond accordingly.

Tips for managers: As a manager, knowing the warning signs of heightened stress is a great way to detect early signs of burnout and support your employee's mental health with targeted interventions.

Final Thoughts

People often suffer from multiple burnouts during the course of their careers. In other words, their stress issues are chronic and follow them from job to job. 

This illustrates an important myth about burnout: The solution for stress is switching jobs or making a major life change.

You should indeed consider a change if you dislike what you do for a living or if your work environment is highly toxic. 

Still, life is not always so black and white. What if you actually enjoy aspects of your job or can't afford to leave for various reasons. 

What can you do then?

You can start to combat stress by forming better habits and thinking patterns around work. A better work experience would be within reach for all of us if we took the time to apply some of the practices above. And most importantly, you will not have to resort to drastic measures (such as switching jobs) to reach a place of fulfillment and satisfaction at work.

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A Happier Workplace


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