We all know what work stress feels like—the “I’ll never get this all done, what will my boss say to me now, I dreamt I was actually inside a spreadsheet” feelings. No matter how much you love your job, work stress symptoms can catch up to all of us.
So what can you do about work stress? Firstly, realize that you can do something about it, and no, it’s not quitting your job. And even though we’re big fans of mindfulness, deep breathing, and mindful caffeine consumption (we know), we’re not going that direction here. This is about changing the way you think about stress in the first place, which can then change your reaction to it. Intrigued yet?
Let’s work through work stress—what it is, how to think about it differently, and why that matters. With a little practice, you’ll be seeing stress differently and handling it better, which frankly, just makes life better. And that’s what we’re here to do.
What is the Definition of Work-Related Stress?
Before we get too far, let’s clarify what we mean by the term work stress. Most jobs have some kind of pressure, but that pressure should line up with your ability to respond to it. In other words, your skills and experience make it so that pressure is manageable. Work stress is what happens when that balance is thrown off.
According to the World Health Organization,
Work-related stress is the response people may have when presented with work demands and pressures that are not matched to their knowledge and abilities and which challenge their ability to cope.
What does that look like in a real-life situation? There are some common signs of stress to consider.
What are the Signs of Stress in the Workplace?
Maybe these are obvious to you, but just in case, symptoms of stress on the job include:
- Feeling negative about your job
- Feeling anxious
- Being indecisive
- Inability to concentrate
- Having difficulty sleeping
- Eating more or less than usual
Of course, these can all be signs of stress more generally, not just workplace stress. But if you find yourself tossing and turning all night, then waking up dreading going to work, it might be work stress. And just a heads-up, you’re not alone in this. Over 60 percent of Americans consider work one of their biggest sources of stress, according to the 2017 Stress in America survey.
So let’s get into how changing your mindset about stress can change everything. Okay, maybe not everything, but it’s a good start.
The Definition of Mindset and How It Affects Work Stress
Your mindset, in general, is the set of beliefs or ways of thinking that determine your behavior, outlook, and mental attitude. Basically, how you think = how you behave.
Mindsets come in two types: fixed and growth
- If you have a fixed mindset, you might feel like you always need to prove yourself. You might avoid challenges, see effort as pointless, and give up easily.
- If you have a growth mindset, you learn from experience, embrace challenges, and move forward from feedback. You see effort as a way to improve, not a dead end.
So how does this apply to work stress again? It turns out that our mindset affects how we view stress too. Stress mindset more specifically refers to the idea that we can see stress as negative—with negative effects on productivity, health, learning, and other outcomes—or as positive—something that can actually enhance those same outcomes. So stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Your stress mindset influences which aspects of the stressor you focus on and how you see it. If you have a positive stress mindset, you’re more likely to feel that you have the resources—internal or external—to cope with a stressful situation. You also may see the situation as a chance to learn and grow. If you have a negative stress mindset, you’re more likely to see the stressful situation as a threat.
Rather than viewing stress as just something to avoid or a reason to give up, a positive mindset helps you let go of work stress as a burden and embrace it as a challenge. And the best thing about it is that it can change—so if your mindset is veering negative, you have the power to shift it in the other direction.
The Surprising Benefits of Changing Your Mind
Aside from the obvious, the advantages of a positive stress mindset go way beyond a perspective shift. It can actually cause changes in your body that reduce stress even if whatever’s stressing you out hasn’t changed. So changing your mind changes your body. Mindblowing, right? Let’s look at the science.
When you’re stressed…
- Your body releases hormones, notably epinephrine and cortisol, that lead to the “fight or flight” response.
- These hormones make your heart beat faster, change your breathing patterns, and sharpen your senses.
- You feel these sensations and yup, that’s stress you feel.
- Your body also releases dehydroepiandrosterone-S (DHEA-S) in response to stress, but this hormone actually helps reduce stress. (And don’t worry, we don’t know how to pronounce it either.)
- A high ratio of DHEA-S to cortisol has been found to lessen the impact of stress.
Now here’s where it gets interesting: Some research has found that having a positive stress mindset actually increases the amount of DHEA-S released in response to a stressful situation. This not only helps you recover better from the stressful situation but helps you build resilience, so you can better cope with stress in the future.
And that’s not the only way shifting your mindset leads to less future stress. Other research has found that having a positive stress mindset can improve your performance at work. While better performance doesn’t necessarily mean less work stress, it could mean fewer things for you to worry about in the office.
How to Shift Your Mindset
So how do you develop a positive stress mindset? Changing your mindset isn’t easy in any situation, stressful or otherwise. After all, it’s hard enough to change phone numbers, let alone the way you think. But thankfully, it’s totally possible.
Carol Dweck, PhD, a professor at Stanford University and expert in the field of motivation, identifies four steps to changing your mindset. And we included some ways to apply these steps to your work stress so that you can reap the rewards right now. Or at least get started.
1. Call bullshit on your fixed mindset
Okay, so we’re paraphrasing here. Basically, you want to pay attention to when your fixed mindset is creeping in. Not sure what it sounds like? Think absolutes:
- I’ll never be able to deal with this new boss.
- This is the worst project I’ve ever worked on.
Or statements of defeat:
- I’m not good enough to do my job.
- This situation is never going to change.
- I’m a failure at my career.
Realizing that this is just your fixed mindset voice holding you back is the first step to changing it.
2. Remember that you’re in control
Realize that your interpretation of how you deal with challenges—including your boss’s feedback— is a choice. You might have heard the feedback as the first step toward being fired, but that’s not how you had to hear it.
What other ways could you interpret your boss’s comments? Can you take them as a push to grow and challenge yourself? Or learn ways to improve your work? Just remember that you get to choose your reaction. And that gives you some power back.
3. Flip your perspective
Your fixed mindset is telling you that your work isn’t good enough. Talk back to it with your shifted perspective. For example…
- I might not have done exactly what was expected this time, but now I understand how to do it in the future.
- I put in effort and will continue to do so in order to improve my work. After all, none of us are perfect.
- I recognize I can’t do everything well the first time and that’s okay.
4. Act on your upgraded mindset
Over time, you’ll learn to recognize the fixed mindset voice as soon as it pops into your head. You’ll be able to choose which mindset voice you listen to, so make sure it’s the growth one.
Then practice acting on that mindset. For example…
- If someone needs you to work on a new project at work that’s not necessarily in your area of expertise, see it as a chance to learn a new skill.
- If a coworker isn’t carrying their weight, take the chance to practice your management skills. Don’t just assign blame—figure out what the problem is and work with them to solve it.
- If you feel overwhelmed, remind yourself that you are capable and there’s nothing wrong with having to put in extra effort (or asking for help).
Shifting your mindset takes practice
But it gets easier over time. So next time you feel work stress coming on, think about what the voice in your head is saying. Is it telling you that you’ll never be able to deal with the problem? Call bullshit on that voice and dig around for the better one. It’s in there, promise. And we know you can find it.
Your turn: What strategies do you use to deal with work stress? Tell us your best one in the comments.
If you like this article you’ll also like How to Practice Mindfulness on the Job
Author: Erica Hersh
Erica Hersh is a health writer, editor, and communications strategist based in Boston, MA. In 2014, she fulfilled her lifelong dream of being on Jeopardy. She did not, however, fulfill her dream of winning on Jeopardy.