Reposted with permission from Homewood Health; originally posted on

Stress may seem like a regular part of office culture, but when it becomes chronic, stress can have a damaging effect on health and wellbeing. Research from Statistics Canada shows that 27% of Canadian workers claim to have high to extreme stress levels daily and over one in four employees report being highly stressed. Based on these statistics, the chances are good that a portion of your workforce is experiencing workplace stress every day.

Common workplace stressors

According to Health Canada, examples of “stressors” or “psychosocial hazards” that threaten mental health and physical safety include:

  • Work overload and time pressure
  • Lack of influence over day-to-day work
  • Lack of training or preparation (technical and social)
  • Too little or too much responsibility
  • Lack of status rewards and appreciation
  • Ambiguity in job responsibility (having too many masters)
  • Poor communication
  • Neglect of legal and safety standards
  • Workplace obligations
  • Harassment and discrimination

Other pressures include job insecurity, long work hours, travel demands, office politics, and conflicts with coworkers. Workplace stressors are often compounded by the demands of everyday life—commutes, family issues, health problems, and financial stress—that can add to the pressure of workplace stress.

Watch out for the early signs

Unmanaged stress can lead to a variety of symptoms and chronic health problems over time, all of which can affect the ability to perform organizational duties. Symptoms can include loss of sleep and fatigue, upper respiratory infections, digestive issues, muscle tension, headaches and backaches, to more life-threatening conditions such as hypertension or coronary heart disease.

According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), one in five Canadians experiences a mental health problem or illness each year. This equates to 500,000 employees unable to work every week due to mental health problems or illnesses. Mental health symptoms of stress include depression, anxiety, aggression, irritability, and an inability to concentrate or focus. Social symptoms include isolation or withdrawal, and a failure to form and maintain relationships.

The economic consequences of unmanaged stress can be disastrous for employees and employers alike. Stressed employees are often less engaged, have higher absenteeism rates, and experience elevated medical claim costs. These individuals may be more susceptible to burnout and injuries and have difficulty concentrating—struggling to stay productive, efficient, and creative. Interpersonal conflict, impaired communication, and flawed decision-making within the organization are also common signs of chronic workplace stress.

But not all stress is bad, and some people find it helps them perform at their best. The key is to determine the right amount of stress to maintain energy, enthusiasm, and drive, but not so much that it taxes physical and mental well-being. Proactive strategies can help you and your employees reduce stress and anxiety levels. Here’s how:

1. Change your thinking

How you think can affect your emotional and physical well-being. Your body reacts to negative thoughts in much the same way as if it were in the middle of a tension-filled situation. Change your thinking by re-framing your perspective. People who practice re-framing tend to look at problems as opportunities, pausing to assess the situation and formulating a solution. When stress begins to influence your mood and productivity, focus on the positive and reflect on the positive aspects of your life and profession. Celebrate your milestones.

2. Manage your feelings

Managing your emotions can help to decrease your stress levels, as well as the stress levels of those around you. Stepping back from stressful situations and thinking about solutions enables you to move away from emotional reactions and allows you to deal with the task at hand.

A crucial step in reducing stress is learning to express your feelings in a controlled manner and communicating your concerns openly and respectfully. By being proactive in your approach to stressful situations, you reduce the risk of building resentment and sustained stress.

Breathing exercises are a simple and effective way to reduce stress and to manage feelings. These exercises only take a few seconds and can be performed anywhere. Taking deep breaths during stressful situations helps your brain switch from stressed to relaxed, re-energizing body and mind.

3. Learning to relax

Take small steps to stay grounded and focused throughout the workday—it will help you stay relaxed during challenging moments.

Cutting back on caffeine may seem like an impossible task for those who feel they need a caffeine jolt to function, but caffeine increases the production of cortisol—the stress hormone. Cortisol is often associated with the “fight-or-flight” reaction, where our bodies physiologically react to perceived harm or threat. Substituting caffeine with herbal teas, juices, or water, can help lower cortisol levels, allowing you to relax more easily.

Try meditation as a simple but effective way to relax the mind and body. Find a comfortable place, close your eyes, clear your mind and begin to take deep breathes. If your workplace is noisy, try sitting in your car or closing the office door to minimize external stimulation. Repeating a mantra, or creating a rhythm or pattern, can help you stay focused. Think of a mantra—a positive, inspiring word or phrase. For example, “Life is Beautiful.” Practicing meditation can lead to deeper levels of relaxation, enhanced energy, a better ability to focus, and an improved overall feeling of well-being.

Where it’s permitted and not disruptive to others, use headphones and listen to music that you enjoy. Using music to reduce surrounding noise in your workplace can help you focus on the task at hand and minimize the distractions of your environment.

4. Staying connected to purpose and meaning in life

When the stress level is too high, it can become challenging to see the bigger picture. It may feel like everything around you is going wrong, and there’s no end in sight. Although this is often not true, the feeling of being stuck in your predicament can be overwhelming. Remind yourself of what is important. Some people use the “five by five rule”—if it’s not going to matter in five years, don’t spend more than five minutes being upset by it.

Clarify expectations that others have of you. Stress and anxiety may build up if your job expectations are not clear, or if the requirements of your work are continually changing. Consider speaking with your supervisor to clarify expectations and establish strategies to meet your job requirements.

Don’t try to control the uncontrollable. Many things in life are beyond our control—particularly the behaviour of others. Rather than stressing over it, focus on the things you can control, such as the way you choose to react to perceived problems.

5. Time management

Everyone has moments when they feel like there isn’t enough time in the day. Try using time management skills and tactics to reduce stress at work. Planning and making a list allows you to visualize what needs to be done, and what is a priority. An agenda or online calendar can help with planning and time allocation.

Re-evaluate your goals and prioritize them by making a list of the tasks you need to complete. Review your list and tackle each item in order of priority. Try to leave a portion of your day free for unexpected tasks or emergencies. Identifying goals and priorities in groups of “complete today,” “nice to have,” and “ongoing” can also help with organization by making your list more manageable.

Multi-tasking may seem like a good strategy, but it typically doesn’t improve productivity, efficiency, or accuracy. Focus on doing one thing at a time and doing it well to minimize errors and reduce the need for corrections and updates.

Give yourself a few extra minutes each morning by getting up 15 minutes earlier. You won’t feel as rushed, and your state of mind will be calmer. Use this time to create a priority list or spend it with your family.

6. Get active

Participating in physical activity helps your body produce endorphins—chemicals in the brain that act as natural stress reducers. Exercising in the morning can have a positive effect on your stress levels throughout the day. Findings suggest that as little as 20 to 40 minutes of aerobic activity can result in a reduction of stress levels for several hours.

A brisk walk at lunch can help lift your spirits and get you into better shape. Also, take short breaks during the day to stretch and increase blood circulation, and try parking further away from the entrance, or take the stairs instead of an elevator.

Remember, you aren’t alone.

Many people face stress. Taking small steps each day to reduce work-related stress will benefit your overall health in the long run.

For more information, speak to your Cowan Insurance Group consultant about programs that can help your employees deal with stress.