Stress is a factor in 7 out of the top 10 causes of death worldwide, and the workplace is an important contributor (Quick & Henderson, 2016).
An American Psychological Association survey found that 31% of staff felt stressed out during their workday (cited in Tetrick & Winslow, 2015).
Help is available. Workplace stress management and wellness programs can help reduce the degree and impact of stress and restore an employee’s depleted psychological resources (Tetrick & Winslow, 2015).
This article explores what we mean by workplace stress management and introduces mechanisms and activities that can provide relief and help staff cope.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Stress & Burnout Prevention Exercises (PDF) for free. These science-based exercises will equip you and those you work with with tools to manage stress better and find a healthier balance in your life.
This Article Contains:
- What Is Workplace Stress Management?
- How to Prevent Stress at Work: 3 Strategies
- 2 Helpful Coping Mechanisms for Employees
- Stress Relief at Work: 3 Worksheets to Reduce Stress
- 3 Activities & Worksheets to Cope With Stress
- How to Craft Prevention Programs & Workshops
- Assessing Stress: 4 Questionnaires & Scales
- Best Stress-Relief Tools From PositivePsychology.com
- A Take-Home Message
What Is Workplace Stress Management?
The relationship between the workplace and our psychological, cognitive, and physiological responses to stress is complex, impacted by “a broad set of occupational and work demands as well as environmental stressors” (Quick & Henderson, 2016, p. 2).
And yet, our stress response at work can typically be attributed to one of the following four workplace demands (Quick & Henderson, 2016):
- Task demands
Job insecurity, workload, occupation, etc.
- Role demands
Role conflict and ambiguity
- Physical demands
Workplace, lighting, and temperature
- Interpersonal demands
Staff density, leadership style, and personality conflicts
Workplace stress management (WSM) has been significantly influenced by the theory of preventive stress management, introduced in 1979, which proposes that it is not the stimuli that decide the degree of stress experienced by the individual, but the individual’s response to those stressors (Hargrove, Quick, Nelson, & Quick, 2011).
Over the years, many theoretical frameworks and organizational wellness programs that fall under the umbrella term of WSM have been proposed to understand occupational stress and employee wellbeing. WSM aims to understand specific stressors and take positive steps to reduce their effects (Tetrick & Winslow, 2015).
WSM interventions are typically divided into three types:
Proactive and involved in preventing stress and promoting employee wellbeing (including wellness programs, conflict management, etc.)
Proactive and reactive, to help remove risk factors (including coping skills, employee fitness programs, job redesign)
Reactive, for employees who need help (including counseling, employee assistance programs, and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy)
Stress interventions include (modified from Tetrick & Winslow, 2015):
- Cognitive-behavioral interventions
Primary and secondary interventions. Changing cognitions and reinforcing active coping skills.
- Relaxation techniques
Secondary and tertiary interventions. Physical and mental relaxation techniques to help cope with the consequences of stress.
- Multimodal programs
Secondary interventions. Acquiring passive and active coping skills. They consist of a combination of approaches, including relaxation and cognitive-behavioral skills.
- Organization-focused interventions
Mostly primary interventions, but some considered secondary. Organizational development and job redesign.
- Individual-level interventions
Secondary or tertiary interventions, including relaxation, meditation, and cognitive-behavioral skills training.
- Organizational-level interventions
Primary and secondary interventions, including changing working conditions and employee participation.
- Systems approach
Primary and secondary, combining individual and organizational interventions.
Such interventions are often used in combination to prevent, reduce, and cope with stress.
How to Prevent Stress at Work: 3 Strategies
Practical and effective primary interventions can reduce or remove the need for secondary and tertiary interventions focused on recovery from stress (Tetrick & Winslow, 2015).
While many of the following strategies appear simple, they require focus and commitment. Others foster a new mindset and change how we relate to work and occupational stress.
1. Controlling your stress
Our brains are constantly flooded with increasing demands and information, causing us stress and reducing our ability to focus and solve problems.
There are many steps we can take to avoid or reduce stress, including promoting positive emotions, taking physical care of our brain, and becoming more organized (modified from Hallowell, 2014).
- Ensure you get adequate sleep (don’t eat late at night and reduce caffeine and alcohol intake).
- Enjoy a balanced diet and stay hydrated.
- Exercise throughout the week and get time away from your desk, preferably in nature.
- Schedule regular catch-ups with people you value.
- Break large tasks into smaller ones.
- Maintain a tidy work environment.
- Schedule some ‘think time’ in your busy schedule.
- Allocate time for lunch and take it away from your desk.
- Recognize when you do your best work. Plan your most demanding tasks for those times.
- Walk around more, stand, or listen to music, depending on what works best for you.
- Set reminders for a ‘hard stop’ at the end of the workday.
2. When you feel overwhelmed
- Slow yourself down. When stressed, we often move into panic mode.
- Take time to perform a calming exercise.
- Move around. Walk outside or head to the break room/kitchen.
- Ask for help. Seek out people you trust.
3. Managing your energy
Demanding jobs, long hours, and increasing workloads can leave us feeling emotional, disengaged, stressed, and exhausted (Schwartz & McCarthy, 2014).
Creating a series of habits, practices, and rituals can promote your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual energy (modified from Schwartz & McCarthy, 2014).
- Recognize times in the day when you feel tired or unable to concentrate. Step away from the desk, meet colleagues, or perform something interesting.
- Aim to focus for 90 to 120 minutes at a time, taking regular breaks.
- Eat smaller, lighter meals during the day to maintain energy.
- Practice abdominal breathing to manage negative emotions, such as irritability, anxiety, and impatience.
- Express gratitude and appreciation for others while adopting self-compassion for yourself.
- Use a reverse lens to see a situation from the other person’s point of view. Use a long lens to consider how we might look at the issue in six months. Use a wide lens to consider the bigger picture.
- Switch off email and move phones away to perform high-concentration tasks.
- Schedule specific times in the day to answer and respond to emails.
- At the end of each day, make a list of key actions for tomorrow.
- Identify when you perform at your best. What strengths do you enjoy using, and how can you use them more often?
- On your commute home, or the last 20 minutes of your day when working remotely, relax. This may mean sitting mindfully or listening to music before returning to home life.
- Recognize your core values. Reflect on whether you are using and showing them to others around you. Find opportunities to be your authentic self.
We all have finite limits before reducing energy levels and increasing stress interrupt what we can achieve. Investing in healthy work habits can maintain productivity and performance throughout the day.
2 Helpful Coping Mechanisms for Employees
How we experience and handle stress changes its cognitive, emotional, and behavioral impact (Crum & Crum, 2018). The following two coping mechanisms offer practical approaches for managing stress in the workplace and can be implemented with little training.
While we may sometimes think of mindfulness as passive and accepting, it is often the first step toward growth and change. While incredibly valuable for handling life stresses, it is also powerful enough to enrich positive and happy times in our lives (Shapiro, 2020).
Mindfulness expert Shauna Shapiro (2020) considers three points essential to mindfulness:
- Intention – why we pay attention
- Attention – attending to the present
- Attitude – how we pay attention (compassion, kindness, etc.)
A review of the literature confirms that mindfulness is a powerful and cost-free approach to coping with stress (Shapiro, 2020).
While we are familiar with the negative impacts of stress, we sometimes forget that achieving a stress-free life is unlikely and, perhaps, impossible (Crum & Crum, 2018).
We must recognize that some degree of stress is crucial to our personal and professional growth. Stress reminds us that something is important to us, that we care.
People who adopt a “stress is enhancing” mindset rather than a “stress is debilitating” mindset perform better and experience fewer negative health consequences (Crum & Crum, 2018).
But how do we see stress differently?
We can rethink stress using the following three steps (Crum & Crum, 2018; Crum, Salovey, & Achor, 2013):
- See it
Rather than deny stress, you must recognize and name the stress you are facing.
“I am stressed about my job interview.”
“I am stressed about finals.”
Acknowledging stress can help you move brain activity from being automatic and reactive to conscious and deliberate.
- Own it
Recognize that what you are stressing about must be important to you. “Owning this realization unleashes positive motivation” (Crum & Crum, 2018, p. 73).
- Use it
Stress is not designed to kill us, but to boost our mind and body, and prepare for the challenge ahead. By reframing your stress response as something positive, such as eustress, you can use your heightened energy and awareness to improve your performance.
Even with long-term, chronic stress at work, you can recognize opportunities for learning, growth, or the motivation to change yourself or your situation. While it may not always be possible, if you can find a way to embrace stress, it can become a “powerful tool for helping you overcome the inevitable challenges that can – and will – arise” (Crum & Crum, 2018, p. 75).
Stress Relief at Work: 3 Worksheets to Reduce Stress
The following worksheets share the same goal: to reduce stress.
Identifying Your Stress Resources
Your resources (internal and external) provide a potentially limitless amount of support that will sustain you during challenging times and stressful situations (Niemiec, 2019).
The Identifying Your Stress Resources worksheet helps you recognize your resources and identify how they can support your strengths.
Stress Decision Framework
Decision-making takes time. The effect of weighing up pros and cons uses up precious resources and risks adding to an already stressful workload.
The Stress Decision Framework worksheet helps you put decision-making in context, aiming for a good enough, not perfect, decision (Armstrong, 2019).
Vicious Versus Virtuous Stress Thinking
Stress is a choice, yet it is often perpetuated by negative (vicious) cycles of thinking (Armstrong, 2019).
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Using a cognitive-behavioral approach, it is possible to reframe unhelpful beliefs and thinking, and adopt a virtuous cycle of thinking.
The Vicious Versus Virtuous Stress Thinking worksheet helps you compare unhelpful and helpful thinking regarding an event (Armstrong, 2019).
The cost of workplace stress – and how to reduce it – Rob Cooke
3 Activities & Worksheets to Cope With Stress
Coping with stress can often be about gaining control of what is – or, more importantly, what we perceive to be – within our control. The following activities and exercises can help.
One-Hour Stress Plan
When we feel overwhelmed, we get stressed, which can damage our focus and cloud our thinking. “Working within a limited time frame is important because the race against time keeps you focused” (Bregman, 2014, p. 157).
Use the One-Hour Stress Plan worksheet when stressed to plan and work through what you can in 60 minutes. At the end of the hour, you will have progressed and can repeat the exercise as many times as you like (modified from Bregman, 2014).
Stress as a Stimulus for Change
Sometimes stress is a good indication that something in your life needs to change.
Mindfulness can be a powerful way to adopt a state of loving-kindness about yourself and others, and has significant benefits to how you handle stress (Shapiro, 2020; Tetrick & Winslow, 2015).
The Workplace Mindfulness worksheet can help decrease stress and improve workplace satisfaction through a series of simple questions asked when relaxed and present.
How to Craft Prevention Programs & Workshops
There is no single approach that helps all employees manage their stress all the time.
Instead, a multimodal approach should be considered when crafting prevention programs and workshops (Tetrick & Winslow, 2015).
Most likely, it will be necessary to put in place learning and education that are both proactive and reactive.
Focus on preventing stress (removing risk factors) and promoting positive actions for all employees.
Interventions are likely to include:
- Conflict management
- Employee wellness
- Job redesign and the organization of work
- Coping skills
- Employee fitness programs (for employees with known risk factors)
Focus on helping employees who need assistance.
Interventions are likely to include:
- Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy
- Rehabilitation after illness or returning to work
- Employee assistance programs
A multimodal approach combines multiple intervention styles and techniques, and can be rolled out across the organization while focusing on the individual (Tetrick & Winslow, 2015).
Assessing Stress: 4 Questionnaires & Scales
The following questionnaires measure a respondent’s current degree of stress and assess their risk of experiencing future stress.
Perceived Stress Scale
The Perceived Stress Scale is one of the most widely used measures of the perception of stress (Cohen, 1994; Cohen & Williamson, 1988).
The 10 questions are answered with a rating between 0 (never) and 4 (very often).
In the last month, how often have you been upset because of something that happened unexpectedly?
In the last month, how often have you felt nervous and “stressed”?
Life Events and Difficulties Schedule (LEDS) and Stress and Adversity Inventory (STRAIN)
“Both measures provide a comprehensive assessment of stressor exposures across the lifespan” (Crosswell & Lockwood, 2020, p. 2) and can be valuable for research and therapy.
Stress Mastery Questionnaire (SMQ)
The American Institute of Stress offers the SMQ as an online self-assessment of stress risk.
The results, plus a 66-page Stress Mastery Guide and Workbook, provide a personalized stress risk profile that can help you lead a less stressed, more enjoyable life.
Best Stress-Relief Tools From PositivePsychology.com
You’ll find a range of powerful stress-related interventions and assessment tools available throughout our site. Check out the following for some of our favorites:
- Radical Acceptance of a Distressing Situation
This worksheet presents a sequence of eleven questions to help clients reflect on a current or past distressing situation and work toward radically accepting the reality of that event.
- Changing Physical Habits
This worksheet helps clients reflect on their vulnerabilities and routines surrounding aspects of their physical health and consider steps to develop healthier habits.
- Coping With Stress
This two-part exercise invites clients to list experienced physiological and emotional symptoms of stress and brainstorm strategies to reduce, cope with, or eliminate these sources of stress.
- Coping: Stressors and Resources
This worksheet helps clients identify past, present, and future stressors and link them with coping resources they can use to overcome them.
- Squeeze and Release
This group activity helps participants discover the energizing potential of positive stress, known as eustress, which can help improve motivation, performance, and emotional wellbeing.
- 13 Stress-Relief Books About the Science of Managing Anxiety
This article provides an excellent selection of stress-relief books.
- 17 Stress & Burnout Prevention Exercises
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others manage stress without spending hours on research and session prep, check out this collection of 17 validated stress-management tools for practitioners. Use them to help others identify signs of burnout and create more balance in their lives.
A Take-Home Message
Our physical and mental wellbeing, work environment, and the demands of our job all impact our degree of stress. They also influence our performance and productivity in the workplace.
Reducing stressors and managing their impact by adopting effective coping mechanisms help us regain a sense of control (Quick & Henderson, 2016).
According to Angela Armstrong (2019), stress is a choice. Appropriate workplace stress management (personal and organizational) helps us identify ways to control what we can and learn how to see things differently when we cannot.
With the right mindset, seeing stress as enhancing, we can increase our motivation and see challenges as opportunities for growth rather than debilitating obstacles (Crum et al., 2013).
There are powerful tools to help. In recent years, mindfulness in particular has become increasingly popular for stress reduction, helping individuals to confront situations “in an accepting, nonjudgmental manner” (Tetrick & Winslow, 2015, p. 8).
Why not review some strategies, techniques, and tools in this article and identify what can help you, your employees, or your clients manage the impact of stress or turn it into something positive and life enhancing?
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Stress & Burnout Prevention Exercises (PDF) for free.
- Armstrong, A. (2019). Resilience club: Daily success habits of long-term high performers. Rethink Press.
- Bregman, P. (2014). A practical plan when you feel overwhelmed. In HBR guide to managing stress at work (pp. 27–50). Harvard Business Review Press.
- Cohen, S. (1994). Perceived Stress Scale. Mind Garden. Retrieved September 1, 2021, from https://www.mindgarden.com/documents/PerceivedStressScale.pdf
- Cohen, S., & Williamson, G. (1988). Perceived stress in a probability sample of the United States. In S. Spacapan & S Oskamp (Eds.), The social psychology of health. Sage.
- Crosswell, A. D., & Lockwood, K. G. (2020). Best practices for stress measurement: How to measure psychological stress in health research. Health Psychology Open, 7(2).
- Crum, A., & Crum, T. (2018). Stress can be a good thing if you know how to use it. In HBR’s 10 must reads: On mental toughness (pp. 71–75). Harvard Business Review Press.
- Crum, A. J., Salovey, P., & Achor, S. (2013). Rethinking stress: The role of mindsets in determining the stress response. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(4), 716–733.
- Hallowell, E. M. (2014). Overloaded circuits. In HBR guide to managing stress at work (pp. 27–50). Harvard Business Review Press.
- Hargrove, M. B., Quick, J. C., Nelson, D. L., & Quick, J. D. (2011). The theory of preventive stress management: A 33-year review and evaluation. Stress and Health: Journal of the International Society for the Investigation of Stress, 27(3), 182–193.
- Niemiec, R. (2019). Strength-based workbook for stress relief: A character strengths approach to finding calm in the chaos of daily life. New Harbinger.
- Quick, J., & Henderson, D. (2016). Occupational stress: Preventing suffering, enhancing wellbeing. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 13(5), 459.
- Schwartz, T., & McCarthy, C. (2014). Manage your energy not your time. Harvard Business Review Press.
- Shapiro, S. L. (2020). Rewire your mind: Discover the science + practice of mindfulness. Aster.
- Tetrick, L. E., & Winslow, C. J. (2015). Workplace stress management interventions and health promotion. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 2(1), 583–603.