By Laura Newcomer
In one way or another, you’ve likely experienced a form of workplace stress. Maybe you’ve just delivered a high-stakes presentation at work after several weeks of prep. But instead of feeling the satisfaction of a job well done, you spend the rest of the night (and the next one) fretting over everything from the vice president’s line of questioning to whether you wore the right blazer.
Though it looks different for every person and every position, we’ve all been there. Even as unemployment rates have dropped across the U.S., work stress has only continued to increase.
The 2013 Work Stress Survey found that 83 percent of American employees are stressed out by their jobs. In fact, several studies have shown that job stress is the biggest source of stress for more than one quarter of American adults, and it’s only been getting worse. What’s more, it can be difficult to shed this stress even after the workday is finished.
What’s got us all so worried? Surveys show inadequate pay and increased workloads are the greatest work stressors. Other stressors include the fear of layoffs, budget cuts, bad coworkers, long commutes, the gender wage gap, unclear job expectations, inadequate opportunity for advancement, and environmental conditions such as crowding, noise, or air pollution, all of which can keep us up at night.
These anxieties take a big toll on workers’ health and productivity. Job stress causes health issues at a higher rate than other stressors such as financial or family problems. Those issues range from headaches, insomnia, low morale, and irritability to more serious conditions including cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, depression, ulcers, and impaired immune function. At the same time, job stress costs the U.S. more than $300 billion each year due to accidents, absenteeism, and employee turnover.
What all of this demonstrates is that it can be really hard to leave work stress at the office. If you count yourself among the many people who find their work stress interferes with life outside of work, don’t give up hope. Instead, implement the strategies below to leave job worries at the office—for good.
The best way to reduce the presence of work stressors at home is to limit those stresses in the first place. Help ease the pressure of work by staying organized, limiting distractions, learning to say “no” when your plate is already full, delegating when possible, setting up a comfortable and ergonomic workspace, and checking in with your manager on a regular basis to confirm you’re on track and clear up any potential for miscommunication. If you feel better at work, you’ll feel better at home.
It may sound unusual, but make a habit out of washing your hands the moment you get home from work. Research from the University of Michigan found that washing your hands with soap and water can help you make a clean break from work and shed any misgivings about the day’s events.
Ruminating involves thinking about the same thing over and over again without drawing any productive conclusions. When you catch yourself ruminating, try to shift your focus to a solution for whatever’s plaguing you (if it helps, you can write down the solution as a series of action items for the next day’s to-do list). And if the problem isn’t solvable? Then there’s no sense fretting over it for the rest of the night. Do what you can to simply let it go.
Smartphones, tablets, and other electronic devices make it easy for work email to haunt us everywhere we go–even the bedroom. And that makes it even harder to disconnect from work. Whenever possible, turn off all electronic devices once you get home (or at least leave them in another room). If you absolutely can’t go the evening without checking work email, try to limit yourself to one login each night, and do it well before bedtime so there’s no chance of getting agitated about work right before trying to sleep.
Whether it’s cooking nightly meals, knitting, journaling, or anything else that floats your boat, immersing yourself in a creative outlet is a great way to leave work troubles behind. As a bonus, our brains often do some unconscious problem solving while we’re being creative. So a hobby not only provides some distance from work problems, but it may just help you solve them, too.
Engaging in physical activity naturally releases stress-relieving chemicals and feel-good endorphins that can help you feel healthier and happier even after you’ve stopped moving and shaking. Amp up exercise’s benefits by focusing on taking deep, relaxing breaths.
Meditating for even just five minutes every morning or evening can lower blood pressure, which can in turn lower stress levels. Meditation also provides us with a tool to regulate the anxieties that may trigger feeling stressed. If you find you just can’t stop worrying about a meeting or project, sit down and spend a few minutes taking deep breaths and allowing your mind to relax.
Rituals are a great way to bring closure to work projects. Make it a habit to reward yourself for finishing tasks or closing deals. Whether you go out for frozen yogurt, take a short walk, or call a friend to catch up, celebrating wins at work can help us put projects to rest and feel more satisfied at work in general.
Sometimes, all it takes to feel better after a rough day at work is the supportive ear of a friend or other loved one. But devoting a whole dinner or happy hour to work complaints can actually be counterproductive. Talking on and on about work problems can lead us to focus on them even more, which makes it harder to get some distance. If you find you aren’t able to let things go, consider therapy; it can be a great resource that provides you with tools to better regulate stress.
Sometimes all that’s needed to catch a break from work stress are a few simple strategies like the ones outlined above. But if you find yourself consistently depressed or miserable even after taking steps to reduce stress, it may be time to consider finding a new job. You won’t be the first person to do so: 42 percent of employees have switched jobs in an attempt to alleviate work stress. If possible, try to line up another job before leaving the current one, since being unemployed comes with its own host of stressors. Sometimes, the best way to leave work stress at work is to leave the job that stressed you out in the first place.
From washing your hands and taking up a hobby to learning how to say “ommm,” there are plenty of simple strategies you can implement in order to get some distance from work and improve your physical and mental health in the process. Above all, remember that work and life are not the same thing. And your life should always come first.
Laura Newcomer is a writer, editor, and educator with multiple years of experience working in the environmental and personal wellness space. Formerly Senior Editor at the health site Greatist, Laura now lives and works in Pennsylvania. Her writing has been published on Washington Post, TIME Healthland, Greatist, DailyBurn, Lifehacker, and Business Insider, among others. She has taught environmental education to students of all ages in both Pennsylvania and Maine, and prioritizes living an environmentally sustainable lifestyle. She's a big proponent of creating self-sustaining communities and accessible healthy food systems that care for both people and the earth. An avid outdoorswoman, she can often be found hiking, kayaking, backpacking, and tending to her garden.