Advances in digital technologies have helped employees around the world excel in their professional roles, but "always on" work culture has also introduced a significant amount of stress into their daily lives. While many U.S. workers believe staying connected outside working hours is a good way to boost their productivity, the habit comes with some notable side effects. A 2018 study from Deloitte on the consequences of workplace technologies found that modern usage patterns mimic the effects of a physical drug addiction, which significantly impairs workers' physical and mental health. Seeing as April is Stress Awareness Month, now is as good a time as any to review the impact of work-related stress and strategies for managing it.
How stress affects productivity in professional environments
Workers experience stress in many different ways, as it is known to exacerbate pre-existing conditions and amplify negative aspects of their character, according to the Stress Management Society. Generally speaking, prolonged stress typically manifests negative changes in an employee's cognitive, emotional, physical or behavioral state, leading to reduced performance and a greater degree of irritability. Some common symptoms include:
- Cognitive: Indecision, poor judgment, memory issues, self doubt and an inability to concentrate
- Emotional: Depression, moodiness, anxiety, frustration, panic and fatalist thinking
- Physical: High blood pressure, hypertension, compromised immune system, ulcers and joint pain
- Behavioral: Decreased motivation, isolation, sleep irregularities and increased alcohol consumption
Beyond the short-term consequences, stress has also been linked to serious health problems and chronic illnesses, from cardiovascular disease to diabetes. The constant and excessive demands of digital-oriented workplaces is often difficult to mediate, as workers have a profound sense of responsibility to go above and beyond. A study released by the American Psychological Association found that more than half of employed adults in the U.S. check work messages over the weekend, before or after working hours, and even when they take sick days. Additionally, around 44% said they check messages and engage with work activities while on vacation.
Although this dedication may produce short-term productivity gains, the toll it takes on employees' physical and mental health can negatively impact employers over the long term. For example, prolonged stress can cause significant burnout and lead to unhealthy coping habits, which may reduce an employee's ability to consistently perform at a high level and increase rates of absenteeism. Companies have utilized several strategies to address these undesirable consequences, such as adopting a human-centered approach to technology design and workplace processes, but stress management starts at the individual level.
4 tips for managing work-related stress
Coping with high-stress work environments can be challenging, but workers can mitigate many of the negative effects by practicing self care and engaging in healthy behaviors. Here are four strategies employees can use to reduce stress and maintain their well-being:
1. Take a break: The best way to decompress during a busy work day is to take a step back and give yourself a few moments to rest and recharge. It's also important to take time off when your stress levels are peaking, as close to 52% of American workers don't use their vacation days, according to a survey from Project Time Off.
2. Exercise regularly: Stress and frustration can flood your bloodstream with adrenaline, which can have a negative effect on your mood. Physical exertion can help reduce your adrenaline levels and release mood-boosting chemicals like dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, per SMS.
3. Avoid stimulants: Nicotine, alcohol, caffeine and refined sugars can cause irritability and intensify the physical sensations associated with stress. While many workers use these substances to relax or calm down, they often have the opposite physiological effect.
4. Balance responsibilities: When work piles up, it can be difficult to manage your time effectively. Working after hours may help you complete your assignments on time, but it also prevents you from establishing a healthy work-life balance. Set some self-imposed limitations to ensure you have enough time to recuperate from a busy work week.