Strategies for Managing Stress in the Workplace

A worker at a desk holds their head.

Stress is an emotional or physical response to an external factor. These factors vary in origin, as do individuals’ responses to them. While stress is common and can even be useful in certain situations, chronic stress can cause a wide range of health issues, including the compounding of existing health conditions. In a work environment, unchecked stress can lead to increased anxiety, burnout, higher absenteeism and the adoption of unhealthy coping behaviors like poor dietary habits.

Individuals can use any of several strategies for managing stress in the workplace to prevent chronic stress from impacting their lives. In order to deal with stress effectively, it’s important to understand what stress is and debunk a few common myths about it.

How Do You Handle Stress in the Workplace?

Stress is common in the workplace. Project deadlines, meeting and presentation preparations, and interpersonal conflicts are just a few of the elements that can cause stressful feelings to arise. Figuring out how to mitigate the long-term effects of stress is essential to maintaining healthy work habits and supporting your overall well-being.

The first step is to identify how you handle stress in the workplace when it arises. Assessing your reactions in specific stress-inducing situations can help you identify what makes stressful feelings increase for you. This can lead to your implementing proactive strategies to minimize these reactions, which can allow you to focus on the tasks at hand and improve your performance.

Common Myths About Stress

Even though stress is common, it is often misunderstood. If you’re interested in handling stress levels at or outside of work, it’s vital to be aware of the myths about stress and why they are incorrect.

The website The Recovery VillageLinkedIn lists several common myths about stress that tend to distort how we think of the subject. Recognizing these myths as misconceptions can help you build more effective strategies for managing workplace stress.

Myth #1: Stress Is Always Bad

According to this myth, stress is always detrimental, which means that zero stress will lead to maximum happiness and productivity at work. While this might sound great in theory, studies have shown that in practice it is flawed. For example, the right amount of stress has the potential to actually improve work performance due to the body releasing the performance-boosting hormone adrenaline.

Stress to the body is parallel to what tension is to guitar strings — too much and the string snaps, too little and the string neither moves nor makes a sound. It is best to look at stress not from the perspective of “good” or “bad,” but rather from the angle of management. For example, will you panic the very moment you find yourself in a stressful situation, or will you leverage stress positively in order to elevate your work?

Myth #2: Stress Is the Same for Everyone

Due to a personal physiological occurrence having a catch-all linguistic term, it can be easy for individuals to assume that all stress is objectively the same. Yet stress is actually subjective. For example, although you may be able to handle potential stressors — e.g., juggling multiple work projects simultaneously — without a problem, a co-worker in a similar position might have an anxiety attack, or vice versa.

The subjectivity of stress is predominantly due to the various physiological responses of an individual’s body. Such responses are the result of a multitude of factors, including an individual’s basic approach to work, such as whether or not they prioritize being organized or develop positive colleague relations. The latter is particularly crucial, as possessing a circle of fellow co-workers to fall back on for support has been linked to positive outcomes in dealing with work-related stress.

Myth #3: No Symptoms Means No Stress

At some point, you may have observed a colleague partaking in what many would consider a stressful situation (e.g., explaining a massive business failure to a supervisor). Despite the high-level pressure, your colleague showed zero signs of stress or anxiety. How could this be? Does this mean that they weren’t experiencing the stress that everyone else in the boardroom felt?

Not necessarily. As mentioned, stress affects individuals in different ways. Poised colleagues aren’t necessarily stress-free, they have just discovered strategies for managing workplace stress in a positive, symptom-free fashion.

Myth #4: Stress Is Everywhere, So You Can’t Do Anything About It

Living in a fast-paced culture, it may seem as though stress is inevitable. Yet this is neither an accurate nor healthy way of thinking. Individuals can easily prevent stress in the workplace by planning and organizing their tasks. For example, when dealing with a commonly stressful situation — such as being overwhelmed with a large number of tasks — it is essential to segment tasks and work on the simple problems first. This will not only diminish stress, but it will also provide momentum that can be leveraged in executing more complicated tasks.

Myth #5: The Most Popular Techniques for Reducing Stress Are the Best Ones

Although this myth might sound appealing, in reality, common strategies such as working through stress are not always the healthiest approach. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to handling stress. Remember, we are all unique individuals with our own lives, situations and reactions; it is best to design a comprehensive program around what works best for you.

Myth #6: Only Major Symptoms Should be Addressed

Work can at times be hectic. There are so many major projects, meetings and deadlines that it can be easy to look past minute details. But minor symptoms of negative stress that may seem innocuous — e.g., mild anxiety after failing to carefully proofread a document — can, if left unmanaged, contribute to high levels of negative stress, which can lead to fatigue, headaches and anxiety attacks. In order to maintain maximum work productivity, it is essential that workers address even mild symptoms of negative stress.

How to Deal with Stress at Work

The website Verywell Mind provides these suggestions for how to deal with stress at work:

  • Begin the day with a positive attitude
  • Use clear communication with employees
  • Avoid interpersonal conflict
  • Keep an organized workspace
  • Create and maintain a comfortable work area
  • Avoid multitasking
  • Practice simple exercises, like lunchtime walks
  • Avoid a perfectionist mindset
  • Unwind with music on the commute home

Can Gratitude Help Reduce Workplace Stress?

Gratitude expression can help with stress responses at work, according to a recent study by the Journal of Experimental Psychology. The study paired a dyad of participants as “expressers” and “receivers” of gratitude, and then recorded their cardiovascular stress responses against a dyad who did not give or receive gratitude expressions.

The study found that the dyad who gave and received gratitude had superior cardiovascular stress responses, priming them to cope well with stress, while the dyad that did not practice gratitude had higher threat responses with more blood vessel constriction (vasoconstriction). These results exemplify that gratitude expression at work can help people cope more productively with stress at work, while simultaneously promoting better health outcomes.

Help Build a Life of Reduced Stress

Stress is not inherently detrimental to the workplace, but if left unmanaged, it has the potential to reduce work productivity. In order to keep work productivity high and the workplace environment positive, it is essential to develop strategies for managing stress in the workplace.

USC's online Master of Science in Applied Psychology (MAPP) degree program can prepare you to use psychology to reduce workplace stress. The program blends consumer and organizational psychology to help you gain a unique insight into the behavior of business. Find out how USC can help you stand out in an essential field.


Recommended Readings

How Cultural Competence in the Workplace Creates Psychological Safety for Employees

What Is Applied Psychology? A Guide for 2021 and Beyond



Corporate Wellness Magazine, “Workplace Stress: A Silent Killer of Employee Health and Productivity”

Greater Good Magazine, “Can Gratitude Reduce Your Stress at Work?”

Journal of Experimental Psychology, “Gratitude Expressions Improve Teammates’ Cardiovascular Stress Responses”

Mayo Clinic, “Chronic Stress Puts Your Health at Risk”

MedlinePlus, Stress and Your Health

The Recovery Village, “9 Common Myths About Stress”

Verywell Mind, “9 Simple Ways to Deal with Stress at Work”