As much as we wish we could, we can't separate our work lives from our home lives. But it turns out, we also we can't separate our work lives from our health. A recent study showed yet again that the stress people take on at work can affects their cardiovascular health. Women who experienced higher job strain were 67 percent more likely to have a heart attack, and 38 percent more likely to experience a cardiovascular event, according to the study. There are ways that you can work to eliminate the stress, or the harmful effects it brings, both in your personal life and in the workplace. Here are some tips to help you lessen your work-related stress.
Talking it out is an important coping mechanism for any type of stress, and so it comes as no surprise that talking to a friend about the issues you're facing at work can lower stress levels, said Dr. Michelle Albert, of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, and lead author of the study on job stress and cardiovascular risk. Talking about an issue can reduce stress because it may help you come up with a new way to address the problem, she said.
Keeping your body healthy by exercising, eating healthy foods, getting enough sleep and limiting smoking will help improve overall health, and will help you be better able to cope with stress, Albert said. But be careful about thinking that a healthy body can take on all kinds of stress, said Rudy Fenwick, a sociology professor at the University of Akron in Ohio. "Treating the symptoms may make the patient feel better, but at some point, people will come home from a stressful job and they won’t have the time or energy to self-medicate," through exercise or relaxation techniques, he said.
While career pressures (and personal expectations) may push you to spend more time working than you would like, experts say that maintaining as much control as possible over your schedule may be one of the best ways to mitigate stress. "Control is a resource people can use to manage demands," said Fenwick. Control over one's schedule allows for a better balance of personal needs, family needs and work life.
A lot of advice aimed at helping people to reduce job stress essentially amount to "treating the symptoms of job stress, and not getting at the cause," Fenwick said. To truly address job stress, look at its root cause, he said. "If you have the resources, negotiate with your supervisor," Fenwick said. For example, people can say, "certain aspects of my job are stressful, are there ways I can reduce this?" Unfortunately, at some workplaces, this may not be possible, so at the very least, try to find an ally in your office, he said.
When possible, work for an employer that understands that your job is not your only commitment in life is a good way to help reduce the pressures that will inevitably exist between work and family, Fenwick said. Look for an employer with childcare on the premises, if possible, or telecommute when you can, he said. But Fenwick warned that there is sometimes a stigma in taking advantage of such perks. "A lot of women won’t take those benefits because they signal that their career isn’t as important, and men won’t take them at all because, in a professional and managerial sense, you want to show that you’re committed to your career," he said.
Don't just zone out in front of the TV, use some of your personal time to try relaxation techniques. Listen to relaxing music, get a massage, or try focusing on a calming visual image — all of these activities have been shown to significantly reduce stress levels, said Tiffany Field, Director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami. While it would be great to get a massage every day, it's not financially practical for most people, Field said. But people can look for ways to reduce stress that are easier on the wallet.
Remember those massage techniques? Don't just do them during your own time, take a break during the workday and treat yourself to a short massage, Field said. In one study, participants who spent a few minutes in a massage chair during work. These participants felt more alert and stress-free afterwards, and performed better. A hospital in Hollywood, Fla., that created a "peace room," where people could go to relax for a few minutes during the day, was highly successful, and may have helped the hospital achieve the ranking of one of the top four U.S. hospitals for service to patients, Field said. Other workplaces could do the same, she said, or add a massage chair to the office. To make such options cost-effective for companies, employees could pay $1 for their time in the chair, she said. Working in an environment that doesn't stigmatize family life could help ease those stresses.