How to Handle a Stressful Job

Thriving in a High-Pressure Environment

How to Handle a Stressful Job - Thriving in a High-Pressure Environment

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Don't let stress come between you and a successful, rewarding career.

Many people experience stress in their jobs. Tough deadlines, seasonal workload fluctuations, or the very nature of your role can cause stress. Difficult relationships with bosses or co-workers only make it worse.

So, how do you maintain your professionalism, composure, and workplace relationships? The answer is by managing your stress levels, and by learning to survive and thrive in a stressful role.

In this article, we look at the consequences of job stress, and explore strategies that you can use to manage a stressful job successfully.

How to look after stressed team members as a manager.

What Does Stress Do to You?

Job stress has many negative consequences. If you leave it unmanaged, it can affect your health, productivity, well-being, and career.

For example, a study conducted by researchers at University College London found that professionals who work in high-stress environments are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, insulin resistance, and high cholesterol.

Long-term, research shows that unmanaged stress can weaken your immune system, cause chronic muscle pain or sleeplessness, and contribute to obesity. It can lead to anxiety or depression, and it may cause relationship problems with co-workers.

Research published in "The Handbook of Organizational Behavior" shows that burnout is a likely consequence of long-term job stress, leading to lowered productivity and higher absenteeism.


Stress can cause severe health problems and, in extreme cases, death.

While these stress-management techniques have been shown to have a positive effect on reducing stress, they are for guidance only, and readers should take the advice of qualified health professionals if they have any concerns over stress-related illnesses or if stress is causing significant or persistent unhappiness.

Health professionals should also be consulted before any major change in diet or levels of exercise.

How to Identify Your Current Stress Levels

There are many warning signs that you're experiencing high levels of workplace stress.

Physical symptoms include frequent headaches or muscle tension, persistent sleeplessness, and stomach upsets. You may also experience significant changes in your weight.

Psychologically, you may be irritable, depressed, and experience prolonged difficulty in concentrating. If continuous stress starts to cause burnout, you may also find that you lose interest in your work and hobbies, and become socially withdrawn.


Use a stress diary to keep track of these symptoms, and check them against the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale to explore your current levels of long-term stress.


Stress is not the same as pressure.

A manageable level of pressure can actually help you to perform at your best. However, if pressure increases to a point where you no longer feel in control, the result is stress. Unlike pressure, stress is never positive.

How to Manage a Stressful Job

The following sections look at several ways that you can manage stress in your role.

Identify Causes

Before you can manage stress, you first have to know what causes it. There are four main underlying causes:

Time stress develops from a fast-paced working environment with unrealistic deadlines. When you're suffering from this type of hurry sickness, productivity, relationships and well-being start to suffer.

Anticipatory stress is stress about the future. It may be due to a specific event,like an upcoming presentation. Or, you may experience a more general fear about the future – about your employment security, for example.

Situational stress is caused by situations that you feel you can’t control. These may be acute incidents, like a sudden supply line failure, or longer-term issues, such as a lack of autonomy or purpose in your work. Unreasonably heavy workloads also come into this category. In the U.K., research by the Health and Safety Executive found that 44 percent of respondents cited heavy workloads as a cause of workplace stress.

Encounter stress derives from interaction with other people. Poor management, bullying, and dealing with angry or difficult people can all be sources of encounter stress.

Once you've identified the factors that contribute to your stress, you can then take appropriate steps to manage them.

Find Ways to Stay Calm

When you're feeling stressed, practice deep breathing exercises. These flood your body with oxygen, slowing your heart rate, relaxing your muscles, and helping you to focus.

You might also want to practice yoga or meditation after work; both are effective methods of managing stress.

Frequent daily breaks and regular vacations are also important for reducing work stress. Even a long weekend can help you to de-stress after a tough week. When you do take a break or go on vacation, leave work behind. Constantly checking your emails and messages won't give you the time that you need to rest and recharge.

Manage Your Time

If you're struggling with a heavy workload or project deadlines, you can lower your stress levels and improve productivity by managing your time more effectively.

First, take our quiz How Good Is Your Time Management? to assess how well you're currently managing your time, and to get suggestions for improvement.

Distractions in the office can be a major source of stress. They can come from well-meaning colleagues, from constant phone calls or emails, or from general office noise. Minimize distractions by closing your office door for short periods of time, by turning off your phone, or by listening to music or white noise to drown out people's conversations.

Increase Your Autonomy

Autonomy is the freedom to decide how to accomplish your work. The lower your autonomy, the more likely you are to experience stress.

Speak with your manager about your current goals or projects. Where appropriate, ask for the freedom to choose how you accomplish them. This could include working from home one day a week, or choosing who you want to work with on your next project.

Use job-crafting strategies to reshape your role and to better use your strengths and interests. This can lead to greater productivity and less stress. You might also find that job crafting adds interest and meaning to your work.

Manage Your Priorities

Conflicting priorities can be a major source of workplace stress, especially when you feel like you're constantly "fire fighting." See our article Eisenhower's Ugent/Important Principle to learn how to focus on what's important, not just urgent.

Work out what activities can have the biggest impact. Use the Action Priority Matrix to identify which tasks are worth spending time on, and which ones you can safely delegate or drop.

If you're working on a project that seems overwhelming, break it into smaller steps. This allows you to accomplish one thing at a time, instead of  taking everything on at once.

Exercise Regularly

Regular exercise is one of the best ways to manage a stressful job. Daily exercise helps you to cope with stress, and helps to boost your memory, creativity, IQ, and productivity. And you can fit exercise into your schedule in many ways.

Take frequent breaks to move around and let your mind rest. Try taking several five- or 10-minute walks during the day. It might not sound like much, but this exercise and fresh air will give you time to rest and recharge.

Think Positively

Your attitude plays a major role in your level of stress, no matter what work you do.

You can approach tasks, responsibilities and people with a negative attitude, or with a positive one. Although the amount of work is the same, the difference in the impact on your health and well-being is profound.

Whenever you slip into a negative frame of mind, try to challenge your conceptions and to think positively instead. Concentrate on rational, fact-based thinking, and use affirmations to boost your self-confidence.

Assess Your Skills and Resources

Look at the work that you do. You’ll likely spot frustrations, inefficiencies and bottlenecks. Maybe a lack of tools, resources, skills development, or help are making these worse, contributing to stress.

Make a list of what you need. Tell your boss what you're lacking, and explain how these items will improve your effectiveness. If your boss can't provide the resources that you need, think about how you might be able to negotiate for them with others, or acquire them on your own.

Find Meaning in Your Job

What do you love most about your job? What gives your work meaning and purpose?

These questions are simple, but important. If you know what gives your work meaning, you're more likely to be able to develop intrinsic motivation.

Knowing that what you do has value in its own right can help you to manage your stress, and to build resilience when you're feeling down.

Use tools like the MPS Process and the PERMA Model to identify what you care about, and to think about how you can incorporate more of these things into your career.

Key Points

Everyone experiences stress at work from time to time. However, if your job is consistently stressful, it's essential to find ways to manage that stress.

Start by identifying what causes your stress. Next, confirm that you're handling your priorities and time effectively. Get regular exercise, and make sure that you have the tools and resources you need to do your job.

Talk to your manager about developing more autonomy in your role, and assess what it is that gives your work purpose and meaning. This will help you to improve your self-motivation and resilience.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!

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Comment (1)
  • Over a month ago Midgie wrote
    This is a great reminder of things to do when you are working in a stressful job or high-pressure environment.

    Amongst all the ideas in the article, the one that works best for me is meditation. I do find when I take time to meditate at the beginning of my day (before I start work) does indeed make a big difference. I find the day goes so much more smoothly and everything seems to flow better. Even on busy days, I still stay relatively calm. At times when I can feel the tension rising, I take five minutes of quiet time to just recenter myself with some meditation. Does the trick for me!

    Which one of the strategies discussed in the article work for you? Do you have other strategies that work?