3 Valuable Tips to Beat Stress at Work, From an Organizational Psychologist

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Dr. Valentina Bruk-Lee is an industrial-organizational psychologist and associate professor of psychology at Florida International University.  Her academic work focuses on workplace factors that impact employee health and well-being, with an emphasis on the role of interpersonal conflicts at work as a major stress factor.

She also studies the psychological factors that influence workplace safety behaviors and the employment of individuals with disabilities.

A version of this article first appeared as the Sunday Scaries newsletter. Sign up for free to receive it on Sundays.

(This interview has been edited and condensed.)

Do you ever feel the Sunday scaries? If so, have you learned what things you can do to keep them at bay?

I felt the Sunday scores more often in some of my prior work roles, where I perceived less control over commonly experienced work stressors. For example, having to deal with the unpredictable demands of clients, working with uncivil colleagues, or facing a workload that was out of control were all common triggers. However, my current role provides significant autonomy, meaning, and an opportunity for me to use my talents in ways that make a difference. These are key ingredients to feeling secure, satisfied, and happy with one’s work role — and to keeping the Sunday scaries at bay!

I often hear from people that their Sunday anxiety is tied to going to work. As an expert in occupational health and employee satisfaction, how would you advise them? Are there things we can do over the weekend that can help counter the stress of the work week?

In my work, we note that the negative emotions experienced by workers are, in part, a reflection of the physical and psychosocial conditions of their job. Experiencing conflict with others is a leading source of stress for individuals and can manifest in feelings of anxiety, depression, and frustration as we prepare to start a new work week or throughout the work day.

When dealing with these stressors, we can consider the resources we have to help us manage the situation. Resources can be unique to the individual, like conflict management skills or coping mechanisms, or can stem from the job or workplace itself. When our resources don’t match the stressful conditions faced at work, a stress process is initiated that can include these negative emotional reactions.

Of course, we also know that there are individual differences that may play a role in how employees perceive and experience these emotions, such as their personality traits. That is to say that not everyone will react the same to a similar situation, and that our natural tendencies will also play a role in whether we experience the “Sunday scaries.”

To better manage these stressful work-related emotions, I encourage individuals to engage in:

1. Activities that foster strong positive relationship building, such as spending quality time with friends and family. By connecting with others, we build on our emotional, instrumental, and informational resources. Individuals with strong social ties outside of work are better able to cope with work-related stressors.

2. Mindfulness meditation or other forms of relaxation techniques. These are excellent ways to activate the part of our nervous system that slows us down and soothes the fight or flight reaction. Mindfulness meditation is said to help us to slow down, assess, and make a decision without jumping to judgment. Among many other benefits, it has been shown to improve attention and flexible perspective taking and to increase self-control.

3. Challenging off-job experiences that provide opportunities for learning and success, such as hobbies or exercise. These activities involve dedicated, focused time, which help us to fine-tune our working memory and regulate emotions. Having this type of focused time is important in combating the fragmented state that many of our high multitasking jobs can leave us in.

Thinking of picking up an old hobby, like photography? Bruk-Lee says hobbies outside of work can help in dealing with at-work stress.
Thinking of picking up an old hobby, like photography? Bruk-Lee says hobbies outside of work can help in dealing with at-work stress.

In your research, have you seen a link between employee stress and poor workplace performance? If so, and when that happens, what steps do you think need to be taken — is it on the employee to deal with certain things, or can the workplace be restructured in a way that can help?

In addition to having a significant effect on employee well-being, workplace stressors also affect many key organizational outcomes. For example, our research has shown that employees who report higher levels of workplace stressors also experience decreased levels of organizational commitment, job satisfaction, work performance, and safe work practices. Additionally, they report higher levels of counterproductive work behaviors and intention to turnover. Work stress, if not properly managed, can be destructive to both the employee and organizational functioning!

The solution requires commitment from organizational leadership and the employees. Organizational climate and the ways in which jobs are structured are key to the experience of workplace stress. When I lead executive workshops on creating healthy workplaces, I like to reference the APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence model of psychologically healthy workplaces. The five pillars of this model include employee recognition, employee growth and development, employee involvement, health and safety, and work-family balance.

There seems to be an increasing interest in workplaces offering more mental health support. Do you think that is a step in the right direction?

Employee assistance programs with mental health services are an important component of creating a psychologically healthy workplace. While many organizations already have such programs in place, the real challenge is in removing the stigma around using these.

That’s why promoting a strong psychosocial safety climate is so critical. Such an organizational climate sends clear messages regarding the importance of employee wellness. This is done through policies that promote and support well-being and safety; two-way communication that places value on these issues; and the provision of services and workplace practices that promote a healthy workplace.

Putting systems in place to support an employee workforce that is thriving has financial implications, and is the socially responsible thing to do. Above all, companies are recognizing that today’s talent demands a workplace where they can work hard and use their strengths while staying balanced. 

What I’m Reading This Week

Distract yourself from the scaries with these reads:

“It’s Never Too Late to Start a Brilliant Career.” Society may put early achievement on a pedestal, but in reality, we mature and develop on different schedules. This article celebrates and normalizes the late bloomer.

“The Invisible City Beneath Paris.” Slip through the chain link fence and explore the sprawl of the catacombs.

“Keanu Reeves: ‘Grief and loss, those things don’t ever go away.” The John Wickstar offers insight into his life and career, as well as the emotional thread that connects him to his latest role.

And if it’s midnight, and you’re still feeling the scaries…

Read through this charming thread chronicling a mailman’s last day before retirement.

Thanks for reading Sunday Scaries! If you have any advice on how to alleviate workplace stress or want to chat about the newsletter in general, feel free to email me at sundayscaries@inverse.com. We’ll be back next week talking about the benefits of getting outside — even if the couch is pretty nice, too.

A version of this article first appeared as the Sunday Scaries newsletter. Sign up for free to receive it on Sundays.

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