10 Proven Ways to Reduce Stress at Work (And Why Overwork Could be Killing You)

A recent New York Times article shared unsettling research about how your health is affected by your work.

For example…

A Harvard Medical School study found that 23% of workers experience insomnia and many others are suffering from a lack of rest. Sleep deprivation is costing US companies $63.2 billion in lost productivity each year.

A study by consultants at the Manpower Group found that over 35% of people eat lunch at their desk every day and most employees never take enough breaks to renew their energy.

A Pew Research Center study found that over 50% of employed people check their work email on the weekends and 34% of them check email on vacation.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There is a wealth of research that proves that we’re ruining our health and productivity by working too hard and too long.

And now for the important question…

What does this mean for your health and what can you do about it?

“Death by Overwork”

High stress levels can ruin pretty much any health goal you have: you’ll store more fat, you’ll struggle to gain muscle, you’ll have less energy, you’ll have a higher risk of heart attack and stroke, and dozens of other undesirable things that I’ll skip for now.

But the effects of stress don’t stop there…

In Japan, physicians have a diagnosis that is called “karoshi.” Karoshi literally translates to “death by overwork” and it refers to the sudden death of an employee, usually from a heart attack or stroke due to stress at work.

Japan first added karoshi as a death category in 1980 and since that time the number of deaths that fall within that category has soared. Not only that, but karoshi has also been labeled as the cause for hundreds of severe illnesses, suicide attempts and mental illnesses each year.

As the death toll mounted, the Japanese government put pressure on companies to change. Toyota limited the amount of overtime an employee could work each month. Mitsubishi Bank allowed employees to go home up to three hours early to care for children or elderly relatives.

Here’s what’s interesting about this: Japan is one of the only countries in the world that counts karoshi as a separate death category.

In America, we have just as many deaths from work–related stress, but we don’t hear about it because we don’t keep track of it in the same way. In other words, many Americans are literally “working themselves to death” and nobody is doing anything about it because we don’t have the numbers to prove it.

How to Overcome Overwork

The typical response at this point would be to blame the American work culture, make a statement about how your boss would never allow you to work less, and point a finger at The Man.

But here’s the thing…

While I agree that we need to put more emphasis on healthy work environments for everyone — from investment bankers to medical residents to coal miners — I also believe it’s your personal responsibility to go to work on yourself, just as much as it’s your responsibility to go to work in general.

Don’t play the role of the victim and wait for your boss, your company, or your government to step in and make your health a priority. It’s your health. Do it yourself. Besides, even if you’re lucky enough to work at a company that really focuses on a healthy work environment, it’s still up to you to actually take advantage of the opportunities.

And if you’re in a terrible work environment, you can still do something. Your circumstances rarely prevent you from making progress. That progress may be slow, difficult, or unsexy … but you have options. (That’s just as true for your life in general as it is for your health specifically.)

How to Reduce Stress at Work: 10 Practical Ideas

With that said, here are 10 ways you can reduce stress at work each day. Not all of them will be realistic for your job, but some of them will. Focus on the ones that work for you and forget about the rest.

1. Work in 90–minute sessions. After studying elite athletes, musicians, actors, and chess players, Dr. K. Anders Ericsson at Florida State University discovered that the top performers work in approximately 90–minute sessions and then take a break. They focus intensely and then give themselves time to recover and regain energy. (Interestingly, Ericsson also produced the research behind the “10,000 Hour Rule” for expertise that Malcolm Gladwell popularized.)

2. Break your day up with exercise. You’re probably aware that exercise reduces stress, but there are some rarely talked about benefits of exercise as well. Regardless of why you exercise, the bottom line is this: get out and move.

3. When you leave work, leave work. I’ll admit that I’m just as guilty as anyone else when it comes to answering work emails at all hours of the day. That said, on the evenings when I’ve ignored my inbox I’ve noticed something: nothing changes. When the work day starts, I still have things to do and people to respond to; the additional time the night before doesn’t make the next day any easier.

Give your email a rest for a night or two and see if work is any different the next day. Your time outside of the office should be spent on you and the people you care about, not in your inbox.

4. Do something creative (either at work or outside of it). Numerous studies have proven that creative pursuits like music, art, and writing reduce stress. Plus, creativity helps you avoid living a short, unimportant life. My creative outlet is photography. What’s yours?

5. Meditate. If you don’t think you have enough time to mediate (or you aren’t sure how to get started), then read this Harvard Business Review article.

6. Breathe. It sounds so simple, but we rarely make time in our day to just breathe. The good news is that you can do this anytime, including right now. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Breathe in through your nose for a count of three and out through your mouth for a count of five. Do this 5 times and see how you feel.

7. Leave your desk for lunch. Give yourself some space and get out of the work environment. There’s a reason why people suggest getting a fresh breathe of air.

8. Take a short nap. A University of California researcher found that a 60–minute nap improved memory just as much as a 8–hours of sleep. Short naps of 20 minutes have shown big benefits as well. And to top it all off, this study revealed that occasional napping can lead to a 12% decrease in heart disease and daily napping can lead to a 37% reduction.

9. Take vacation more frequently. And when you’re on vacation, be on vacation. The emails, phone calls, and presentations can wait.

10. Get to sleep earlier. This study found that when basketball players got 10 hours of sleep the night before, their shooting accuracy improved by 9% the next day. I’m guessing you could benefit from moving and thinking more accurately as well. (Not to mention that it might be nice to get 10 hours of sleep.)

The evidence is overwhelming: you need to take an active interest in living healthy and reducing stress or you will die sooner. I can’t say it any clearer than that.

Is Working Hard Worth It?

All this talk of stress from work can leave you thinking that hard work isn’t worth it.

I disagree.

Working hard is worth every bit of your effort. You’ll never regret choosing greatness for your life and going for it.

But the question you need to ask is, “Are you working hard on the right things?”

Do you give your health as much focus as your work? Do you give your relationships as much emphasis as your deadlines? Do you make time for exploring, creating, and traveling, just like you make time for meetings, conference calls, and clients?

Or are you simply spending all of your time at work?

In the words of President Theodore Roosevelt, “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”

What could be more worth doing than working on your health and happiness?

References
1. Hat tip to my good friends Lissa Rankin and Scott Dinsmore for telling me about karoshi.

13 Comments

  1. Great insights here James. I plan to start implementing them at work and help balance my life as a student. The consistent thing that you provide are actionable and attainable steps that lead to success and change. Stress is no match for the right mental and physical aptitude.

    -JK3

  2. The last line of your post, James, sums it up so nicely. Nothing could be of more value to you or anyone you care about than working on your health and happiness. I compose for classical guitar and write as outlets, but also for pure joy. In 2005, I cut my work hours in half and everything about my life including my health and happiness has improved significantly.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the article, CJ.

      And thanks for sharing your experience. Isn’t it crazy how it works like that? It takes courage to commit and put the things you believe in at the forefront of your life. But once you do, everything seems to fall into place.

  3. I could have killed myself with work. Luckily, a toxic antibiotic wreaked havoc on my body. I say luckily because it forced me to completely revamp my life – different work, exercise every day and healthy eating. I am so much better at 41 than 25. No exaggeration. I keep saying this, but I hope others will hear. You get to choose your life! I choose to live my life!

    • Tammy — thanks for sharing your transformation! I’m sure many of the superhumans in our community will find it useful.

      And it’s so true: you don’t need permission or approval to live better. It’s your choice.

  4. Great article, great actionable advice,

    I used to have this problem and when looking back what I find the most thought provoking is that I actually felt guilty to take breaks, rest. As if I’m falling behind because someone else, somewhere else might be working.

    I had this unhealthy image that ‘successful lifestyle’ has to be overburdened and overstressed.

    • I think that’s something a lot of driven and success-oriented people deal with — myself included. When working hard is part of who you are, it’s easy to think that the answer is always to work harder.

      Thanks for sharing, Darius!

  5. Hi James,

    Found you via the Fat Burning Man podcast! Really enjoy your inspirational twitter quotes too.

    This was a timely post – it’s something I discuss with my PT clients a lot. Me encouraging them to ‘move more’ during the work day wasn’t quite effective enough – they needed something more concrete, so we made it more specific. Whenever you go to the toilet, go to one on a different floor. Leave your desk at lunch, and walk a route you’ve never walked before. Things like that.

    And the when you’re on holiday, be on holiday line…. I could not agree more! No one does that where I work. But, I do it. And guess what? Nothing bad happens! Other people just have to make the decision.

    • Keith — I’m glad you enjoyed the interview. I had a lot of fun doing it.

      I love how you give your clients specific examples. I’ve found the same thing: general advice may sound good, but specific directions get things done.

      p.s. Welcome to the community! It’s great to have you here. Feel free to share your ideas here anytime. I’m sure our community will benefit from your thoughts and experiences.

  6. Heard you on the Fat-burning Man podcast as well and I really appreciated your desire to continue to learn more about healthy living. This is a great post, thank you for sharing. I’ve chosen one of those “high-education, high-stress, low-paying,” jobs and have been dangerously close to burnout lately. There are some thing in here I used to do that I realized I have completely gotten away from. I exercise daily when I get home, but have stopped leaving my desk at lunch, taking breaks every 90 minutes, and my 2-mile lunchtime walk.

    • Eric — first of all, welcome to the community. It’s great to have you here and I’m glad you enjoyed the interview.

      As for your work habits and stress, I think you touched on an important idea. Just because you did something once (like leaving your desk at lunch), doesn’t mean you’re doing it often. Simple suggestions like the ones in this article can make a big impact if we do them consistently, but we often write them off because we think, “Yeah, I did that and I’m still stressed.”

      Good work on realizing that you need to get back in the routine. Feel free to stop back anytime and share your thoughts, ideas, and progress.

  7. James K. Polk, our 11th President, said that he would accomplish everything he laid out at the outset of his presidency. True to his word, he achieved everything he set out to achieve, but it came with a great price. He literally had to work himself to death (he would survive the presidency for only 3 months, the shortest retirement of any ex-president). Granted, on many days he related on his diary entry that he “much fatigued and exhausted by the incessant labors and great responsibilities of the past week”. Nevertheless, he achieved the goals he promised to achieve. He’s one of those presidents who should be rated at the “near great” category, alongside Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt…

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