Emails that arrive day and night, a travel schedule that interferes with family life, the age-old struggle with work-life balance — data from the American Psychological Association show that 65 percent of Americans cite work as a top source of stress. It can happen, even if you usually love your job.
Women in particular face a unique set of challenges at work due to issues like childcare and interpersonal relationships, explains Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Jennifer Haythornthwaite, Ph.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Mind-Body Research.
Stress happens when there’s an imbalance between the demands of a situation and a person’s resources for managing it, says Haythornthwaite.
“Think of the brain as stress central,” she says. It’s responsible for organizing the stress response that happens throughout your body.
The Most Common Sources of Work Stress
Stress produces physical symptoms, and many of its roots can be traced to the workplace. Here are Haythornthwaite’s top sources of on-the-job stress.
- Work-life balance. American women are spending more hours working than ever before, leaving less time for personal obligations. Meanwhile, they shoulder a large caretaking burden, she notes. “More often than not, women are still the caretakers for children and are involved in elder care,” says Haythornthwaite. “We have caretaker obligations at both ends of the life span.”
- Relationships. “The inflexibility of work environments is a huge stressor for women,” says Haythornthwaite. For instance, some women might want to telecommute or maintain nontraditional hours to enable them to fulfill personal obligations, but many employers still dislike flexible working arrangements. Other women struggle with pervasive issues, like sexism or discrimination.
- Technology. Mobile devices, like laptops and smartphones, creep into our personal time. “Some people may leave the office at 6 o’clock, but they’re checking their email in bed,” says Haythornthwaite. Ever-present technology makes it more difficult for already time-strapped women to unplug from work and to have any real downtime.
4 Ways to Cope with Stress
You might not be able to eliminate all of the stressors from your job, but there are things you can do to help cope with them. Haythornthwaite offers these four tips for reducing workplace stress.
- Exercise. Incorporate regular spurts of movement into your day, particularly if you spend most of your time sitting behind a desk. The exercise doesn’t need to be vigorous. Even short daytime walks are helpful. Use a fitness tracker or app on your phone to track your progress.
- Sleep. “The health effects of sleep are unbelievable. As a society, we haven’t given it enough priority,” Haythornthwaite says. Sleep boosts mood and helps us to deal with daily challenges more effectively. Wind down two hours prior to bed by stopping work, and avoid caffeine beginning in the late afternoon. Studies suggest that mobile phone use in adults can ruin your chances of getting a good night’s sleep. So shut off your devices in the evening and wake up at the same time each day to allow your body’s natural sleeping rhythm to express itself.
- Seek out happiness. “Find time for pleasure and joy,” Haythornthwaite advises. Prioritize hobbies and do them on a regular basis, whether it’s family time or community activism. “Having purpose and meaning in your life is key to job satisfaction,” she says.
- Social support. Treat your social network as a stress buffer that boosts health and longevity, Haythornthwaite says. Your group doesn’t have to be large, as long as it supports your sense of connection and shared experience. Friendship and connectedness are “critical to being able to cope with stressors,” she says.
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