In a recent conversation with friends, the topic of work stress came up. We asked the table: have work-related emotions ever affected your health?
“I was working such long hours I got vertigo from stress,” one friend said.
“I started getting ocular migraines and would periodically lose my vision,” another said.
“I’ve had stress-induced dandruff and stress-induced canker sores,” said a third friend. “But Tina Fey also gets stress-induced canker sores, so I guess I’m in good company.”
Most of us are pretty good at identifying what’s stressing us out and how it’s affecting our health. Unfortunately, we’re far less skilled at making the necessary changes to combat stress, especially when we work in high-intensity organizations. It’s difficult to be the lone person to stand up and say, “I’m going to take a vacation and not feel guilty for it.”
We spent the last three years studying the science of emotions and their intersection with our lives at work for our new book, No Hard Feelings: Emotions At Work (And How They Help You Succeed). One of our most surprising findings was that small, easy-to-make changes can have a big impact on reducing our job-related stress, even if we work in high-pressure offices.
1. Touch email once
When you open an email, you must respond to it immediately. Liz used to read all her emails first thing in the morning and, in an effort to get right to work, would then mark them all as unread with a plan to respond later in the day. That meant she spent the morning obsessively thinking about all the emails waiting in her inbox instead of focusing on her work. Now she sets aside time to go through all of her emails, and then moves on to other projects with a clear head.
2. When you can, turn your phone off
Liz puts her phone on airplane mode when she needs to concentrate and Mollie tries not to check work email after dinner (otherwise she dreams about work; these are not good dreams). One of the newer vortexes we get sucked into is PDW, or Public Displays of Working. The phrase, coined by The Atlantic writer Lauren Jackson, refers to “a snap sent at 8:30 p.m. of an all-but-empty office, or the first mug of coffee at 5:25 a.m. Selfies from the stacks on a Friday evening.” PDWs will only make you feel worse when you’re taking a much-needed break.
3. Make room for mini-breaks
Stepping away from your desk for even five minutes helps you relax—and stay focused. Danish students who were given a short break before taking a test got significantly higher scores than their peers who didn’t get any time to relax. So take a walk over to the water cooler, grab a cup of coffee with a friendly co-worker, or simply take a few minutes to focus on something else.
4. Set up an after-work ritual
Your brain will benefit from a signal that tells it, “Work is over!” Some ideas: walk or bike home (even brief periods of light exercise are good for you), meditate on your commute, listen to music, read a magazine, or lift weights (some studies show weight training boosts your mood more than cardio). Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, ends each day by transcribing any loose notes into a master task list, shutting his computer, and then saying the phrase, “Schedule shutdown, complete.” “Here’s my rule,” he writes. “After I’ve uttered the magic phrase, if a work-related worry pops to mind, I always answer it with the following thought process: I said the termination phrase.”
5. Block off a day
One day every week, Liz does not let herself schedule meetings, calls, or even social events. This off day lets her catch up on her work, so the rest of the week doesn’t feel quite as hassled. If you can’t block off an entire day, try blocking off a few hours for focused work. Chiseling out time for yourself is the easiest and first step towards detaching from your workaholic identity. But that’s usually easier said than done: you’re emotionally attached to that self, you’ve spent a lot of time together! To fully cut ties, try these additional mindset shifts.
6. Don’t extend the logic of the workplace into your time off
When you’re taking a break, turn off your work mindset and let yourself to actually relax. We’re overly enthusiastic about optimizing free time. Stop falling into the Type-A trap of compulsively making your hobbies more work than work. Studies show when we mathematize our experiences—by tracking our steps or measuring miles hiked—we don’t enjoy them as much. Get comfortable with being rigorously unproductive once in a while. Being at rest for a time is not the same as wasting time: when you cut yourself a little slack, you’ll be more focused and creative when you get back to work.
7. If you’re in a leadership role, set an example
After she had children, TV writer and producer Shonda Rhimes changed her work email signature to read, “Please Note: I will not engage in work emails after 7 pm or on weekends. IF I AM YOUR BOSS, MAY I SUGGEST: PUT DOWN YOUR PHONE.” Dan Calista, CEO of consulting firm Vynamic (whose motto is “Life is Short. Work Healthy.”), created an email policy called zzzMail. Employees cannot send each other emails on weeknights after 10pm, on weekends, or during holidays.
Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy are the authors of the new book No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work. Order the book and subscribe to their monthly newsletter. For more of their hilariously accurate cartoons, follow them on Instagram here.