While experiencing some stress at work is normal and can even be helpful at times—for example, it might keep you motivated or emotionally engaged in your job—it can also become problematic if you’re dealing with intense stress on a regular basis.
In these cases, work stress can interfere with your career goals and take a toll on your personal life as well.
What is work stress?
Definitions of work stress vary, but most include the idea of mental, physical, or emotional tension caused by work and career-related factors.
When you’re stressed, you might feel overwhelmed, have trouble relaxing or sleeping, or experience other symptoms of common mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression.
Prevalence of work stress
Work is one of the most common sources of stress in the United States. A 2017 report from the American Psychological Association notes that 58% of individuals surveyed said that work was a very or somewhat significant source of stress in their lives.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that more than half of study participants reported that work stress often impacts the quality of their work and their relationships with coworkers. Even more people—83% of men and 72% of women—reported that work stress affects their quality of life outside of work as well.
Symptoms of work stress
Everyone reacts to stress differently, but the following are a few of the most common symptoms of work stress:
- Anxiety or worry: You may be frequently preoccupied with thoughts about your work and find it difficult to relax or focus on other things.
- Feeling overwhelmed: Stress can make you feel like you’re not able to manage all of your job’s demands.
- Conflicts with others, both at work and outside of work: You may be irritable and easily upset, which can cause tensions with colleagues and supervisors as well as loved ones outside of work.
- Worsened performance at work: If your job is stressing you out, you might be less able to do a good job at work, which can add even more stress to the situation.
- Physical symptoms: Stress often comes with physical symptoms including muscle tension, headaches, and digestive troubles. You might find that these symptoms get worse when you’re at work, or thinking about work.
- Difficulty sleeping: You might have trouble falling asleep or wake up feeling unrested.
Types of work stress
Work stress comes in countless forms, but some common scenarios include:
- Being overworked and/or underpaid: You might simply feel like you have more to do than you can reasonably handle, and/or that you’re not being fairly compensated for your work.
- Lack of control over projects and/or outcomes: Not being able to exercise control over a work-related situation can often increase work stress.
- Tensions with colleagues, supervisors, or clients: You might find it difficult to work with certain people in your professional circles and feel stressed out as a result.
- Career changes or uncertainties: If you’re starting a new job, thinking of leaving your current job, or feeling unsure of your career path in general, you might be more likely to experience stress at work.
- Issues related to work-life balance: Particularly if you’re balancing the demands of parenting or caregiving at home, you may be dealing with stressful conflicts between your job and the rest of your life.
- Burnout: If you no longer find joy in parts of your job you once enjoyed and/or consistently dread going to work, you may be experiencing burnout.
- Vicarious trauma: Those who work with individuals who have been traumatized are vulnerable to vicarious trauma, in which caregiving professionals—such as doctors, therapists, and social workers—experience symptoms of trauma without direct personal experience of traumatic events.
- Physical workplace stress: Physically demanding jobs can lead to injuries and back problems, while desk jobs might lead to hand pain and strained eyes, among other ailments. These physical issues can intensify the psychological stress of work.
- Stress related to discrimination or harassment: If you’re being harassed at work or discriminated against on the basis of race, ethnicity, culture, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability, you’re likely to experience higher levels of work stress.
What to do if you’re experiencing challenges related to work stress
If you’re looking for tools to manage stress caused by work or career concerns, consider the following options:
- Therapy: Find a therapist who can help you understand your work stress and learn proven techniques for managing it. (See more tips below on selecting a therapist.)
- Check-ups: Because stress can be related to medical conditions, it’s important to stay up-to-date with your medical appointments. Scheduling a check-up with your primary care doctor can help you rule out physical conditions that may contribute to your symptoms. Your doctor can also help you plan nutritional strategies for alleviating stress, like avoiding caffeine or eating a more balanced diet.
- Meditation or mindfulness practices. You can experiment with meditation or other mindfulness practices through classes or apps. Studies have shown that these practices can help reduce the symptoms of anxiety that may accompany work stress, and many are simple enough that you can integrate them easily into your work day.
- Talk to your supervisor: Especially with a therapist’s support, it can be useful to bring up your work stress with your supervisor to see what solutions you might be able to work out together. If your workplace has an HR office, it may be helpful to speak with an HR professional as well. Involving HR is crucial if your stress is related to any kind of workplace harassment or discrimination. If you’re in a union, you can also seek out help from union resources.
- Exercise: Some studies show that regular physical activity can decrease symptoms of anxiety, which often go along with stress.
- Creative pursuits: Visual arts, performing arts, and creative writing can all be helpful ways to diffuse your body’s stress response and add fulfilling activities to your daily life. Keeping up with hobbies outside of work can also remind you that work is only one part of your life, not the entirety of your existence.
- Nature: Studies suggest that spending time in a natural setting—even a city park—can have beneficial effects on individuals’ stress levels. Try taking a walk outside during your lunch break to deal with daily work stress.
How to look for a therapist for work stress
Look for a personal fit with your therapist
While personality fit is a nuanced factor, it is critical to your success in therapy. Multiple studies have revealed the importance of this factor, often referred to as “therapeutic alliance.”
On your initial phone call with the therapist, ask yourself:
- Could I see myself forming a connection with this therapist?
- Does their approach suit my personality?
- Do I feel like I will be heard and respected by this therapist?
Additionally, consider these factors:
- Some therapists are more reflective and spend most of the session listening and drawing insights about your patterns and coping styles.
- Some therapists are more directive, establishing weekly agendas and assigning tasks to complete between sessions.
- Some utilize specific techniques or tools (exposure exercises, eye movements, tapping, breath work, guided imagery, art and music, etc.).
- Some use a combination of multiple approaches.
Prioritize the approach that appeals to you
Therapists differ in their approaches to treating work stress. Common approaches include:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- Mindfulness Practices
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
- Interpersonal Psychotherapy
- Existential Psychotherapy
New to therapy? Learn about how to find a therapist here.