9 Ways to Reduce Workplace Stress and Boost Mental Health
With the stresses of the last year and adjusting to changes in both the workplace and home, it’s been tough for many of us to find balance. Not only does it cause emotional pain, but stress can also have physical effects on our bodies and brains. In fact, stress lowers something in our brains called neurogenesis, which is the process by which new neurons are formed. Lower rates of neurogenesis have been linked to depression and anxiety.
In my teachings on how to reduce and manage stress, I explore how stress affects the brain and offer strategies to help people better manage their stress. Help yourself and your employees reduce and prevent stress with these tips.
4 ways to reduce stress effects in your body
The first four tips are ways that people can reduce stress and eliminate cortisol from their bodies.
1. Physical relief strategies
By “physical” relief strategies, I am referring to movement or physical activity. When you move, you sweat, and sweating is the best way to get cortisol out of your body. Whether it’s going for a run, doing a virtual cardio class, or other forms of exercise, the key is to do a high-intensity activity that produces sweat.
2. Sensory relief strategies
People are sensitive to their surroundings, and the magnitude of sensory input can affect stress. For example, music can be soothing when it’s played at a low level, but when it gets to be too loud, it creates stress. This is why I encourage people to snooze social media notifications during important tasks or non-work hours, listen to soothing music, and go for walks to get fresh air.
3. Cognitive relief strategies
Stress activates the primitive part of our brains. One way of overcoming this is to activate the prefrontal brain, which is more logical and reasoned. The prefrontal brain helps us put things in perspective, so one simple way to activate the prefrontal brain is to turn statements into questions. If employees find themselves having negative thoughts like “I messed up; this is the end of the world,” they can stop and ask themselves, “Is this one small hiccup really that damaging?” This gives them the opportunity to activate the prefrontal brain, reflect, and reduce stress at that moment.
4. Social relief strategies
On a simple level, laughing and crying are effective stress-release strategies. Just as sweating helps get cortisol out of your body, crying has the same effect. Another important strategy is to talk about problems with a sympathetic friend or coworker. Sharing problems with a close friend, family member, or coworker stimulates the release of oxytocin, which combats the negative effects of cortisol. In a work setting, I strongly recommend creating a “stress buddy” system. Every employee is paired up with someone else and they have an agreement that they’ll always make themselves available to talk when the other person needs them. In your personal life, make sure you have a “stress buddy” either a family member or friend you can reach out to in times of stress.
5 ways to prevent stress and help your mental health
The four strategies above have mostly focused on stress relief — how you can feel better when you’re already experiencing stress. Now let’s look at prevention strategies that will keep neurogenesis high. This will help you and your employees be less susceptible to the negative effects of stress.
1. Maintain a healthy diet
A Mediterranean diet is the way to go: lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, olive oil, and fish. The brain consists primarily of water. Take out the water, and we end up with fatty acids (fat). There are all kinds of fats. Some are bad for us (like the grease we fry food with), some are good. And the best fat is Omega 3. Omega 3 is the building block of the brain, but the body does not produce Omega 3 by itself. We need to get it from our diet. We can find Omega 3s in fatty fish like mackerel, salmon, and herring, and nuts like walnuts and seeds such as flax seeds and chia seeds. Things to avoid include things that are fried, processed, microwaved, and burned (such as barbecue), and alcohol. Even mild but regular consumption of alcohol strongly reduces neurogenesis.
2. Move regularly
I know I mentioned movement earlier as a relief strategy, but it also helps to develop resilience against future stress. People who do regular strenuous physical activity build up a defense against stress, so they’ll be more resilient when confronted with stress in the future. If possible, people should strive for high-intensity physical activity for at least 30 minutes a day or an hour every other day.
3. Embrace novelty
One of my favorite quotes about brain health is: “The brain awakens in the new.” Having a day-to-day routine can be helpful, but people should break out of it from time to time. Learn new things and try new things. Taking online courses to learn fun new skills like yoga, photography, or learning a language helps keep brains stimulated and is a great wellness benefit for employees.
4. Foster social connections
Strengthening existing social connections is another important stress-prevention strategy. People release oxytocin when they talk about their feelings, hug a close friend or family member, or pet their dog or cat. However, other people can also be one of the biggest sources of stress. I encourage managers to think about the way they interact with their direct reports. Putting people under a lot of strain will ultimately be counterproductive. Managers must learn to show empathy to their employees and foster it within their teams.
5. Get sufficient sleep
Eight hours of sleep a night is the ultimate building block of a healthy brain. If there’s only one tip you can fit into your life right now, make sure you sleep enough and sleep well. The short-term effects of sleep deprivation include lack of focus, the inability to listen, and a reduction in creativity and work quality. But in the long-term, lack of sleep can lead to cognitive impairment, dementia, and Alzheimer’s. As an employer, encouraging work-life balance will result in more productive and engaged employees in the long run.
Strategies to reduce and prevent stress can help you transform perceived danger into a positive challenge, change nerves into excitement, and give you and your employees the confidence and strength to approach life and work. Discover more ways to build wellness into your employee’s lives in Fast Forward 2021: Why the Future of Work Needs to Be Meaningful.