Ten small things you can do to reduce your risk of stress-related illness from work

Is work making you sick? Are you tired of feeling tired, irritable or worried about how much longer you can keep on operating at this level before something “gives”? Too much stress leads to distress that can led to unhealthy behaviours such as using alcohol, cigarettes or drugs to make ourselves feel better. It’s also been linked to the development of headaches, high blood pressure, heart disease, type two diabetes, asthma, arthritis, anxiety and depression.

Finding ways to sustain wellbeing and minimise the risk of stress-related illness from our work doesn’t have to be difficult, time-consuming or expensive when we adhere to some good lifestyle principles.

With rising levels of stress related illness, mood disorder and burnout, improving our self-care has never been more important.

One in five Australians report having taken time off work due to feeling mentally unwell over the past twelve months and Associate Professor Samuel Harvey from the Black Dog Institute found up to 14% of common mental health problems such as anxiety and depression work pressure  could be avoided by addressing poor workplace practices such as not taking a lunch break, taking work home and having limited control of how you do your work.


Here are ten ways to enhance wellbeing and keep stress at a healthier level:

1. Start your day with intention

Start your day with intention – what mood and mindset will serve you best? While circumstances may be out of your control, you are still in the driving seat to determine how you choose to show up. Adopting a positive mindset will lift your energy, elevate your mood and determine your outcomes. Remember too, emotion is contagious so why not spread some positive germs with a cheery smile and help make everyone’s day great.

2. Reduce your mental load

Stress when at the optimal level helps us to be at our best. It keeps us safe by alerting us to possible danger, and that little tingle of excitement or nervous anticipation prepares you to perform at a higher level, great if you’ve got an exam to sit or presentation to prepare for.

What’s not so great is when your coping capacity to handle stress has been exceeded. If things are getting on top of you, some strategies to help reduce your mental load could include:

  • Talk to someone; your partner, close friend, trusted colleague maybe your boss. Sharing your concerns or worries can alleviate some of the stress by helping to keep things in perspective, know someone cares enough to listen and that you’re not alone.
  • Check-in with what’s on your mind – what’s contributing to chewing up your valuable headspace? By then identifying what’s possible to change and what’s not you can choose to let go (not easy!) of those things beyond your control and focus on finding the motivation to take action on dealing with the issue.
  • Seek ways to get more involved in the decision-making processes at work if always being super busy is making you feel excluded from being kept in the loop of what’s going on.
  • If your frustration lies around the fact you’re working really hard, but no one’s noticed or seems to care, speak to your supervisor or manager about your career options and possibilities. Look for opportunities to discuss your dreams and aspirations. If no one knows, they can’t help you achieve your goals.
  • Nurture your interpersonal relationships. More than anything the strength and quality of your relationships will determine your health and happiness. If you’re feeling an outsider seek ways to find some common threads of connection with your colleagues. Join in discussions, ask questions and smile more. We become more attractive (and interesting!) when we focus on others and present ourselves in an open manner

3. Spend time with those who mean the most

Spend time with those who mean the most, your partner, your kids, your pet (dog, cat, fish or salamander) and tell them how much you love them. As mentioned above, relationships matter and the strength of your social networks will keep you happier healthier and more stress resilient.

4. Engage in morning physical activity

Go for an early morning walk/jog/swim/gym session, yoga class or whatever physical activity you like to boost your happy hormones, dopamine, serotonin and endorphins to set you up for a great day.

  • Exercise primes the brain for higher performance, reduces cortisol levels and enhances a sense of calm and wellbeing. If early morning is a no-go zone due to too many other commitments other times are good too, except within 2 hours of bedtime as you may find it harder to fall asleep.
  • The green prescription for greater mental wellbeing is to spend a minimum of 120 minute a week outside. With many of us spending 80 to 95% of our days indoors you can reduce your nature deficit by getting outside during your lunch break or changing your daily commute to include more time walking, cycling or running. Going for a brisk walk in a windy environment is perfect for blowing a few cobwebs out of your head. Uitwaaien is something the Dutch have been doing for centuries. Next time the forecast is for a windy day, why not try it. Walk, breathe deep and relax.

5. Plan your activities

Rather than accepting today will be another full on ridiculously over the top busy and stressful day with no chance of a bathroom break let alone lunch, it’s time to reclaim control of your time and energy starting with pre planning the night before (when possible) your top three priorities for the day ahead.

Why three? Because it forces you to really smarten up on identifying the important items freeing you up to tackle these first and then

  • Oh, the joy of engaging others to help to lighten your load
  • Have a to-not do list. How much stuff are you doing that’s meaningless and unnecessary?
  • Change the expectation towards not getting everything done – you’ll just do your best with the time available. Yes, I heard your sharp intake of breath. Perfectionism and unrealistic deadlines add pressure not effectiveness.
  • Take a couple of 5-10-minute brain breaks during the day. Studies have shown performance rises by taking small breaks that enable the default mental network to kick in, helping you to evaluate, consolidate and reflect. This also reduces stress, preparing you to be more effective and productive during your next block of directed attention.

6. Be mindful

I get it. You’re good at noticing stuff already right? But how much are you not seeing? When locked into future planning and worry about what happened in the past it’s harder to give our full attention to our tasks, our colleagues or ourselves. Slowing down your internal mind chatter with a breathing practice or short mindfulness meditation on a daily basis can help you prioritise, reclaim calm, clarity of thought and time needed to get stuff done.

  • Consciously slowing down your rate of breathing, influences your vagal tone and calms the mind. Shallow breathing or holding your breath is a typical stress response which you can overcome with just several slow exhalations to lower blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol.
  • The eight-week stress reduction program using mindfulness meditation created by Jon Kabat-Zinn back in 1979 has led to a global interest in using mindfulness and other meditation techniques to alleviate stress and elevate wellbeing. The minimum dose required is yet to be determined but studies have shown that even five minutes can produce a beneficial effect. Adding in some mindful moments to your day whether as a formal meditation practice or choosing to adopt a mindful approach to our other daily activities of food preparation, exercise and interactions with other people can all make a positive difference.

7. Indulge in a little self-compassion

Let’s face it, none of us are perfect or superhuman. Sorry to disappoint. If being kind to yourself feels a little foreign it’s time to quieten down that Inner Critic and give yourself permission to factor in down time to do something nice, just for you. If you’re in the people pleaser, I say yes to everything and put everyone else’s needs before mine category next time you’re got five minutes to spare rather than feeling obliged to do something with the kids treat yourself without the guilt to:

  • Enjoy a cup of coffee on your own
  • Read a fiction book in a sunny nook
  • Taking a snooze because you can
  • Practise saying no

8. Plan to do the right thing by yourself with healthy food

This means thinking ahead so you’re less at risk of succumbing to take -away for the fourth time this week because you’re exhausted and too tired to cook. Having Plan B with some healthy snacks and extra ‘good stuff” in the pantry means you’ve got a fallback plan.

  • Food is a fabulous connector. Those living in the Blue Zones enjoy fresh local food that’s in season and value sharing their meals with others as a social event

9. Ditch the crutches that don’t serve you well

Ditch the crutches that don’t serve you well! Keep an eye on your alcohol intake and aim to keep it low or stop. Choose to quit smoking or at least cut down. Comfort eating might feel appealing but can lead to weight gain and because sugar is a depressant, that excess sugar will exacerbate your low mood, which is depressing itself.

10. Put a high value on your sleep

Lack of sleep leads to the horror movie of chronic sleep deprivation associated with low mood, lack of attention and more mistakes. It’s hard to think straight or be nice when you’re tired. Do yourself and everyone else a favour by ensuring you get enough good quality uninterrupted sleep, sticking to a consistent sleep schedule that’s realistic and meets your physiological and psychological needs.

Making small tweaks to your lifestyle is the smartest and easiest way to stay more stress resistant, happy and healthy. Enjoy

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This article has been written for the Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine (ASLM) by the documented original author. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the ASLM or its Board.

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