How to Feel Calm in an Overwhelming Work Environment

Hands typing on a computer

When you have an overwhelming work environment, it's hard to buckle down and get to work.

Whether it’s time-sensitive deadlines, or an office space with too many distractions, or an overly demanding client or customer, today’s work environment is stressful to say the least. While more and more Americans are choosing to leave their jobs in favor of greater freedom and flexibility, many of us may not have the option to leave.

But rather than feeling like you have to grin and bear it, there are techniques and strategies available to help you manage an overwhelming work environment.  

Here are some steps you can take to relieve stress and help make your work environment more positive and productive. 

Identify your stressors

Oftentimes, when we’re feeling stressed out, we have a hard time articulating what exactly is making us feel overwhelmed. Because by that point, *everything* feels overwhelming. A helpful exercise is to make a list of your work stressors. 

Some examples of stressors can include…

  • Lack of privacy
  • Loud noise e.g. coworker’s music or conversation or street noise 
  • No time to focus or concentrate
  • Urgent deadlines or last minute deadlines without any advanced notice
  • Long meetings
  • Demanding boss
  • Receiving emails or texts at all hours

This exercise can be really clarifying. We might notice that a lot of our work stressors stem from external factors like noise or light. Or that we don’t like sitting in pointless meetings. Being able to identify your stressors can help you find a solution or figure out a way to deal with them when they arise. 

Streamline your priorities

When work is busy, we feel like *everything* is important and must get done. And this leads to even more feelings of being overwhelmed.

But if everything were important, nothing would get accomplished. 

Not all tasks have equal weight or importance. Create a to-do list and assess your tasks and deadlines. Circle 3 or 4 things that you should complete by today. Those are your biggest priorities that you can focus on. If you’re having trouble picking your priorities, try doing the Eisenhower Matrix to help you assess what’s truly important and urgent, and what can be pushed to tomorrow.

Have better meetings 

Bouncing from meeting to meeting can be a huge source of stress for workers. One way to alleviate the problem is to make sure that the team or meeting organizer has prepared an agenda beforehand.

The agenda doesn't have to be elaborate or fleshed out. Simply jotting down concise bullet points can help you establish the purpose of the meeting. And when participants are aware of the purpose, they can come better prepared.

Another way to make meetings more efficient is to be strategic with your guest list. Priya Parker, the author of The Art of Gathering recommends asking yourself who this meeting is for. 

Plus, a focused guest list helps ensure that your meeting will be more productive. Otherwise, you run the risk of a disorganized meeting where too many people are chiming in or others are wondering why they are there.

Keep the guest list short and restrict it to the essential participants. There will be a time and place for bigger meetings but not every meeting needs to involve every single employee. 

Incorporate mindfulness

The modern office is far from being a zen-like environment, but there are little things you can do throughout the day to help you feel more calm. 

Whether it’s going outside to take a ten minute walk or prepping a cup of soothing tea or even closing your eyes and taking deep breaths, mindfulness breaks can help you relieve stress. When we’re overworked, we tend to fixate our attention on the future or get hung up on the past. Mindfulness helps bring us back to the present moment and clear our head.

A mindfulness break is a quick and simple way to hit refresh on your day.

Create a flexible work arrangement

See if you can talk to your manager about having a flexible working arrangement. More and more companies are becoming open to non-traditional working environments. Maybe you can work from home a few days a week. Or maybe you can stagger your working hours so that you can come in during off peak times and avoid having to come to the office when it’s busy and chaotic.

If your manager seems reluctant, propose doing it for a trial period and see how it goes. If they’re worried that a flexible arrangement will hamper your productivity, you can make the case that it will actually make you more efficient. You won’t have to deal with constant distractions and you’ll have an easier time focusing on the work. 

Set work boundaries

We all know that we should stop checking our work emails and messages after work hours. But it’s easier said than done. Especially since “work hours” are not always that clearly defined and seem to creep into our personal time.

To be honest, our coworkers and managers are unlikely to be the ones telling us to have healthier work boundaries. Especially since they may not have healthy boundaries themselves! It may be tough, but it’s up to us to establish our boundaries and manage expectations. 

Define a time of day in which you will stop reading messages. For example, maybe it’s 6:30 pm on weekdays and absolutely no work emails on weekends.

You can also incorporate email auto-responders to help you manage the email stream. In your autoresponder, you can mention your work hours or the hours in which you will be checking email. Or you can indicate when the other person can expect a response.

Autoresponders are great because they create boundaries and help you manage your workload, but they’re also not leaving the other person hanging. Your colleague doesn’t have to wonder if you’re on vacation or not getting their messages. And they can sit tight knowing that you’ll get back to them when you’re back online.

Boundaries are healthy and productive. They may be hard to enforce at first, and you may feel guilty for not responding right away, but after a while you’ll see that you’re more productive and at ease when you’re not constantly in reply mode.

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