Keys to Managing On-the-Job Stress

You know it when stress takes hold: Your heart starts racing. Your jaw clenches. It's nearly impossible to concentrate.

And over the long run, stress can contribute to serious health problems, including high blood pressure, heart attacks, ulcers and lower back pain.

"The problem most often comes up when the demands of the job outweigh the employee's ability to control his or her environment," explained Fred Blosser, a spokesman for the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety, the federal agency that researches how to prevent work-related injury and illness.

Blosser said that today there is more awareness among employers that stress can influence workers' well-being, health and productivity. NIOSH and the American Psychological Association advise companies to lead the charge in reducing job stress by overhauling an organization's structure and its expectations of employees.

Those recommendations include ensuring that workloads are in line with workers' capabilities and resources; defining workers' roles and responsibilities; and establishing work schedules that are compatible with demands and responsibilities outside the job.

But Dr. Redford Williams, who teaches psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University, said too few businesses offer effective stress-management programs for employees. He said it is up to individuals to learn how to handle a difficult environment by honestly assessing the triggers that make their blood boil.

"You cannot run from stress," said Williams. "You cannot hide. You need evaluation tools so you can make a rational decision about chilling out or coming out swinging to change the situation."

Are You Worth It?

In his new book, "In Control," published by Rodale next month, Williams offers tips for people eager to alter their feelings of frustration on the job. He advises that you take stock of the problem that is causing you angst, and recommends his "I Am Worth It" method.

"I" stands for "Is what's stressing me out important? Or is it simply a minor annoyance?" "A" stands for "Is my response to the stressor appropriate? Am I responding the way any other person would or am I overreacting?" "M" stands for "Is the situation modifiable? Can it be changed?"

And "Worth It" asks a person to examine what's at stake in taking some action. For example, will it help or hurt you to go over your new manager's head to discuss your overwhelming workload, or would it be more prudent to wait until your new boss has settled into the job?

Williams believes it is critical to distinguish whether situations that set you off stem from something valid and whether they're possible to fix. If the problem is minor (a cubicle neighbor who talks too loudly on the phone) or out of your control (increasing health care costs or the threat of lay-offs), Williams said a brief timeout for meditation can help.

"Take a one minute relaxation break," he said. "Sit in a chair, both feet on the ground. Take in a slow, deep breath and say to yourself 'Relax' when you exhale."

Finally, experts agree that exercise -- as well as a healthy diet -- can also play a valuable role in reducing stress in and out of the workplace.

Physical activity, including walking, swimming, running and even gardening for at least 30 minutes, three times a week can elevate your mood and help you cope.