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Study says workplace stress is as bad as secondhand smoke: Tips on how to cope

We all know that spending hours a day behind a desk can be stressful, tiring and boring. How many times have you found yourself looking at the minute hand on the clock begging for it to be 5 p.m.?

Now, more than ever, those eight hour days are stretching into 10- and even 11-hour days, causing the U.S. workforce to spend less time with their families, exercise less frequently, and feel greater overall stress. A recent study from Stanford and Harvard universities found that workplace stress is about as dangerous to one’s health as secondhand smoke.

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In fact, 90 percent of visits to primary care physicians are stress-related and this pressure is considered the epidemic of the 21st century, according to Kathleen Hall, founder and CEO of the Mindful Living Network and the Stress Institute. She added that over 60 percent of American workers say their jobs are a very significant source of stress and it's leading to an increase in heart disease, insomnia, obesity, hypertension, depression and decreasing your life expectancy.

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Stressed office worker

"Employee’s chronic stress costs corporations billions of dollars each year because of lack of productivity, poor performance, increased absenteeism, negative attitudes and health-care costs," Hall told TODAY.com. "We sit at computer screens all day instead of moving and working with our bodies. This causes a host of mental and physical health problems today."

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This new wave of technology and use of computers and emails is the catalyst, along with Americans not trusting the companies they work for any more, according to Hall. Work-life balance, something millennial workers are striving for, is lacking at many companies, leaving employees feeling objectified and creating an unfriendly, demanding and cold workplace that breeds this stress.

The problem manifests both physical and mentally from two common types of stress in an office environment: internal and external. "Internal are the emotional conflict and pressures we place on ourselves, which can cause enough stress to manifest in physical ailments like back pain," Todd Sinett, a New York-based chiropractor and author of 3 Weeks to a Better Back told TODAY.com. "It isn’t surprising then that the greatest number of heart attacks occur on Monday mornings, as people physically respond to the thought of the weekend being over and the start of the work week."

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Meanwhile, external factors include events, temporary stress and outside influences that people feel are beyond their control. "This can be anything from a meeting not starting on time to a co-worker's pessimistic personality creating a toxic environment," he said. "Ultimately, negative energy and emotions can impact both your daily routine as well as your health."

What are some simple changes you can make in your everyday work routine to ease that stress? Sinett offered these quick exercises to help get you through the next hour, day or week:

Find a quiet spot.

Just close your office door if you have to. Sit in a comfortable pose, take off your glasses if you wear them, and close your eyes. Press the fingertips of both hands lightly along the ridge above your brow. Take five slow breaths.

Take full, deep breaths, inhaling and exhaling completely.

This exercise is extremely cleansing and calming. When people become stressed, their breathing rate speeds up, and in order to relax, the breath needs to be slowed down. Inhale slowly for a count of four. Hold it for a count of four. Exhale for a count of four.

Walk around and move.

Walking is not only a great stress reliever, but it's also helpful in relieving back pain. You don’t have to power walk, just get up during the day to not only move your body, but also clear your mind.

Have good, nutritional snacks on hand.

Avoid sugary drinks and snacks, as well as too much caffeine. Instead, balance your foods and blood sugar throughout the day by incorporating healthy foods like nuts, fruit and cheese.

Incorporate regular stretches into your day.

Too often, we think of stress as something affecting us emotionally, but there is also the physical stress of sitting at your computer all day. To counteract this posture, try a Bruegger’s stretch, a pose that involves rotating your arms out and opening up your posture, or the following:

  • Standing abdominal stretch: Stand with your feet about hip distance apart, with knees slightly bent. Lift arms in front of you until they are extended straight overhead. Bend back slightly, stretching the abs. Repeat 10 times.
  • Thumbs to pits: Sit on a chair with your back straight. With your fingers spread out, place your thumbs under your armpits and push in with slight pressure. Tilt your face up with your sternum out to feel the stretch across your chest.
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