The complete guide to stress relief at the office

This could be you.
This could be you.
Image: Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Called the “health epidemic of the 21st century” by the World Health Organization, stress is a factor in nearly half of work-performance issues and costs US businesses an estimated $300 billion a year ”through absenteeism, diminished productivity, employee turnover and direct medical, legal and insurance fees,” according to the American Psychological Association. Since not every office provides sleep pods and massage retreats like Google does, here are some stress-relief hacks for the rest of us:

Look up from that screen

By some estimates, Americans on average now spend 12 hours a day in front of electronic screens. While many of us need our computers, tablets, phones, and phablets for work, a 2012 study from Sweden’s University of Gothenburg found that constantly staring at a screen without frequent breaks can increase your risk of stress. Power off those screens from time to time, or just relocate yourself to another area of your office for a few minutes to give your eyes, and your mind, a much-needed break.

Laugh a little

Doesn’t it seem like children are a lot less stressed than adults? Maybe one reason is that they laugh a lot more than we do (children laugh 400 times a day, versus 25 for adults), and laughing is a good way to reduce stress. According to researchers at Loma Linda University in California, laughter reduces cortisol—the stress hormone—and will even help improve memory. It may not be easy to schedule laughing into your day, but this is a good excuse to take an occasional break and watch a funny YouTube segment or chat with your neighbor about something funny that happened recently.

Don’t resort to gobbling comfort foods

When stressed, we tend to reach for chocolate, ice cream, or other junk food for comfort. But new research shows that comfort food is a myth: Fast foods and sugary goodies can actually trigger and worsen stress, and stress will usually simply dissipate over time whether or not you eat. So instead of reaching for some munchies, just take a moment to sit and breathe.

But you can chew on gum

While comfort foods probably won’t help, researchers have found that chewing gum can—by reducing the stress hormone cortisol. Chewing can also boost alertness and productivity, although some experts say the effect only works for the first 20 minutes.

Don’t beat yourself up if you zone out occasionally

We tend to label those who space out as unproductive and dysfunctional. But allowing our minds to wander when dealing with something complicated or stress-inducing can help us be creative and come upon new solutions. Of course, if you find yourself spacing out chronically, that’s not ideal.

Bring your pet to work

This stress relief method may not be an option for many, but research shows that interactions with pets can decrease “the onset, severity or progression of stress-related conditions” (which is why some universities and clinics use them to unwind stressed students). The very act of stroking a pet can reduce your heart rate and “happy talk” to an animal can help lower blood pressure.

Put on your headphones

While some offices ban the use of headphones for fear that it breaks concentration, research has shown that music reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Listen to some upbeat music to feel more optimistic and slower music to feel more relaxed. Quartz has some tips on how to optimize your playlist.

Focus your breathing

You don’t need to roll out the yoga mat to get some of the benefits of mindful meditation. The refocusing of your mind onto your present thoughts and emotions, as well as the flow of your breathing, can help ease stress.

Plan your day in anticipation of stress

Often stress occurs when we feel we’ve lost control over a situation, and the degree to which we feel this way can affect how we react. So plan out your day ahead of time to better anticipate and manage points of potential tension throughout the day.