21 ways to destress at your desk

In this guest blog we’re delighted to welcome Cathy Bailey from Office Om to offer a selection of tools and strategies to help you destress at your desk (and beyond).

Woman sitting at her home office desk, stretching her arms above her head

People generally don’t like the thought of being stressed but, at work at least, a certain amount of stress can be helpful. Put simply, stress is a physiological response that makes us alert and ready for action.

Some people call it the fight or flight response. Our bodies produce the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which get our bodies ready for action. So, if we happen to encounter a sabretooth tiger, this response helps us protect ourselves and escape. Indeed, a certain level of stress can help us feel ready for action and get work done.

The stress response doesn’t generally feel good however when we’re sat at our desk thinking of what our boss is going to say to us about the project we haven’t yet finished. On the other hand, did you know that if you stop producing the stress hormone cortisol, that’s a very bad thing?

Similarly, if we produce too much stress, it can be toxic. In practical terms, this means we want to be able to look after our stress levels. Work can throw so many stressful things at us: from deadlines, to confrontation, to feeling overwhelmed at the amount of stuff that just needs doing. Ideally, our work would be manageable in such a way that we can keep our stress levels in a desirable place.

However, this is not always possible. At Office Om, we believe it’s vitally important for us to be able to recognise when our stress levels are too high. We’re also passionate about helping people develop the skills and strategies they need to keep their stress levels in a good place.

In the spirit of self-awareness, what are your red flags for being too stressed? For me, if I wake up in the middle of the night worrying about something, I know I am over-stressed. I take this a sign that I need to take some sort of action about whatever it is I’m worried about. Know yourself and what makes you feel too stressed.

Know too what helps. We are all different and different strategies may work for different people at different times in our lives. Please remember too, if you are concerned at all about your stress levels, do speak to your GP or other qualified medical professional. Otherwise, are some suggestions for tools and strategies to help destress at your desk (and beyond). Which of these work for you?

1. Stretch

Moving our body can change how we feel. We can hold so much stress and tension in our bodies. Stretching - either from our office chairs, or standing, can help release the tension. How big you go might depend on how brave you’re feeling, but we think you should do what feels good to you and your body.

2. Focus

When we’re stressed it’s so easy for our minds to wander to all the things there are that we can be stressed about. By consciously refocusing our minds to the present moment and what we are doing, we can move away from stressful thoughts

3. Park

If we keep getting distracted by stressful thoughts, we can try ‘parking’ them. Sometimes, this can be as simple as writing them on a list to the side of our desk or on an electronic note. By ‘parking’ our stressful thoughts separately from what we are doing, it can help us refocus.

4. Visualise

If it all feels too much, sometimes visualising something different can help us destress. For example, you could take your mind to the beach and imagine what you can see and hear, and notice how your body and mind relax. Or choose any situation that feels relaxing to you. Of course, we don’t want to spend the whole day daydreaming. However, it can be a good tool when stress levels feel too high.

5. Drink

Having a drink of water keeps your hydration levels in a good place, which is good for your physical health. There is also the routine about making a drink and the mental break it gives us. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, maybe taking the time to get up and make a drink will put things in perspective.

6. Lower expectations

How much mental stress is caused by having expectations that are too high? Whether it’s expecting the weather forecast to be always sunny, our boss to never have a bad day, or our emails to be perfect, having high expectations can create pressure. Experiment with taking them down a notch or two and see what happens to your stress levels.

7. Focus on helpful thoughts

Often when we are stressed we are full of negative thoughts. Catching ourselves being over-negative, asking ‘is this helpful right now’ before refocusing on a more helpful way of looking things can help us destress. For example, switching from ‘I’ll never finish this bit of work, it’s impossible’ to ‘ok, this is a challenging project, but I’ve made a good start and if I tick this next task off, I’ll feel much better’.

8. Connect with conversations that feel good

Chatting to colleagues can often help us destress. They might have a different perspective on what we are stressed about, or maybe they’ve simply been there too. Notice when it’s a helpful conversation, or if you’re getting involved in toxic gossip that is creating more stress. We can keep boundaries and back out of conversations that don’t feel good and create ones that feel more helpful

9. Take that lunch break

When we have ALL the stuff to do, it can feel so hard to take a lunch break. However, evidence suggests that we are more productive when we do. Give yourself full permission to have lunch breaks and timetable in activities that make you feel good. Whether a quick walk around the block, a chat with someone you like or some time to zone out with your favourite app, make sure you get some downtime and see how it feels.

10. Declutter

Believe it or not, decluttering can make a big difference to our stress levels. It might not be that your stapler sparks joy, but it might be necessary to do your job. So perhaps try the ‘beautiful or useful’ test.

11. Create a nice view

We might not all be fortunate to have a beautiful view from a window at work, but we can often do a lot to improve what we look at. Perhaps it is a plant or a framed picture of a view we love; adding something to look at that we find calming or that makes us smile, can give us a break when things get too much.

12. Eye breaks

Staring at screens all day can increase feelings of tension and eyestrain. Make sure you have eye breaks where you close your eyes or look at something in the distance, do a non-screen related-task, or just move away from the screen.

13. Count

Some people relax by adding a count to the breath. You can try counting to four as you breathe in and another four as you breathe out. This helps focus the mind on something and regulating the breathing can help you relax physically. Choose numbers that feel right to you and your breathing.

14. Picture of something calming/makes you smile

Having a framed photo of something inspiring on your desk can be a way to destress. Whether it’s your favourite trip, a holiday of your dreams, or your favourite furry thing, try having a visual reminder close by.

15. Be kind to yourself

Sometimes when we’re stressed we’re being rather harsh to ourselves. Notice your internal dialogue and how it makes you feel. If the voice in your head is increasing your stress levels, see if you can nurture a softer voice. Perhaps imagine what you would say if you were your own best friend.

16. Switch to something else

If we’re not getting anywhere fast on an activity, perhaps try switching to something different that needs doing. It’s so easy to get stuck and doing something easier that we can tick off our to-do list can help shift our energy and lower our stress.

17. Take a deep breath….in….and….out

It’s a cliché, but it can really work. Deep breathing can make a huge shift in our stress levels. Often when we’re stressed, our breath becomes shallower. By breathing more deeply, our stress levels can lower. Try taking deep breaths into your belly and out from your belly.

18. Try deepening the out-breath

If you want, you can try adding a count to the breath and elongate the outbreath. Perhaps counting to as you breathe in, and six as you breathe out, but choosing numbers that feel right to you. Elongating the out breath can help us relax.

19. Get support

Sometimes when we’re stressed, there is something we need help or support with. There is no shame in asking! Whether it’s a colleague, GP, helpline, boss, friend, or a professional, there is always someone who can help.

20. Stand

Being too sedentary has been linked to a range of physical issues and can also affect how we feel. If possible for your role, try standing up for some of the day. Some employers supply sit-stand desks from Posturite, or you could fit in a standing phone call or meeting.

21. Walk away

If all else fails, remember you can walk away. If we’re feeling stuck, getting up and walking away can give us both a mental and physical break, then often when we get back, things feel a lot different. Are these things common sense? Yes. Do we do them? No. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves what works, and tell ourselves to practice them more often.

Also recommended: Watch Posturite's webinar 'Reduce stress and thrive while working from home'.