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Stressed about work? Give yourself a break

(ran CI, TP editions)

Surprise, surprise: When Dateline NBC ran a two-hour special and quiz on the causes of stress, half the questions were at least marginally connected with work.

The quiz was designed to point out possible causes of stress from the past year. A troublesome job offers at least moderate stress and could cause serious health risks.

The stressors mentioned that could be work-related fall into four broad categories:

+ Major changes in your duties, including starting or ending a job.

+ Working conditions, such as having frequent troubles with a boss or co-worker, feeling overloaded, having a tough commute, facing frequent performance evaluations or struggling to maintain your position. Also included are frequent travel, repeated problems with computers, cell phones and pagers, and needing to give many speeches.

+ Having too many errands and too little time, or simply not having enough time for loved ones _ or for sleep.

+ Money problems, including soured investments or a major salary loss in your household. All these aren't necessarily work-related, but people can associate them with their jobs, especially if they feel underpaid or saw their stock options or 401(k) plans collapse.

If you're skeptical about the Dateline report, the American Institute of Stress also says on its Web page ( that stress has been described as America's No. 1 health problem, and "Job stress is the major culprit." That site points to a 2000 Gallup poll, which found that 80 percent of people feel stress on the job, and nearly half say they need help in managing stress.

One of the major dangers of stress is that it can lead to high blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. And high blood pressure doesn't have obvious symptoms, so people may not know they have it unless they get checked.

But being overly stressed usually does have symptoms: sleeplessness, migraine headaches, irritability, forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating and a lack of initiative. At work, stress can pull you into a downward spiral: You're worried about losing your job, so you have trouble sleeping, which makes it harder to concentrate or be creative, which makes you more likely to lose your job.

What can you do to reduce stress at work? Here are a few suggestions:

Take frequent breaks

People feel so pressured that they often don't take a break, figuring that it would just make them have to work later. But will it?

When you feel overwhelmed, a break not only eases stress, it can give you a chance to clear your mind, then return with a fresh approach. Maybe you'll see something on a walk or at lunch that will change your perspective.

Take breaks and see if you really have to work later. Chances are you won't.

Limit interruptions

Phone calls and e-mails can make you feel bombarded. Unless you absolutely have to respond instantly, let e-mails pile up for a couple of hours, and use voice mail if you're concentrating on something important.

Make appointments for friends, for family, for exercise and for yourself.

Sometimes work demands attention simply because it's a structured environment: You show up at a certain time and have certain duties. But you have duties to yourself, too, even if your personal life isn't nearly so structured.

Get a change of scenery

Cubicles aren't the greatest places in the world for creative thinking. Working at home, at a park or in a coffeehouse might make you less stressed _ and more productive.

Check your perspective

Because work demands so much time and energy, people dwell on problems that don't deserve the emotional attention. Don't let a nasty workplace overwhelm all the good in your life.