Stress manifests itself differently in different people. Many people incorrectly assume that a susceptibility to stress is a sign of personal weakness or cause for embarrassment, but stress affects everyone. You may not be able to eliminate all stress from your life, but there are steps you can take to reduce stress caused by your physical environment—for example, in your workplace. Follow these measures to improve your work environment, and you’ll quickly learn that you can reduce your stress level and the emotional and physical duress that stress can cause.

Sources of stress
My research into alleviating unwanted stress uncovered four primary areas that generate most stressful situations:

  • Your environment, which includes things that you physically interact with, such as your workspace and lighting conditions (covered in detail below).
  • Your conscious behavior, which includes things that you choose to do and that are within your control, such as eating, sleeping, and exercise habits.
  • Your subconscious behavior, including how you go about solving problems and accomplishing tasks, which is more difficult to control. This includes such things as procrastination and “letting things go.”
  • Your perspective, including how you approach a task or situation, such as delivering a group presentation or flying on an airplane.

Stress is a factor in our lives, driving us to achieve goals, stay motivated, and maintain an active interest in day-to-day life. But raising stress above your personal comfort level can have a negative effect on your overall health.

If you’re feeling worn out, get sick frequently, or are generally irritable for no apparent reason, stress is a likely culprit. You can easily take measures to improve your situation, though. For starters, I recommend evaluating your work environment and making changes that can help relieve some of the physical strain that causes stress. I’ll focus on some of the more common environmental causes of stress in the workplace and what you can do about them.

Environmental factors
Every day, technology workers use one of the greatest causes of environmental stress—the computer. Regardless of how you feel about your system’s ease of use, power, speed, or aesthetic qualities, it seems designed to attack all of your senses at once. A number of environmental factors affect your stress levels, and your computer constantly violates them:

  • Lighting
  • Air quality
  • Noise
  • Physical strain

Computer screens are bright. They’re also made up of thousands of pixels lying at the same depth from your eyes’ perspective. This forces your eyes to continuously refocus on different parts of your screen and makes you blink an average of seven times per minute, compared to the normal 22 times per minute.

Constantly staring at your computer screen can cause a condition called Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS), which results in neck and back pain, blurred vision, headaches, and a number of other symptoms of stress.

Fortunately, there are measures you can take that will help alleviate these problems:

  • To help your eyes focus, position your screen slightly below your line of sight, about an arm’s length away from your face.
  • Avoid placing your screen in front of a light source, such as a window or lamp.
  • Remember to blink, and use eye drops if your eyes become dry or sensitive to light.
  • Look away from your screen every 10 minutes or so for several seconds to give your eyes a break.
  • Keep your monitor clean and free of dust. Particles on your screen strain your eyes when you’re trying to focus.
  • Keep office lighting at a comfortable, ambient level. Too much light causes strain when you look at your screen. Too little, and it’s difficult to read papers and books.
  • Get a glare-reducing lamp that sits on top of your monitor.
  • Eyeglass wearers can buy lenses coated with antiglare film from their eye doctor.

Air quality
The quality of the air in your workspace is something you can never escape, as long as you’re in the office. Obviously you want to avoid air that’s stinky, dry, drafty, too cold, or too hot because it can cause respiratory problems and general discomfort and strain while working.

Another factor to take into account is ionization. The fan motors in your computer generate ionized air, which attracts dust particles and other airborne contaminants. Breathing these in all day can cause a sore throat and coughing and even allergic reactions, which can turn into illness. Few offices and cubicles have windows that open to let in fresh air, but an ionizer will remove particles and neutralize the problems caused by static electricity. Small units are relatively inexpensive and will noticeably improve your breathing space.

To combat other bad air problems, consider adding a few plants to your workspace. Having a humidifier next to your computer isn’t healthy for the equipment, but plants can help remove dryness from the air as well as improve your office’s aesthetics.

Constant background noise is distracting and annoying. It can cause headaches and irritability—two sure signs of stress. The typical cube farm has walls designed to not only provide some privacy, but also to absorb sound. Depending on your occupancy rate and proximity factors, well-placed walls can help prevent some of the strain caused by the bustle of the office.

However, everyone has what sounds like a miniature jet engine on or under their desks—you guessed it, a computer. While it’s easy to become accustomed to the constant din of whirring computer fans and grinding hard drives, this noise causes uneasiness and irritability, and can eventually damage hearing in extreme cases. Noise affects your ability to focus, and trying to ignore this frequently overlooked source of pollution adds to your stress level.

Some desk arrangements contain cabinets designed to house your CPU. If you have one of these, use it—it will help muffle the sound of your computer equipment. Alternatively, you can purchase kits and cases online, such as the ones from Kool ‘n Quiet, that help eliminate computer noise. Most of the ones I looked at also had solutions to the heating problem that sound insulation creates, so you may want to read up on these issues before creating a homemade solution.

Physical strain
Ergonomics, or human engineering, is an important factor in your environment. Most corporations recognize this fact and provide wrist pads, comfortable chairs, and suitable desk arrangements that allow employees to work efficiently and safely. If sitting at your desk all day makes your stiff and sore, you should definitely ask your HR director about ergonomic solutions.

Uncomfortable working conditions put your body under duress, which will compound other causes of stress. Taking breaks, stretching, sitting properly, and placing tools in accessible positions can all help alleviate discomfort and keep you in a positive frame of mind. In addition, applying ergonomics to your workspace has been shown to reduce illness and improve productivity.

When examining your work area’s ergonomics, it’s a good idea to get professional advice. Ergonomic problems aren’t always obvious, and some seemingly helpful changes can cause more problems in the long run. If you experience pain when doing your job but your company has no formal means for addressing the issue, speak to your insurance company or health-care provider to learn more about what you can do to reduce this form of stress.

Sound body and mind
When your body has to struggle against your environment, it adds to your stress and reduces your ability to cope with stress from other sources. Working with computers puts constant strain on your body in a number of ways, but you can take simple, inexpensive measures to alleviate the constant assault on your senses. Improving your work environment is an important first step to reducing stress.