Stress-free start: expert strategies to conquer new job anxiety

Apr 28, 2023

5 mins

Stress-free start: expert strategies to conquer new job anxiety
Debbie Garrick

Writer, translator and ex-recruiter

It’s pretty common to experience some nerves around starting a new job. New job stress is a normal reaction to the unknown. No matter how much knowledge about the company and the role you’ve acquired through the recruitment process, there will be things you don’t know when you walk into the first day of a new job. What happens when excitement and nerves turn into pre-job anxiety? Organizational Psychologist and Leadership Coach Jana Still shares her thoughts on why we get stressed, the difference between excitement and stress, and her top stress management techniques for the build-up to your first day in a new job, and beyond.

What exactly is stress?

In Still’s words, stress comes from “any situation that causes you physical, emotional or psychological strain. Stress is our body’s natural response to change, so from a physiological perspective, it’s anything that triggers a sympathetic response from our autonomic nervous system. It basically triggers our fight or flight response which causes certain hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to be flooded into our system.” She explains that this causes your heart rate to increase, and blood to rush to your muscles, diverting away from your digestive tract and immune system.

Still also explains that there are different kinds of stress. There’s Eustress, which is positive stress, it’s good for your body and good for your overall well-being. And then there’s bad stress which can be acute, chronic, or episodic. When it comes to starting a new job, most people will have a mix of both. “As humans, we are inherently apprehensive to change. it’s perfectly normal to experience stress but it’s the way that you respond to the stress that will make a difference to your overall well-being.” On the whole, we’re excited, and the nervous energy around that is the Eustress. But then we have this inherent resistance to change, and that’s where the anxiety usually begins.

What causes new job stress?

According to Still, the main cause of new job stress is the fear of the unknown. This can be focused on different questions: What will the people be like? What if I don’t get on with them? What if the workload is too much? Am I up to the job? (especially if the new job is a promotion). Will my new manager be tough on me? Am I going to enjoy the company culture? What is the leadership within the company like? What if people don’t like me? Will I be able to make a good first impression? What if they prefer their old manager? There are so many unknowns that can cause us to worry. You simply don’t have all the answers, and for the most part, you won’t until you start the job. So what can you do about it?

Stress is something you can learn to manage

Still says that stress isn’t something you can totally avoid, but there are coping strategies to help you manage it. For the most part, how we respond to stress is a conditioned response. This means it’s a learned behavior, and anything that’s been learned can be unlearned. While your natural disposition and general positivity will have a bearing on this, Still explains, “Being self-aware and knowing what’s likely to trigger your stress means you can prepare your body for it, so you’re not in a constant state of fight or flight. People who don’t readily cope or manage stress well keep that fight or flight feeling triggered, and this causes an influx of cortisol—even when you don’t have the adrenalin, the cortisol level is still there and this can be detrimental to your health.”

Tips for handling new job stress

1. Start thinking about it at the interview stage

Still always encourages people she’s working with to think about the sort of things they’d want to know in the lead-up to starting a new job when they’re at the interview stage. “During the interview process, you’re interviewing them as much as they’re interviewing you.” So do your due diligence, make sure you’ve done the research, and ask questions about the things you know might worry you. It will help keep new job stress at bay.

2. Take care of your health

Still reminds us that, “Mental health is directly related to your physical health, so ensuring you’re physically healthy goes a long way in managing stress.” When you take proper care of yourself, new job stress won’t feel as bad. Establish good eating habits, get enough sleep, and make sure it’s quality sleep (a lot of people overlook the quality part), and exercise. “Anything that contributes to your physical health will help your mental health.” Exercise doesn’t have to be anything super serious, it can be walking to work, dancing around your house to music, or simply adding a few stretches to your morning routine. Music helps to release endorphins and moving to it makes you feel good.

3. Open up communication

“When the interview and hiring process is over, that doesn’t mean you can’t talk to your new employer until day one on the job. Feel free to reach out with any questions and concerns you have.” Still says this is a great way to build rapport with your new supervisor. Of course, you have to be smart about it. Don’t send them twenty emails a day with a different question in each, and don’t ask obvious questions you can find the answer to easily online. If you’re sent policies and procedures and any training in advance you can ask questions about that. If you’re not sent anything, reach out and ask for it—this creates a great first impression, and it shows that you’re keen and excited to get started.

4. Be prepared

Planning and preparing for the seemingly mundane tasks of your first day can help to alleviate some of the new job stress. Things like picking out your outfit, working out your route to work, and how long it will take. According to Still, “Accounting for and controlling the little things you can control is really key to help mitigate stress.” If you’ve put in the preparation, then you don’t need to keep worrying about it or even think about it, because you know it’s sorted. If you’re a list person, write one and check off these little tasks as you do them.

5. Show gratitude

Showing gratitude helps color your world in a more positive way. Still explains, “When you show gratitude it releases certain endorphins that make you feel more relaxed and tranquil. I tell people that being nice to people is actually good for your health.” You can practice this when reaching out to your new boss, thank them for the opportunity, and be grateful for any assistance you get. Thank the people who’ve helped you on your way. It all goes to promoting a positive mindset which will help you to feel calmer about everything.

6. Have realistic expectations

Still shares that a lot of what breeds unhappiness and anxiety in a job is unmet expectations, so you need to have realistic expectations. While you should adopt a positive attitude this doesn’t mean living in a dream world or being unrealistic as that will make things worse rather than better. You know there will be challenges to the new job, but challenge stressors can actually be a good thing—they inspire and motivate us. It’s only when we have unattainable goals that it becomes demotivating and overly stressful. Still says, “It’s your perspective on it that will mitigate the nerves.”

7. Allow yourself time to adapt

Don’t be too hard on yourself. You won’t be amazing at everything straight out of the starting blocks. If you’re struggling then go to your supervisor and chat with them, and try to find solutions together. Your new employer wants you to succeed as much as you do, they’ve put time, money, and effort into recruiting you.

Managing stress in the lead-up to your first day

Managing new job stress is a crucial aspect of ensuring a smooth transition into your new position. It’s essential to understand that stress is a natural response to change, and it’s up to you to learn how to manage it effectively. By taking care of your health, communicating openly with your new employer, being prepared, showing gratitude, and setting realistic expectations, you can lay the groundwork for a successful start to your new role. Remember, it’s vital to allow yourself time to adapt and not be too hard on yourself. Your new employer has invested in hiring you, and they want you to succeed just as much as you do. By implementing these strategies, you’ll be well on your way to overcoming new job stress and setting yourself up for a successful and fulfilling career journey.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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