About workplace stress
Stress at work is something we all experience to some extent, and can be a positive when it helps us stay motivated and get things done. However, too much stress is harmful to our health, putting us under both physical and emotional strain and leading to sickness and depression.
Stress is a physical reaction of the sympathetic nervous system. When our body perceives there is a threat, it reacts with a 'fight or flight' response, producing larger amounts of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. While the alertness and rush of energy this can provide is useful in a serious crisis and likely served us well historically, it's often not helpful with most modern daily stressors. On the other hand, our modern and advanced understanding of stress has given us better knowledge on how to control and limit its onset. A stress reaction can often be viewed as a choice made by our decision to view a situation as a challenge or manageable.
How common is workplace stress?
Stress in the workplace is very common. Stress is behind 40% of all work-related illness in the UK, proving an issue for both employees, employers, and the economy. Research from the Health and Safety Executive Committee (HSE) highlights industries such as education, defence, social work, public administration, and human health as recording the highest rates of workplace stress within the UK. Nursing, teaching, and welfare and housing advising were highlighted as the most stressful occupations. Although workplace stress does not discriminate when it comes to gender, women have been found as 70% more likely to experience workplace stress. Women aged between 35-44 years old are more likely to be affected.
Why does the workplace lend itself to high levels of stress?
It has been shown that an organised workplace that is managed well can be positive for our health; providing a sense of purpose, achievement, and camaraderie.
Stress arises if a workplace is not organised, well managed, nor supportive. Workplace stress can arise when employees face any of the following challenges:
Lack of clarity regarding tasks assigned to them.
Given a higher workload than they can manage or that is outside of their skillset.
Being under-trained for their position.
Given very high responsibility.
Not being given a say in what work is assigned to them and how to complete it.
Asked to do things within strict or unrealistic time frame.
Offered no encouragement and feel under-valued.
Lack of resources required to carry out job tasks.
Issues with other colleagues including bullying.
A role that conflicts with another person's role.
Dis organised change within their organisation.
Not allowed to give feedback.
Are working too many hours.
A job or environment that is unstable.
A job that threatens their health or life.
Exterior pressures like demanding clients, negative press, or a parent company.
What are the signs of workplace stress?
There are many physical, physiological and behavioural signs of being highly stressed while at work.
Physical signs can include:
Elevated heart rate/ high blood pressure
Rushes of energy followed by fatigue
Headache and muscle tension
Chest pain or back pain
Lower immunity to infections
High blood pressure
Weight gain or loss
Loss of libido
Emotional signs can include:
Depression, despair or hopelessness
Feeling insecure and vulnerable
Lacking in motivation
Behavioural signs can include:
Unable to concentrate
Avoidance of social situations
Eating too much or too little
What happens if workplace stress is unaddressed?
Workplace stress can lead to a number of outcomes including; poor job performance, possible redundancy and financial difficulty, strain on interpersonal relationships, and less effective everyday functioning. These outcomes may also lead to further anxiety. Physical implications of workplace stress include risks of pre-mature ageing. Evidence also suggests a link between stress and cardiovascular and musculoskeletal disorders.
Long term periods of work-related stress can also result in the development of mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, nervous breakdown, self-esteem, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and eating disorders.
Recommended help for workplace stress
Research suggests that a psychological approach is the best treatment of occupational stress. Stress management advice and support, including improvements to well-being standards and healthy coping strategies, should be offered within the organisation to best deal with issues of workplace stress. Medicine is not usually prescribed for managing stress. Anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medication can sometimes ease symptoms, but often does not alleviate the problem, thus are not considered in and of themselves an effective treatment.
Suggested options for treating workplace stress
Discussing concerns with your HR department or line manager may be an effective first step to take if you are suffering from work-related stress. If you do not feel able to share your concerns within the workplace, seeking help privately through a psychotherapist, counsellor, support group, or coach may be a useful alternative.
Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) can be undertaken as a short-term course of therapy to treat workplace stress. It can help individuals understand the link between their thoughts, feelings, and choices. CBT can also help you to manage thoughts and positively alter your perspective, affecting your reactions to challenging situations. Other talk therapies, such as person-centred counselling and psycho dynamic psychotherapy, can also help with workplace stress.
Some therapists may encourage you to try mindfulness and relaxation techniques. Mindfulness helps you focus on the present moment instead of the internal whirring of your mind. With enough practice, this can help you stay grounded during stressful episodes and react less aggressively when challenged.
Helpful tips for dealing with workplace stress
Make lists to help keep you on top of your workload.
Just say no - if a task is not your responsibility, saying no can allow you to better focus on your own priorities.
Delegate work to others if possible.
Set realistic deadlines for yourself.
Schedule in time for relaxation during your week.
Talk to others, such as friends or family, outside of work about your worries.
Exercise to release endorphins, let off steam, increase your energy, and help you sleep.
Get enough sleep.
Take breaks during the work day, such as eating lunch away from your work space.
Take longer breaks from work when possible (i.e. weekends and holidays)
Reduce your consumption of depressives like drugs and alcohol.
Watch your caffeine intake.
Take three deep, focused, intentioned breaths to calm your nerves during the day.
Try relaxation techniques like yoga, mindfulness, or massage.
If you are finding that your stress levels are hard to manage or are worsening, seeing a therapist for stress can help you to understand what is happening and to find more effective ways of managing your stress levels so that you can lead a more fulfilling life.
Advice for Employers: How is workplace stress effectively reduced?
Trained and impartial HR personnel are an important source of support and guidance to employees feeling high levels of workplace stress. If necessary, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends that an employer could arrange for a detailed assessment from relevant specialists if an employee is experiencing high levels of stress.
Offering team building activities in-house or through external providers can also help boost the morale and efficiency of employees, teams, management within the organisation. It may also be useful to schedule mindfulness workshops and organisational stress workshops for staff.
Resources for dealing with workplace stress
Useful Self-Help Books:
M. Bamber. 'Overcoming Your Workplace Stress: A CBT based Self Help Guide.' (2001)
B. E. Robinson. 'Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, their partners and children, and the Clinicians who Treat them. (2007) R. Nathan and L. Hill Estate. 'Career Counselling.' (2005)
Useful Telephone Numbers:
Anxiety UK Hotline - 08444 775 774
Combat Stress - 0800 138 1619
Advice for seeking help:
There are now many counselling and therapeutic services and organisations available. You may also benefit from visiting your GP and requesting a referral.
Contact your local council for information on local charities and organisations providing support groups and advice in your area.