This guide will tell you how to recognise the signs of stress and offer tips on how to deal with it.
It is estimated that the majority of us spend around a quarter of our adult working lives in work. While it can provide us with some job satisfaction and a sense of purpose, the workplace can also be a setting of real stress and worry.
‘Stress in the workplace’ refers to struggling to juggle unrealistic demands being placed on us at work. Some stress is an accepted part of work and can be a good motivator, but excessive pressure can lead to unproductive stress - which will undermine your performance and potentially make you ill.
What are the causes of work-related stress?
Everyone is under some form of pressure in the workplace. We all have various daily problems to overcome. If these problems become overwhelming, it is more likely that you’ll become stressed. The experience of stress in the workplace is, of course, different for each individual. Some workers can be more affected than others, despite the set of circumstances being exactly the same. What is stressful to one person may not be the same for another. Other people may become accustomed to symptoms of stress, so it goes unnoticed – which is to their detriment.
There is no single cause of work-related stress. Sudden unexpected events can produce an element of pressure, which can sometimes lead to stress. However, it’s usually a gradual accumulation of stressful factors which has the biggest impact on health.
Signs of stress at work
Work-related stress can manifest itself as physical and emotional health problems, or in altered behaviour at work and at home. Obvious physical symptoms of stress can include: increased susceptibility to illness; infections; headaches; muscular tension; backache and neck ache; excessive tiredness; sleeping problems; digestive problems; raised heart rate; increased sweating; lower sex drive; skin rashes and blurred vision.
There may also be emotional and behavioural changes, which can include: feeling you can’t cope; short-temperedness; feeling tearful; eating when you’re not hungry; losing your appetite; smoking and drinking throughout the day; being unable to concentrate; getting less work done; having poor relationships with colleagues and a loss of motivation and commitment.
Other indicators of stress that are specific to the workplace can include: eating on the run; rushing tasks; trying to do several jobs at once; missing breaks; having no time for exercise and being unable to relax.
Recognising the causes of stress in the workplace
Being able to recognise some of the common causes of stress at work is important. Stress often goes unnoticed and builds up. It’s key to spot it early, so you can take steps to minimise your stress levels wherever possible. Examples of factor that contribute to stress at work include:
- Excessive workloads and unrealistic deadlines.
- Excessive or inflexible working hours.
- Lack of control over work activities.
- Lack of experience, training or support for a job.
- Problems settling into a new position, perhaps after a promotion or move.
- Bullying or harassment.
- A ‘blame culture’ in the workplace when things go wrong.
- Uncertainty about the company’s future.
- A poor physical working environment - for example an office that is too hot or too cold.
- Confusion about duties and responsibilities.
- Difficult relationships at work.
If some of the factors above strike a chord with you, it’s likely that you might be getting stressed out by them. So what should you do if you feel the strain is starting to make you stressed?
Firstly, it’s important to recognise it’s impossible to escape from pressure at work altogether. There will always be certain pressures on you in your workplace - so the key to dealing with stress is how you manage the pressures that you face. There are a number of ways in which you can manage pressures at work and thereby reduce the negative impact of stress - most of which involve taking a good look at how you function within your work setting and beyond. Our tips and advice below will provide you with some useful ideas on how to deal with the pressures of work:
Deal with problems as soon as possible
If work-related stress is affecting you, it’s important to deal with the cause of your stress as soon as possible. Putting off dealing with a problem will prevent you from getting on with other tasks efficiently, and could potentially lead to a build-up of other problems, which will make you even more stressed.
Manage your time effectively
One of the most important factors in reducing stress levels is managing your time effectively. To do this you should prioritise your tasks, delegate work when possible and make sure you don’t take on more than you can handle. Completing one task before going on to the next one will allow you to forget about the task you’ve completed and move on to the next thing with a clearer, more focused mind. You could also use your flexi-time, if available, to manage your time more effectively e.g. to avoid rush-hour travel.
Don’t be afraid to admit that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew – your boss should respect your honesty and help you to find a solution to the problem.
Take time out
If possible, take frequent breaks while at work, as this will help you to focus better. You could use these short periods to do some simple stretching exercises to prevent your muscles from getting tired. Also, going for a short walk at lunchtime, for example, can help take your mind off work. Some people make the mistake when under pressure at work of skipping breaks because they’re trying to catch up, when in fact simply having a break would be of more benefit. You should also ensure you only work your regular hours and take all the breaks and holidays you’re entitled to.
Identify stressful situations
Pick out those situations that stress you the most. If you’re fortunate, it may be the case that you can avoid them. If you can’t, think about how you can handle them differently in the future to minimise your stress levels. Perhaps being more assertive in a situation might resolve it, or perhaps you simply need to learn when not to get involved in a situation or problem that isn’t your responsibility.
Asking for help can sometimes be hard. But if you don’t ask, people may not realise the amount of stress you are under. Seeking help can range from getting practical help in the workplace from another colleague to discussing problems or concerns with your employer. Your manager or employer has a duty to take reasonable steps to try to resolve any problems that are causing stress, so you should make sure you talk to them about any problems you may have.
Engage in activities and meet people outside work - Regular activities outside work, especially with friends who aren’t work colleagues, will help you take your mind away from the worries of work and remind you there is more to life than sitting at a desk all day. If you only mix with people from your work during your time off, work is never going to be too far away from your thoughts, so make sure you socialise with a variety of people!
Regular physical activity can help reduce stress levels, as it’s a good way of forgetting about work and can trigger brain chemicals which improve mood. Not only will you feel fitter, healthier and happier by doing exercise, you’ll also rid your body of the damaging adrenaline which is released into your body when you’re stressed. Choose an activity you enjoy doing, so you’re more likely to keep it up.
Take the weight off your mind
Confiding in trusted work colleagues, friends and relatives is a useful way of ridding yourself of stressful feelings. Other people give you a different perspective on problems and help you find potential solutions. And you will feel much better after getting something off your mind.
Avoid unhelpful ‘crutches'
Stay away from artificial coping devices such as alcohol, smoking and a high caffeine intake. In the long-run these only succeed in increasing stress levels, as they are stimulants, rather than calming the body and mind down. Eating a well-balanced diet at regular times will give you all the levels of energy you need to see you through your day, without having to depend on stimulants.
Celebrate your achievements
Don’t be too hard on yourself, and avoid spending too much time thinking about what you didn’t get done in a day and what you have to do in the future. Instead, think about all those things you did achieve and give yourself a pat on the back. Take each working day as it comes and celebrate the good things you are responsible for doing and achieving.
If necessary, seek further help
If the techniques mentioned above don’t have the desired impact on your stress levels, it may be that you need to seek further help in order to deal with your work-related stress. High levels of stress can result in anxiety and depression, and in these cases it’s a good idea to seek advice from your doctor. Treatments can range from taking medication or a course of counselling to learning relaxation techniques or going on a course for stress management. And remember, there are many different methods of dealing with or treating stress. If one method doesn’t work for you, try a different one.
Managing stress in the future
Stress is an inevitable part of our working lives. Without problems to overcome, our work would lack interest and not be as challenging. However, we all have the capacity to be overwhelmed by work problems and experience the impact of work-related stress on our physical and mental well-being.
Your aim should be to manage stress by becoming aware of how you respond to problems, then make effective changes to your working lifestyle.