Your guide to work-related stress and how to handle it

With work-related stress on the increase, it’s important to keep yourself protected by knowing the warning signs. Follow the tips below to minimise your stress in the workplace, maximise your wellness and productivity.

When is stress too much?

A little bit of what we like is good for us, so they say.  Small amounts of perceived stress or pressure can be motivating. It keeps us focussed and invigorated, leading to self-fulfilment and pride in a job well-done.

But in an ever-changing world, demands to work at your best constantly can lead to an emotional roller coaster as long hours, tight deadlines and heavy workloads leave you drained and overwhelmed.

Increasingly for some, the blues come every morning: a tight knot of anxiety and dread that no amount of comfort food could mean it’s time to take action.

Typical symptoms of work-related stress include:

  • Palpitations
  • A dry mouth
  • Headaches and general aches and pains
  • Social withdrawal
  • Apathy, loss of interest in work
  • Fatigue
  • Problems sleeping
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Using drink or drugs

Work-related stress accounts for 40% of all work-related illnesses and is a bigger concern for the workplace than you might think.

Stress leads to damaged productivity and profitability for a company. This highlights the need for companies – and individuals – to know the warning signs and have strategies in place to protect workers from stressful situations which lead to long-term illness.

This cloud does have a silver lining. Employers have a duty of care to protect workers from stress under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. Interestingly, they are also required to conduct risk assessments for work-related stress. If you’re feeling the pressure at work, there should be an colleague or officer available to provide you with the support you need to deal with the stress you are experiencing.

What causes work-related stress?

It’s worth noting that stress in the workplace can increase as you move further up the career ladder, perhaps due to the increase in expectation and responsibility.

Stress in the workplace is generally, but not exclusively, caused by the following issues:

  • Work pressure
  • Lack of support from managers
  • Overtime due to staff cutbacks
  • Lack of control over how your work is performed
  • Bullying and work-related violence
  • A fear of being laid off due to under-performance
  • Promotion pressure

Stress is cause for concern because it can lead to unhealthy behaviours, such as smoking or increased drinking. The challenge here is admitting that the stress exists and then stating the reason why.

In highly pressurised jobs like sales where steep targets, OTE, intimidation and loss of money are rife, stress can be common.

So if you’re experiencing work-related stress, what can you do about it?

7 ways to handle and address stress in the workplace

It’s important to remember you can’t control everything in your work environment, but that doesn’t mean you are powerless.

Whatever your ambitions or work demands, there are steps that you can take that can reduce the damaging effects of stress, as well as bolster your wellbeing and that of others who work for you.

1. Know your limits

Knowing your limits is very important and knowing the limits of those working for you is just as important.

It’s a great feeling helping out a colleague when they need a hand. But taking on more work as you could end up being completely unproductive which causes you to burnout.

Remember that it’s okay to say no, especially if it’s going to stop your completing your own workload and leave you stressed out.

To avoid seeming belligerent, politely state the reasons why you can’t take on the extra workload right now. Be ready to enter discussions about when you might be able to perform additional tasks or offer other solutions.

Calculate how much time you have in the workday to see how much capacity you have to take on extra tasks. This will make you look organised and prevent a detrimental effect on you.

Also, try to avoid back-to-back meetings or appointments and if you do have too much on your plate, prioritise what is a ‘must’ first and deal with anything that isn’t a high-priority later on.

2. Talk to others

Opening up the lines of communication with others at work can relieve inordinate amounts of stress and reduces the damage to your health.

Having friends you trust at work you can discuss issues with, will buffer you from any negative influences.  They’re also great for creating humour which lightens the mood and you get to share similar experiences.

Building a rapport with them and co-workers will also reduce everyday stress through the pleasure gained by helping others just by listening to them.

However daunting it may seem, speaking to bosses about issues is a good all-rounder as they’re keen to keep you happy. After all, happy employees equal increased productivity. Just remember to be diplomatic about any problems so it doesn’t look like you are simply whinging about the company.

If you don’t feel like there are any colleagues you can talk to, turn to family and friends who can provide objective advice and a strong network of support in managing stress.

If you feel you need more professional support, speak to a GP.

The British Heart Foundation also has some helpful tips about staying healthy at work. The HSE help anyone dealing with Human Resources, trade unions, line managers and anyone responsible for stress in the workplace.

3. Prioritise your workload

Knowing what your work schedule for the day is will eradicate the uncertainty that leads to feeling insecure at work.  It will also help you prioritise what is most important and what can be done later in the week so your boundary between work and home balance is also more secure.

By having a to-do list, you will enjoy tasks more because you can tick off each one as they are completed, giving you a sense of achievement. You will then worry less about things that are too far ahead. With a manageable, realistic task list, you’re likely to experience less stress.

4. Take regular breaks

Regular breaks are so important to help us recharge our batteries. Time spent away from work helps us refocus on other things in our lives. Therefore, if you can, escape from the building for a while for some headspace.

If you’re able to, take a quick walk during a lunch break to relieve nervous tension. This will release endorphins to improve your mood and help you relieve the excess energy built up from periods of stress.

During this time of disconnection from work, avoid using your phone or surfing the web or you could end up just feeling guilty about what you could be accomplishing. Remember, by law you are entitled to a fifteen minute break every four hours.

5. Get a good night’s sleep

A minimum of eight hours sleep is recommend per night so make sure you’re getting plenty of it. It’s easy to get into a vicious cycle of being stressed, leading to over-thinking at night, leading to sleep deprivation, which leads to more to stress.

To help you let go of your stresses before bed, try reading or meditation to clear your head.

Screens actually suppress your production of melatonin and disrupt your sleep further so turn off your TV an hour or so before bed. If your sleep is interrupted, it will affect your day time productivity and stymie your ability to cope with stress at work.

If you’re a shift worker, using masks, blackout curtains and ear plugs can help you with shutting out light during day light hours. It’s also recommended using sunglasses to travel home to adjust your body and trick it into thinking it is darker than it is, helping you prepare for sleep.

6. Diet and exercise

Stress can cause you to neglect your physical health, but eating right and exercising can make you more resilient to stress.

Aerobic and rhythmic exercise is best to help you build up a sweat and sooth the body, sharpening your focus and uplifting your mood. 30 minutes a day is best but this can be broken down if your schedule is hectic.

Low sugar, low-carb foods are best for slow release energy that will help you cope with stress.

Keeping your blood sugar levels even will prevent irritability when it drops and lethargy when it’s too high. High sugar foods like crisps, chocolate or fries, will increase your energy temporarily before creating a mood crash which interferes in your ability to deal with stressful situations.

Boost your body with fatty fish, nuts and fruit and avoid caffeine, preservatives and alcohol.

7. Relax

Take time to unplug from work and focus on calming influences. Listen to soft music, relax with your family, or indulge in a hobby.

Whatever you do, keep time to stay away from your phone. Checking emails or researching topics will only get you focussed on work again and make you worry about issues that you can’t deal with away from work.

Schedule times away from the office where you’re not focussed on communications and completely switched off from a working mindset.

About the author: Liz Hoyle graduated the University of Huddersfield in 2005 and taught English for 10 years in the UK and Africa. In 2014, she re-trained as a copywriter and has volunteered with various organisations regarding conservation issues around the world. Whilst still teaching part-time she is now volunteering for a digital marketing agency in Manchester and writes blogs about current threats to wildlife.


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