What is workplace stress?
The World Health Organisation defines work-related stress as ‘the response people may have when presented with work demands and pressures that are not matched to their knowledge and abilities and which challenge their ability to cope’.
When individuals do not feel they have the right resources - be those physical, financial, emotional or psychological - to cope with the demands that are being made towards them in the workplace over an extended period of time, this can lead to work-related stress and burnout.
The key to defining work-related stress is the time period; whilst we may all experience stressful days, workplace stress refers specifically to excessive and sustained work pressure which can leave individuals feeling rundown and unable to enjoy life. The impact of stress over an extended period can have extremely negative consequences for a person’s mental health and could increase the likelihood of them developing more complex mental health problems, like anxiety or depression.
Factors contributing to work-related stress
A number of factors have been found to contribute to work related stress, but here are a few of the most common:
- Presenteeism - coming to work even when you are unwell. According to a recent survey by CIPD, the pandemic has made presenteeism even more prevalent, particularly for employees who are working remotely;
- Isolation from colleagues;
- Increased screen time and less movement.
How can I tell if I’m stressed at work?
The key indicators that you may be stressed at work are changes over time, including in your behaviour, performance and physical appearance.
Behaviour changes might include:
- Increased conflict with colleagues;
- Heightened emotions and sensitivity;
- Absenteeism (being off work with no good reason);
- Presenteeism (being at work too much, even if unproductive);
- Difficulty relaxing;
- Increased drug/alcohol use;
- Lack of motivation.
Performance changes might include:
- Declining or inconsistent quality of work;
- Uncharacteristic errors;
- Memory lapses.
Physical changes might include:
- Excessive weight gain or loss;
- Disrupted sleep pattern/ insomnia.
If you notice changes in any of these areas over time, it may be helpful to talk to your manager who might be able to share their own observations, and/or to make some suggestions for what might be helpful.
Steps to reducing stress at work
The first step to reducing stress in the workplace is to notice that you are struggling. Once you have identified the problem, it is worth clarifying for yourself what, specifically, is causing you to feel stressed at work. An effective way of doing this is to write down any things that you have found stressful during a working week, how they made you feel and how you reacted. Once you have acknowledged how you are feeling, you will be in a much better position to ask for help and to begin implementing any relevant changes.
Seeking support from work
Where possible, it is always worth sharing how you are feeling with your manager (if they don’t bring it up with you first). It might be that simple changes can make a significant difference in making your day-to-day work life more manageable. Your manager will also be able to advise you on what work-based support might be available to you (e.g. employee assistance programmes, private medical insurance, flexible working options).
Things you can do yourself
- Re-evaluate negative thoughts
If you have experienced stress for an extended period, it is more likely that your mind may view situations through a darkened lens and quickly jump to negative conclusions. Tuning into these negative automatic thoughts and implementing techniques to challenge them can be a really helpful way of dealing with stress. Therapy can be a helpful way of working through this alongside someone else.
- Get active
Research suggests that physical activity improves the way our body learns to handle stress, by changing our hormonal responses over time. Physical activity has also been shown to impact on the production of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, which affect our mood. Physical activity can also mimic the physiological impacts of stress (increased heart, perspiration and respiration rates, increased energy production, and improved sensory acuity), which is helpful in exposing us to these sensations in a different context, which can help us to reappraise our experience of them.
- Spend time in nature
Spending time in nature has been shown to have rapid positive effects on our wellbeing. It has been linked to a reduction in cortisol (the primary stress hormone) and an increase in endorphin levels which promote happiness.
- Practice mindfulness
The practice of mindfulness helps us to develop more control over our awareness, meaning that we can better identify and sit with our internal states, and be curious about them. This is helpful when we are feeling overwhelmed and stressed, as it allows us to sit with the feeling rather than reacting to it. Research has found that mindfulness can significantly change our brain structure, and influence brain activity in regions that are associated with emotion regulation, attention, planning and decision making.
- Develop hobbies
Hobbies are helpful in reducing stress levels by encouraging us to take some time away from our busy lives to focus on something else. When we are stressed the world around us can become quite small, and hobbies can help to make our worlds feel a bit bigger. Hobbies can also help us connect with others, allowing us to benefit from the stress-relieving effect of social support. Scheduling hobbies can be a fantastic way of ensuring that you actually make time to do things that you enjoy.
Written by Dr Shiri Gurvitz, Senior Counselling Psychologist at Psych Health, a Health Partners Company.