7 top-tips to deal with work-related stress

Stressed at work? Here’s how to cope and thrive.

The increase in work-related stress around the world affects not only the health and wellbeing of employees, but also the productivity of organisations. According to research by YouGov, half of workers in Britain (52%) say they feel stressed at work.

So, why do we stress at work?

In essence, stress can be the result of work demands that exceed a person’s capability to cope. Factors ranging from long hours, to heavy workloads or tight deadlines, to poor relationships with colleagues, an inadequate working environment or changes within the organisation, can all give rise to work-related stress.

It might manifest itself in physical symptoms like fatigue, headaches, sleeping difficulties and stomach upsets. Psychological symptoms include depression, anxiety, irritability, feelings of being overwhelmed and even cognitive difficulties, such as a reduced ability to concentrate or make decisions. Our behaviour is likely to change too: we might notice a drop in our work performance, the need for more sick days, problems with interpersonal relationships or mood swings.

However, it’s important to remember; stress is highly personal and not always negative. What one person may perceive as stressful; another may view as a positive challenge. Stress can sometimes drive us to succeed and give us a false sense of meaning. In fact, Dr. Heidi Hanna from the American Institute of Stress reminds us that conversations often seem to revolve around competition of who’s more stressed: “How are you?” “Stressed.” “Me too.” And then each party goes on to explain why they’re so stressed, with the worst off winning in our backwards way of thinking.” But, as she points out: “Stress can be as addictive as drugs.”

Stress releases the ‘feel good’ chemical dopamine, which encourages repeat behaviours by activating the reward centre in our brain (and may be the chemical to blame for many addictive behaviours).

So, whether you’re someone who thrives on stress or loathes it, the real problem is the impact of a stress-filled life on you in the long-term: stress can lead to a multitude of both physical and mental health problems.

If you suffer from work-related stress, here are a few ways you can find help or help yourself:

7 top-tips to deal with work-related stress

1. Identify your triggers

Monitor your stress. What makes you feel angry, tense, worried or irritable?

Stress triggers will look different for everyone depending on your work environment, role, and your personal stress response. For one person it could be not having the right tools or training to complete your tasks, or an excessive workload. For another person it might be a lack of support from management or toxic colleagues. When you’ve figured out your stress triggers, practice setting boundaries and plan ahead for inevitable times of stress.

2. Practice setting boundaries

In a world of remote and hybrid work, the blurred lines between our personal and professional life make it harder than ever to avoid stress. Try to manage and negotiate expectations, for example with co-workers who ask you to take on additional projects. Identify your priorities, and then focus on the tasks that will help you get there.

Learning to say ‘no’ when needed is another powerful skill that empowers you to enforce your boundaries and keep your primary goals a priority. And, whatever you do, don’t skip breaks. Breaks give you time to recover from work-related stress and boost your performance and energy.

3. Talk to someone you trust

Many workplaces have Mental Health First Aiders among their staff, who are there to listen in confidentiality and without judging. They can help guide you to further support – whether through self-help resources, internal support such as Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP), or external sources, for instance your GP.

Confiding in someone you trust can help. The idea is not for the other person to offer a ‘fix’ or solve your problems, rather, by discussing your worries in a safe place, you can gain objectivity, identify possible solutions for yourself, or simply ‘get things off your chest’.

4. Get organised

Make sure you’re well organised. List your tasks in order of priority and schedule the most difficult tasks for times when you feel most productive, such as first thing in the morning.

5. Don’t forget the basics

During stress, it can be easy to forget the basic stuff, like eating, sleeping and even breathing properly – yes, although it’s perfectly natural to respond to anxiety with rapid and shallow over-breathing, this can set off a cascade of physical changes in the body that exacerbates stress.  A balanced diet and regular exercise can go a long way to stave off the worst symptoms.

Avoid excessive drinking and smoking. Drugs such as alcohol and tobacco won’t alleviate stress. Instead, they can cause additional health problems.

6. Make time for relaxation

Making time for relaxation is not an easy task when we have a seemingly never-ending to-do list at the back of our minds. However, with practice it is possible to train our brain to become comfortable with stillness. Try techniques that balance out stress hormones, such as mindfulness, yoga or meditation.

7. Remember that work-related stress is also a management issue

For employers, it’s important to recognise work-related stress as a health and safety issue. A company should take steps to ensure that employees are not subjected to unnecessary stress. As an employee, make sure you speak to your line manager and make them aware if you are starting to feel overburdened by stress at work. You can then discuss together how to best tackle the issue.

Learning to handle stress isn’t easy, but the more coping skills you develop, the more resilient you’ll become. For more tips on how to manage work stress, visit Mind’s website.

If work-related stress continues to be a problem despite your efforts, you may need to seek support from a counsellor or psychotherapist.

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