Workplace stress is on the rise. Here’s how to manage it and regain your sense of wellbeing at work…
Ever get the ‘Sunday evening blues’? Or struggle to drag yourself out of bed for your morning commute? Or find yourself feeling so overwhelmed at work that you fantasise about running away?
If so, then you are not alone. Workplace stress is normal and even appears to be the increase. For instance, a study published by UK Health & Safety Executive in December 2021 showed that rates of work-related stress, depression or anxiety are rising and have been doing so since even before the pandemic.
In fact, the HSE found that from 2020 to 21, stress, depression or anxiety accounted for a massive 50% of all work-related ill health. And while workers in education, health and social work were particularly affected, the fact is that stress in work can affect anyone in any field at all.
Some of the main stated causes of workplace stress include being under too much pressure, having too many responsibility, working to tight deadlines and lacking support from managers. However, the Coronavirus outbreak has now become a huge added factor in people’s wellbeing, with over 50% of people saying that their workplace stress was either caused or made worse by the effects of the pandemic.
Unfortunately, many of us are encouraged to bury feelings of overwhelm at work. This is because we live in a culture where we are continuously bombarded with messages around having a positive mindset, being a high achiever and going the extra mile. But while these are all good values, they shouldn’t be at the expense of your mental or physical health. So be vigilant to any kind of toxic positivity messaging that implies that you should just ‘put on a happy face’ while feeling overwhelmed.
One of the first steps in managing stress at work is knowing what it is and whether you are actually experiencing it. So let’s look at the definition of stress and some of the signs.
What exactly do we mean when we say that someone is ‘stressed at work’? And how can we spot the signs?
Essentially, stress is your body’s physical reaction to being under pressure. It happens when your fight-flight system switches on to help us cope with a ‘stressor’, which could include anything from dealing with a difficult customer to having to meet a tight deadline.
It is worth noting that a short term bursts of stress — for instance, the lead up to doing a presentation — isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it can keep you motivated and alert. However, longer term, ongoing workplace stress (otherwise known as ‘chronic stress’) is a different thing altogether and can have a real impact on your physical, mental and emotional health. You might even find that your relationships are affected by it and that in severe cases, you experience suicidal thoughts.
How can you know that you are dealing with actual chronic stress at work, rather than temporary overload or another issue altogether? A few key signs include:
— Being less interested in your job in general.
— Being less productive.
— Finding it hard to concentrate or make decisions.
— Withdrawing socially from your colleagues.
— Feeling irritable, restless or anxious.
— Feeling sad, tearful or depressed.
— Getting ill more often and missing more days at work.
— Aches, pains, headaches, chest pains or a racing heart.
— Dizziness or shakiness.
— Sleep troubles or insomnia.
— Loss of appetite.
— Loss of sex drive.
— Self-medicating, for instance consuming more alcohol at home.
However, bear in mind that stress affects different people in every way, so you don’t have to tick all or even most of these boxes to be experiencing it. In fact, any kind of physical, mood or behavioural change that you are going through at work — or even at home — should be paid attention to and not ignored.
Workplace stress can feel totally overwhelming and isolating. Sometimes, it can feel as if there is no way out at all. And if you’re already experiencing a challenge to your mental health such as depression, addiction or an eating disorder, then stress can aggravate this (the same goes for physical health issues too, such as CFS). That is why it’s important to deal with any stressors soon as you can, rather than letting them worsen.
So if you think that you might be experiencing stress at work, then here are a few key ways to tackle it…
1. Work out what’s actually stressing you
For some people, workplace stress can feel like a bit of a nebulous thing. For instance, you know that you feel wound up, overwhelmed and irritable. Yet it might also seem there are a dozen different reasons for this and no real core cause that you can pinpoint. You just know that it all feels like too much most days.
If this is the case, then it might help to put pen to paper and work out what is actually stressing you. Write everything down that you can think of. For instance, is it the hours? The workload? The commute? Your over-talkative colleague or your under-communicative boss?
Try to work out what the root causes of your stress are, the key aggravators in your day and week. Is the threat coming from an external source, for example a deadline, or internally, for example self-critical thoughts or being driven to give everything your all, even non-vital tasks? And once you have identified the main ones, you can start finding a way forward towards managing them.
2. Avoid information overload
One cause of workplace stress can be the information overload many of us experience in our roles. There are various causes of this, including excessive multitasking, getting interrupted by a constant stream of email alerts or being distracted by background hubbub. Plus if you find yourself ‘sandwiched between two screens’ — in other words, flipping between your computer and mobile frequently — then this might be causing you more stress than you even realise.
How you manage mental overload totally depends on your working environment, your role and what’s appropriate. But where possible, try out the following:
— Aim to focus on one task at a time, rather than jumping back and forth between two or more. It might help to set a timer for each task, so that you can give it your focused attention. Also try to avoid having multiple screen tabs open all at once.
— If you find talk and noise distracting, then try listening to music or relaxing nature sounds on headphones. This might be especially helpful if you have sensory processing issues or are on the autism spectrum. It can also help if you experience frequent self-critical or anxious thoughts. And if your workplace frowns upon this, consider getting a note from your GP.
— If your role allows for it, turn off email alerts and instead, schedule in specific times during the day for checking messages. Also, aim to opt out of any email lists or subscriptions that aren’t relevant to you.
— Aim to keep your mobile in your phone or pocket and only check it during breaks. Consider reducing the amount of alerts that show up on your phone as well.
— If you work in an open-plan office and find it a bit overwhelming at times, find out if you can use meeting rooms or breakout spaces for part of the day. Alternatively, ask about hybrid models where you work from home a few days a week.
— If appropriate, set up a signage system on your desk. For instance, if you really need to concentrate on something for a period of time, then a ‘Please do not disturb’ sign will let your colleagues know not to interrupt you. If possible, also turn off online chat and messages systems too. This can be crucial in reducing stress, as according to one study by the University of California Irvine , it can take an average of 23 minutes to regain your concentration after being interrupted at work.
3. Take regular breaks
During the working day, it’s important to give yourself regular breaks from stressors so that you can ease the pressure on your system. A few tips include:
4. Take care of your physical needs
Not paying attention to your body at work can actually aggravate stress.
So try to stay nourished during the day, eating food that energises you and makes you feel good. Make sure to also stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
Take toilet breaks when you need to and open your window for fresh air if that’s possible. Also, make sure that you are sitting in a comfortable position and aren't straining or putting stress on any part of your body (if you’re unsure about this, ask your employer about getting an occupational health assessment).
By taking care of your body, you will have a wider window of tolerance for uncomfortable emotions and will be able to deal with stressors better.
5. Establish healthy boundaries at work
At times, workplace stressors can come from struggling to say ‘no’, set limits or express your feelings, preferences and needs. In other words, they can be deeply rooted in boundary issues.
But what is a boundary, exactly? Put simply, it’s really just a limit that you set in your relationships and then communicate to others. And this can include working relationships with bosses, colleagues, clients and customers. In essence, a boundary is a line that you decide shouldn’t be crossed, whether it is with your time, energy, attention, privacy or even how people speak to you.
Signs that you struggle with boundaries can include finding it hard to refuse work requests, feeling that you don’t have enough hours in the day to complete tasks, or just being overwhelmed or depleted. And while it’s good to want to support colleagues, if you find that you are being treated like a doormat at work or being disrespected by your team, then weak boundaries might be at play.
The good news is that you can learn to get better at setting boundaries in the workplace and the first step is in deciding what yours are. This could include anything from limiting the amount of overtime that you do, to deciding that you are no longer going to take on responsibilities that you aren’t properly trained for. It could also include social boundaries, for instance, deciding that it is no longer acceptable for customers to raise their voice at you.
Next, you need to communicate these boundaries to relevant people, such as managers and supervisors. The best approach is to arrange a meeting where you state your feelings clearly and calmly, then set your boundary. Remember to keep it short and avoid over-explaining (unless asked to).
For instance, ‘Starting from next month, I can no longer work overtime every evening. I could maybe manage one or two evenings a week at the most. Could we talk about how to make my role work effectively without daily overtime?’ Notice how there are no long winded reasons or apologies being offered about why you can’t do overtime — instead, you have simply stated a limit.
Don’t be surprised if the first time you set a boundary you feel guilty, embarrassed or panicked. Uncomfortable emotions are a totally normal response, especially when you’re not used to it. But with practice you will get better at it, until asserting yourself feels more natural. And as a result, your working life will hopefully feel more manageable.
In the words of Nedra Glover Tawwab, author of Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself. ‘We can’t create more time, but we can do less, delegate, or ask for help.’
6. Talk to a therapist
Sometimes, workplace stress can be rooted in deeper issues related to our childhood, personal relationships and self-esteem.
For instance, if you were abused, abandoned or neglected as a child, then you might find the workplace challenging for various different reasons. Adverse Childhood Experiences and trauma can make working relationships feel like a minefield, as you might find yourself unconsciously replaying old, painful experiences with colleagues. One example would be growing up with a controlling or critical parent and then finding yourself stuck in a pattern of having controlling or critical bosses. Another might be being bullied at school, then finding yourself being bullied or shunned in the workplace as an adult.
Also, people who had to care for a parent while young — perhaps because that parent had a disability, mental health issue or addiction — might find themselves in a pattern of being a people pleaser in adulthood. Unfortunately this trait can often be exploited in the workplace, for instance by bosses who use guilt tripping to get you to take on extra work, or colleagues who don’t pull their weight and leave tasks to you.
Whatever the reasons for your workplace stress — and maybe you’re not quite sure what they are yet — talking to a therapist can help a lot. An expert therapist can help you to get to the bottom of problems you might be having at work, for instance, by identifying any root causes in childhood or unhelpful thinking patterns that might be causing them. They can also support you with any personal issues that might be adding to your workplace stress, such as depression, anxiety, anger, addiction or relationship challenges.
Within the safe and supportive setting of a therapy session, you can practise expressing your feelings clearly and without apology. You can also begin defining what your boundaries are, while also exploring any fears around setting them. And depending on the type of therapy you choose, you might also be encouraged to try out workplace roleplay situations. This could involve your therapist taking on the role of a boss or colleague while you practise expressing yourself to them and vice versa. Approaches like Schema Therapy and Cognitive Analytic Therapy (CAT) in particular encourage you to reflect on the modes you’re in at work and the different roles you take, as well as trying out different ways of being.
Also, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a great approach for exploring any underlying thinking or behavioural patterns that could be causing you stress. CBT is also useful for learning alternative strategies for managing stress, as are Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Compassion-Focused Therapy (CFT) and Mindfulness, as they all help you learn how to relate differently to stressors. And if you find it hard to regulate your emotions and maintain stable relationships in jobs (which can cause stress in themselves), then Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) might help you to cope with things more effectively.
Alternatively, Psychodynamic Therapy can help you explore any unconscious pains and fears that you’re bringing into your working life, so that you are more consciously aware of patterns you’re repeating. It can also help you to make sense of any strong emotions you’re feeling towards colleagues or tasks (for instance, you may be projecting feelings onto them that originate elsewhere). Or if you want to work through specific (perhaps painful) memories that are affecting your experience at work, then why not try EMDR?
Finally, if you work long hours or have a changeable schedule, then online therapy or live chat sessions could be an excellent option.
7. Consider moving on
The truth is that some working environments are simply unhealthy. If this is the case with your job, then it is not your fault. And while the above tips can definitely help you with managing the situation effectively, there is absolutely no shame in admitting that you might be in the wrong place for you. Your wellbeing is crucial and you have a right to protect it.
Even if your workplace isn’t actually harmful, you still might not be in the right position or place for you and again, that is totally okay. Either way, deciding to move on is a big step, so take all the time you need to think things through carefully. If you do decide to leave, aim to come up with a smart exit plan that won’t harm your finances, future references or career. Instead, reflect on what you really want, what would make you happier and what changes you want to introduce to your working life.
Maybe it’s time for more of a hybrid model of balancing home-based work with office work? Maybe you need a position with less pressure (or alternatively, one that stretches and stimulates you more?). Or maybe you want to go freelance or even start a new career altogether? Whatever you decide, try to see it as an opportunity to shape the happy, fulfilling and rewarding working life that you deserve. Also, bear in mind that a single-session therapy appointment could help you to find clarity in a focused and guided way.
The truth is that you deserve to feel safe, supported and fulfilled at work. If you are not feeling this way — or are experiencing stress, anxiety or depression – then it’s really important to take steps to care for your wellbeing.
So if you are feeling overwhelmed in your job, then start taking steps to change that, whether it’s a five-minute meditation at your desk or an entire career change. Most importantly, don’t feel afraid to reach out for support, whether that’s within the workplace or with a caring therapist.
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