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Stress in the workplace

Stress is an important evolutionary trait, essential for our survival. It can also be helpful and a positive response to help motivate us, maximise our productivity and improve our performance. However, it can be extremely debilitating in the wrong circumstances…

The primary sources of stress in the work place are:

  • Demands (workload)

  • Control (unable to follow one’s own methodology)

  • Lack of support

  • Conflict with colleagues

  • Changing roles and organisational change

When stress has got the better of us, it can hijack many aspects of our lives; be it work, relationships, our sex life, eating patterns and sleeping habits. It can be all-consuming, and over time, could lead to a generalised anxiety disorder, or inadvertently trigger depression.

Stress can present itself mentally and physically. Symptoms can include anxiety, irritability, irrational behaviour and low self-esteem. Excessive sweating, palpitations, breathlessness, dizziness, muscle pains and headaches can all be associated with stress, too. It is the body’s response to an overproduction of adrenaline. This is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response, which was useful for our ancestors but mostly prohibitive to us in modern day settings.

To avoid slipping into these damaging behaviours, there are several habits we can incorporate into our lives to reset the balance:

  • Exercise regularly. Aim to break a sweat or feel breathless for 20-30 minutes, at least 3 times a week. This is often easiest with a home exercise bike, but if you enjoy running, team sports or going to the gym, then try to fit this into your busy schedule.

  • You are what you eat, and nutrition is hugely important. Diets high in carbohydrates and sugars can upset your body’s hormonal equilibrium, directly affecting your energy levels and mood. Aim for a diet based on ‘GI index’ or seek help from a qualified dietitian or nutritionist.

  • Drink alcohol in moderation, avoid caffeine and steer clear of nicotine. Nicotine and caffeine are stimulants and can lead to higher levels of anxiety.

  • Relaxation techniques, such as mindfulness and meditation, are extremely helpful in preserving mental balance and setting you up for the day ahead.

  • Try to manage your daily schedule and pressures at work. Try to identify and root out any looming problems before they hatch.

In the work setting, it may be helpful to regain control by re-organising and restructuring your approach:

1. Prioritise and organise, list and rank – do the worst task first. Break up large overwhelming projects into bite-size pieces. 2. Balance your schedule. Take responsibility to improve your physical & mental well-being, and try adjusting your work-life balance. 3. Arrange regular short breaks through the day. Just to step away from your work environment for a few minutes. 4. Leave 15 minutes earlier in the morning. It will give you the space to map out your day.

Difficult situations at work are not always easy to change and it may be better to recognise and accept these, but to look at other aspects of your job that you can change. Make small realistic changes in the work place, which will eventually lead to a larger change over time.

Communication and relationship handling between colleagues is incredibly important, to help to inspire and influence people but also to avoid getting into personal disputes. If things really are proving impossible, it may be worth finding a different role or job in your area of expertise or even looking at other avenues.

If you get the chance, try a self-assessment tool to see if you have significant stress (AIS Workplace Stress Survey), anxiety (GAD-7) or depression (PHQ-9). All of which are all available online.If you are feeling that things are spinning out of control, it would be worth speaking to your doctor, a therapist or Occupational Health advisor (either at work or independently). There are several treatments for stress, anxiety and depression. This can be discussed with your doctor, but commonly used techniques are Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and mindfulness. In resistant or more severe cases, medication may be an option.

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