How to deal with stress at work

Note to Self:
I don’t have to take this day
all at once, but rather, one step,
one breath, one moment at a time.
I am only one person. Things will
get done when they get done

Do not underestimate stress. It can creep up on you, especially at work. It crept up on me, and I didn’t know how to deal with it. But with the support of my colleagues, I was able to make changes at work and outside of work that helped me get back on track. Stress never goes away completely, but there are practical steps you can take to help deal with it in better ways.

In this article, I’m going to talk about the causes of workplace stress and offer some ways of managing and coping with stress at work. But you don’t have to read to the bottom to get my top tip, it’s right here:

If you or a colleague have been affected by stress, anxiety or depression the most important thing you can do is to find a channel to talk about it. Acknowledging the issue is a big step towards managing it. It allows you to recognise changes in your behaviour without feeling the need to be secretive or defensive. And it lets you and your colleagues work together to find ways to combat workplace stress.

Sometimes people feel like they can’t talk about stress. They feel they’d be “showing weakness”, “letting the side down” or “giving people a bad impression”. If you feel this way, all I can say is that every response I have had to talking about stress, anxiety or depression has been overwhelmingly positive. It helped. Everyone has a story about struggling with issues like this, whether it’s their own struggle or that of a friend or loved one. The strongest, most forceful personalities I have had the pleasure of working with have endured this struggle, as have the kindest, the most professional, and the smartest.

Stress, anxiety and depression often express themselves as changes in behaviour. This might be at work or at home. Do you think your behaviour changed due to stress? If so, I hope that some of this article speaks to you, and gives you some tips on how to proceed.

What causes stress at work?

Work is often stressful. Why? Because a lot depends on it. Your career, your paycheck and many of your personal relationships depend on work. So we naturally find anything that could jeopardise any or all of these things a scary prospect. But stress makes people think differently, and usually not for the better. Fears magnify, and things which are not in themselves that bad can cause adverse reactions if you are already suffering from stress.

When you are stressed things seem worse than they are, fears mount atop one another and compound, making you even more stressed. It’s important (but difficult!) to break the cycle of overthinking that stress can cause, to realise what’s important and what can wait.

De-stressing and thinking clearly and without worry can be difficult to achieve when you’re stressed. First, we’re going to go through some common causes of stress and then look at several different ways of managing it. Even just ‘taking the edge off’ stress can help, giving you breathing space to do good work and make good decisions.

Identifying what’s causing you stress is a good first step to take to deal with it.

1. Pressure

Pressure at work is one of the leading causes of stress. Whether it’s having to meet a tight deadline, or feeling that you have to do something but don’t know how to do it, pressure waxes and wanes across most businesses. In this sense, it’s hard to avoid completely. A certain amount of pressure can be good. Exam deadlines have turned many lazy students into prodigiously productive writers. But while a bit of pressure can create positive results, constant or intense pressure can be very stressful. This is especially true if you don’t know how to handle the situation, if there are no right answers, or you feel you lack the knowledge or skills to complete a task. In these cases, it’s important that your colleagues know how you are feeling, you don’t want even more pressure!

2. Conflict

Why can’t everyone just see things your way? Unfortunately, that’s what everybody’s thinking. Abrasive colleagues or dictatorial managers can be the cause of a lot of stress! Everyone comes to work with a different set of ideas, preconceptions and behaviours learned at home and in the workplace. This can create great teams that work well together and enjoy each other’s company… but not always. Where there’s conflict in the workplace, try to understand the other person’s position. If they feel strongly about an issue they probably have a good reason for that – and if not a shouting match isn’t going to lower their stress levels, or yours!

3. Bullying

Talk to someone. Bullying is childish and unacceptable, but regrettably, bullies don’t always recognise what they are doing. “Just having a laugh” is a narrow line to cross, and probably not a line anyone should be anywhere near in a work situation. Bullying isn’t always schoolyard name calling, it can be physical and it can be emotional. In all of these cases, it’s serious and you should speak to someone in authority about it, or if this is not possible, let the bully know the reality of their behaviour. Few people want to hurt others or know the damage they do. But if bullying is serious, especially if it is physical in nature, it can be grounds for dismissal.

4. Constant change

Change can be exhilarating – a fresh slate and all that. But if you’re rushed off your feet, or constantly chasing after the latest rules, designs, hours or protocols of your workplace, it’s not going to help stress-wise. One of the biggest contributing factors to stress is not knowing what to do, or how to do it. Constant change in your work environment means there is less to rely on, and you may find yourself exhausted by always being on ‘high-alert’, waiting for the next fire that you’ll have to fight.

5. Job security

This is similar to the problems arising from constant change above but on a bigger scale. If you’re worried about losing your job, it’s going to prey on your mind. It’s likely that if you’re worried about being dismissed you have other concerns at work too, and addressing these could help your job security worries. Check your employer’s policies around sick leave, maternity leave and dismissal – it may be you are worrying too much! Dealing with stress at work while pregnant is the last thing you want, so be sure you know where you stand with your employer. We often worry more about unknown things than certainties – checking company policies and talking to your manager about your job will at least remove uncertainty from the stress equation.

Stress at work statistics

Stress accounts for 37% of work-related ill health and 45% of workdays lost due to ill health.

From these stats alone, it should be clear to any employer or manager how serious stress can be. And for those of us who have suffered it, know that you are not alone. This is perhaps cold comfort – for it does mean many others are suffering from similar conditions – but the prevalence of stress in the workplace means it is a problem that businesses need to take seriously.

More statistics are available here:

Managing stress at work

So, we’ve talked about the bad bits. A lot of these issues can be serious, in which case they need to be addressed through management/HR at your workplace, or through seeking outside help. But there are several ways you can help to manage your own stress levels, as well as talking to others about the problem.

Now let’s look at some ways to help your general stress levels and mood while at work. When I was stressed at work I found a lot of these helped me. It’s easy to slide into less than helpful behaviours when you’re stressed. Some of these things you can fix easily and can help you get back on top of things in time.

1. Food

The first 3 points in this list are groundwork. Food is number 1, and hopefully one of the easiest things to accomplish.

Eat enough and drink enough. Don’t binge on sugary snacks. And tidy your room while you’re at it. I know you’re not a child anymore, but when we’re stressed we all too often forget to do the simple things that matter. If you’re in the habit of skipping lunch, drinking 10 coffees before noon and boosting your flagging energy levels with chocolate, this may (sorry!) not be helping your stress levels.

Foods like beetroot can reduce high blood pressure, as will cutting down on salty foods. Drinking water, eating vegetables and keeping regular mealtimes will all help you get into a good, healthy routine, which will help your stress levels in the long term.

2. Exercise

In the winter months, I tend to exercise a lot less than in the summer and as a result, I often feel worse. Now you might be thinking – exercise is really tiring – won’t being tired from exercise just make me even more stressed and unable to carry on with my day? Well, I can’t deny it’ll wear you out a bit, but the perverse thing about exercise is that it actually does make you feel better.

Exercise releases chemicals in the brain that actually do relieve stress, and make you feel more positive. I’m not saying that going for a run at lunchtime is going to magically drain away all of your stress, but it does help. If you feel like you’re fighting your body to get out from under a cloud of stress, exercise will help. It addresses the mental problem of stress at its physical root – your brain. Even if you just go out for a 5-minute walk, something is better than nothing.

3. Sleep

Sometimes easier said than done, but consistently sleeping well is another natural way to reduce your stress levels. The amount of sleep we need differs from person to person. I need 8 hours sleep to feel well rested. Just getting one good night’s sleep won’t sort you out though! Like the changing the food we eat, adjusting to a new sleep cycle takes time to have a positive effect.

Try to get two weeks of 8 hours sleep a night (or whatever you personally need) and you should notice a difference. A word of warning, you can sleep too much as well! Take some time to understand what works best for you.

4. Schedule your tasks methodically

Finding ways to manage your workload and effectively prioritise tasks can be a great stress reliever. And it’s not as hard as it appears – there are lots of tools and apps out there to help. If you prefer a low-tech option, simply writing down what you have to do in a notebook or on post-it notes and assigning priorities to them can be a great help – sizing up your workload and revealing the order you need to do things in (it will also give you added satisfaction when completing tasks!).

Online tools and phone apps can help you and your colleagues manage things in similar ways. I don’t like to recommend things I haven’t used, but I have found Trello particularly useful light-weight task management tools. Give them a go, they’re free.

5. Take breaks

Taking a break from a task or situation will let you come back and see it in a new light. You also need time to recharge your batteries, even if it’s just for a few minutes. When I was feeling stressed I looked for free meditation classes I could attend in the evenings. This gave me something positive and calming to focus on in the moments of free time I had while at work. Again, lots of books, websites and apps can provide similar tools.

Taking a break could just be chatting with co-workers, phoning a friend or family member, going for a walk, meditating, reading or listening to a book. Whatever you prefer to de-stress.

6. Seek help

Finally, if you are finding stressful working conditions hard to bear, or if stress from outside work is affecting your life at work, do not hesitate to seek help. There are people who will help you, who will not judge you and who are trained to help. Even if they can just help you a little, it could be enough to set you on the right track and help you lead a better stress-free life at work.

If you feel any of these issues are affecting you and you want someone to talk to there are lots of places out there where you can find information and talk to real people. Just speaking about the pressure or stress you have been under can help you feel better.

If you want to talk to someone about any kind of disturbing thoughts or changes in behaviour call Samaritans by dialling 116 123. You can find out more information about Samaritans here.

Your doctor will also be aware of free local services that can help you in the UK.

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