Dr Andrew Beck, our Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Director of Mental Health at We Are Wellbeing, discusses stress at work and how to manage it.
Managing stress in the workplace
Stress at work is something that most of us experience at some time. Though this is a term we all use a lot, I want to start by saying what stress means in this context.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) define it as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them‘; I think this is a really good place to start because it helps us distinguish stress from pressure. Both stress and pressure at work come about when a lot is expected of us at work but what pressure does is it activates our resources and enables us to work better and more effectively for a time, to meet deadlines for example or complete an especially complicated task. This activation of our resources is useful and for many people is part of what makes a job satisfying. It can lead to thoughts like ‘I did well there’ or ‘I am proud of how I coped with that challenge’.
Stress is different though, it comes about when we are asked to do more than we could possibly be expected to do for extended periods of time. It leads to an activation of our fight or flight system meaning that we are adrenal for extended periods in our working day.
Stress is usually linked to thoughts like ‘I can’t cope with this’, ‘I am overwhelmed by the demands of my job’ or ‘Everything is going wrong and it is my fault’. In the short term this can lead to stomach or head aches, muscle tension, a noticeable increase in our heart rate and excessive sweating, trembling or exhaustion once the adrenalin has worn off. None of these are an immediate danger to us but experiencing stress for extended periods of time can lead to an increased risk for many physical and mental health problems, as well as burnout and a reduced ability to be as good a parent, partner, family member or friend.
What can be done to help stress in the workplace
There is a lot that line managers and senior staff in organisations can do to reduce the impact of stress in the workplace. These organisational changes are often quite modest but can have considerable positive impact on staff sickness levels, productivity and general wellbeing in the workplace.
There is also a lot that individuals can do to manage times of stress. The first and most important thing is recognising the key symptoms of stress and letting people important to them know about it. This is important as it gives colleagues and managers a chance to reduce stressors where possible and also lets family members and loved ones know that there is a reason for any changes in behaviours they might have noticed and that they might need to give a little more support than usual for a short time. If the causes of the stress can’t be reduced in the short and medium term then the person experiencing the stress might need to increase their self-care to manage the difficult time ahead.
All of us have different ways of looking after ourselves when we need it but one of the difficulties of chronic stress is that it ends up getting in the way of us doing the things that are good for us and make it more likely that we do more of the things that aren’t good for us at all.
For example, I know that a balanced diet, moderate or no alcohol and exercise are things that get me through a tough time but stress and exhaustion make it more likely that I will eat badly, skip going for a run and drink more than is healthy.
How to reduce stress at work
If you find yourself stressed at work the first thing to do is talk to colleagues and try to reduce the causes of the stress but then work out a plan for how you can help yourself make the changes you need to make.
It is hard to keep to changes, so to give yourself the best possible chance of making them; keep them simple, set a time frame for doing them in and let a few people know that you are going to make those changes.
If these things don’t help and you are worried about your physical and emotional health then it is likely to be a good time to talk to your GP or Occupational Health team.