Work-related stress can cause psychological, emotional, physical and behavioural problems. Because everyone reacts to stress in different ways, depending on your personality and how you respond to pressure, symptoms may vary.
Some common psychological symptoms include:
- feeling that you can't cope
- being unable to concentrate
- lacking confidence
- a loss of motivation and commitment
- feeling disappointed with yourself
You might also have emotional symptoms, such as:
- negative or depressive feelings
- increased emotional reactions (for example, you’re more tearful or sensitive)
- irritability or having a short temper
- feeling overwhelmed
- mood swings
You may also get physical symptoms, including:
- diarrhoea or constipation
- aches and pains
- indigestion and nausea
- weight changes
- chest pains or tightness in your chest
Your behaviour might also change and may include:
- eating more or less than usual
- sleeping too much or too little
- isolating yourself from others
- drinking alcohol, smoking or taking illegal drugs to relax
These symptoms and signs may be caused by problems other than work-related stress. If you do have any of these and they are troublesome or persistent, speak to your GP for advice.
How do you know if you have work-related stress?
If you have work-related stress, you may find that as well as having some or all of the symptoms listed above, you:
- often rush to get things done
- try to be in too many places at once
- don’t take breaks or miss lunch
- take work home
- don't have enough time for exercise or relaxation
- spend less time with your family
- don’t take your full holiday entitlement
- work longer hours
To be able to tackle work-related stress, it’s important to recognise the symptoms or any changes in your behaviour. The sooner you realise that it’s causing you problems, the sooner you can take action to make things better.
Some days will be more stressful than others so it’s important not to overreact to small changes in your behaviour. However, if you feel stressed over a long period of time or any changes in your behaviour continue, you should seek help.
Don't be afraid to ask your GP or your company’s occupational health service for help or advice if you’re feeling stressed because of work. You may have a human resources department at work that can help too.
Your GP will usually be able to recognise the symptoms of stress and give you advice about how to deal with it. Your GP may also suggest speaking to a counsellor if he or she thinks it will help.
There are a number of ways to reduce the negative impact of work-related stress. Most of them involve changing the way you work and your working environment. Sometimes this will involve informal discussions with colleagues or managers. It may also involve using grievance, bullying or harassment procedures. There are no medical cures for work related stress. Your GP may recommend other options, such as counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help you cope better.
Try to recognise what’s making you feel stressed at work and what helps you work better. It’s often helpful to discuss any issues you have with your colleagues or manager. There are also several things you can do to help yourself.
- Make your working environment as comfortable to work in as you can. If it isn't, ask for help from the relevant person at work.
- Try to develop good relationships with your colleagues – this can help to create a support network at work.
- Learn to say no if you can't take on extra work or responsibility – make sure you’re able to explain why.
- Take a walk or get some fresh air during the day – exercise and daylight are good for both your mental and physical health.
- Eat a balanced diet, with lots of fruit and vegetables, and drink enough water.
- Try not to drink too much alcohol – drinking too much is likely to make you feel worse and more stressed in the long run.
- Work regular hours and take the breaks and holidays you're entitled to – it’s important to take time off work.
- Maintain a healthy work-life balance. Don’t neglect your family or relationships outside of work.
- Accept the things you can’t change and concentrate on the things you have control over.
- Develop a positive thinking style – try to look at a problem differently or discuss it with someone.
If you feel stressed or anxious at work, talk to someone you trust about what upsets you or what makes you feel stressed. It's important to talk directly to your manager if you’re stressed because of work. He or she has a duty to help you resolve the problem or cause. Explain how you're feeling and discuss your workload.
It can be hard to admit to being stressed at work, through fear that your employer or colleagues will think less of you. But stress can happen to anyone and it’s not a sign that you’re weak. Good employers will be aware of stress-related issues and many have policies in place to help deal them.
Try to do regular exercise as this can help to reduce stress. Exercise helps reduce stress hormones (chemicals produced by the body). It also stimulates the release of hormones, called endorphins, which make you feel good. The recommended healthy level of physical activity is 150 minutes (two and a half hours) of moderate exercise per week. Moderate exercise means your breathing is faster, your heart rate increases and you feel warmer.
You can achieve this amount of exercise by carrying out 30 minutes on at least five days each week. It can help to incorporate exercise into your daily routine – do something you enjoy like gardening, walking or dancing. Try walking or cycling to work, getting off the bus one stop earlier than usual or taking a stroll at lunch time. Everyday tasks, such as housework, can also be good exercise.
If you feel you're being bullied or harassed at work, speak to your manager or your company's human resources department. Most companies have policies in place to deal with this type of problem.
You may find it helpful to learn relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises, meditation or mindfulness, to help you relax and manage stressful situations.
Some people find yoga or Pilates effective at reducing stress and anxiety. Yoga postures and controlled breathing exercises help you control your body and relax your mind.
Explore the options available and find a solution that fits your lifestyle, work and personality. There’s no right or wrong approach as everyone reacts to stress in different ways, so different approaches will work for different people.
CBT is a talking treatment that can help reduce anxiety and stress. It looks at how situations can lead to thoughts that impact your feelings and behaviour. It aims to change the way you think and behave, and helps you to challenge negative thoughts or feelings. You may be offered CBT sessions on a one-to-one basis or as part of a group. A course of sessions typically lasts between five and 20 weeks.
There are no medicines currently available to treat stress.
Massage and aromatherapy can promote a sense of wellbeing and provide a relaxing environment that can help you unwind. There’s little scientific evidence to show whether or not aromatherapy is an effective treatment for stress.
Other complementary therapies that may offer some benefit include acupuncture, visualisation and reflexology. However, there isn’t enough research on these types of therapy to tell if they are effective or not. Always speak to your GP if you’re going to use a complementary therapy or treatments instead of or alongside conventional medicine.
Different situations and different factors can cause work-related stress. These include:
- poor working conditions, such as noise or bad lighting
- long working hours
- difficult relationships with colleagues
- having too much or too little to do
- lack of control in your working environment
- not feeling valued for the work you do
- bullying at work
- being under pressure to meet deadlines
You may feel stressed if you’re in the wrong job for your skills, abilities and expectations. Sometimes there’s no single cause of work-related stress. It can be caused by a build-up of small things over time, or a mix of factors in your work and personal life.
Are complementary therapies helpful in treating stress?
A lot of people find complementary therapies, such as aromatherapy, acupuncture and massage, helpful even though there isn't much scientific evidence to show that they work.
If you become stressed easily or often feel anxious, it can help to learn how to reduce these feelings and how to relax. Learning relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises and meditation, can help you relax and unwind, although better research is needed to show if they really do reduce stress.
Yoga and Pilates can also be effective at reducing stress and anxiety. They can help relieve muscle pains and teach you how to control your breathing in stressful situations. Massage and aromatherapy can promote a sense of wellbeing and provide a relaxing environment where you can unwind.
Some people find that other complementary therapies offer some benefit, including acupuncture, visualisation, reflexology and herbal remedies. However, there isn’t enough evidence to tell if they are effective or not. Always speak to your GP if you’re going to use a complementary therapy or treatments instead of or alongside conventional medicine.
Can work-related stress give me heart disease?
If you have work-related stress, you may behave in ways that put you at an increased risk of developing heart problems.
There’s no good evidence to suggest that stress causes heart disease or heart attacks. However, if you have heart disease and are under lots of stress, it may bring on symptoms such as angina. Other behaviours related to stress, such as smoking, drinking too much alcohol and overeating can increase your risk of heart disease.
Stressful situations can cause your blood pressure to increase temporarily. If you’re stressed over a long time, you could be at risk of developing long-term high blood pressure. Exercising can help to reduce your stress levels and blood pressure, even if it’s just 30 minutes of brisk walking a day.
Drinking alcohol after work helps me relax, so how does it make stress worse?
Alcohol may make you feel more relaxed in the short term. However, regularly exceeding the recommended daily drinking guidelines can lead to a range of health and social problems. Drinking too much alcohol is likely to make you feel worse and more stressed in the long run.
An occasional drink with colleagues after work or when you get home can help you unwind. However, when it turns into a nightly, stress-relieving habit, it can become a problem. Over time, heavy drinking interferes with chemicals in your brain that affect your mood. Drinking regularly can add to feelings of depression and anxiety, and will make stress harder to deal with in the long run.
Long-term drinking can lead to a range of health and social problems, including addiction, obesity, stomach ulcers and relationship difficulties. Drinking every day will impair your concentration and ability to work.
It’s not possible to be precise about how much is safe for individual men and women to drink. Current guidelines, however, recommend not regularly drinking more than three or four units a day for men, and two or three units a day for women. Although ‘Regularly’ means every day or most days of the week, it’s a good idea to have at least two alcohol-free days a week so you don’t go over the limits. So over a week, men shouldn’t have more than 21 units and women shouldn’t have more than 14 units.
This doesn’t mean you can save up all the ‘allowance’ for a weekend binge. A drinking binge is generally defined as drinking double the daily recommended units in one session.
There are many alternatives to drinking alcohol to help reduce your stress levels. Try to exercise each day if possible, even if it’s just a 30 minute brisk walk to work or the shops. Exercise helps reduce stress hormones (chemicals released by the body) and stimulates the release of endorphins in your body (the hormones that make you feel good).
If you think you’re drinking too much or feel that you’re becoming reliant on alcohol to help you cope with work-related stress, speak to your GP. He or she will be able to give you some advice or refer you to a community alcohol team if necessary.
Mental Health Foundation The Mental Health Foundation is a charity that carries out research and offers information about many areas of mental health. This article about work-life balance warns of the costs of letting this become unhealthy. And it has recommendations of small changes for you and your workplace to help even things up again. Mind The charity Mind has information to support people with a mental health condition and those who care for them. This article highlights some of the many things that can cause stress at work and has a wealth of suggestions of how to take control.
- Simon C, Everitt H, van Dorp F. Oxford handbook of general practice. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010: 996
- How to manage and reduce stress. Mental Health Foundation. www.mentalhealth.org.uk, published January 2013
- Stress. Mental Health Foundation. www.mentalhealth.org.uk, accessed 12 March 2014
- Start active, stay active: a report on physical activity from the four home countries’ Chief Medical Officers. Department of Health. www.dh.gov.uk, 2011
- Cognitive behavioural therapy. The Royal College of Psychiatrists. www.rcpsych.ac.uk, published July 2013
- Complementary and alternative treatment. Mind. www.mind.org.uk, accessed 12 March 2014
- Career stress. Stress Management Association. www.stress.org.uk, accessed 12 March 2014
- Working together to reduce stress at work: a guide for employees. Health and Safety Executive. www.hse.gov.uk, published November 2008
- Dealing with my stress. Health and Safety Executive. www.hse.gov.uk, accessed 12 March 2014
- Depression – summary. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, published August 2013
- Alcohol and heart disease. Drinkaware. www.drinkaware.co.uk, accessed 12 March 2014
- Hvidtfeldt UA, Tolstrup JS, Jakobsen MU, et al. Alcohol intake and risk of coronary heart disease in younger, middle-aged and older adults. Circulation 2010; 121(14):1589–97. doi:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.109.887513
- Stress and psychological disorders in Great Britain 2013. Health and Safety Executive. www.hse.gov.uk, published October 2013
- Alcohol guidelines. House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, www.publications.parliament.uk, published 7 December 2011
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