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Work-related stress

Key points

  • Being under pressure at work, dealing with difficult colleagues or being bullied in the workplace are all common causes of work-related stress.
  • Stress can build up over time and cause a mix of psychological, emotional, behavioural or physical symptoms.
  • In order to help tackle work-related stress, it’s important to recognise and address what's causing it.

Work-related stress is the negative reaction that occurs when demands at work exceed your ability to cope. It can also be caused by other problems at work, such as feeling inadequate, bullying or harassment, or having poor working conditions

About work-related stress

Working is usually positive because it gives your life structure and can often provide satisfaction. A certain amount of pressure at work is usually a good thing. It can help you perform better and prepares you for challenges and actions. Sometimes, though, if pressure and demands become too much, they can lead to work-related stress.

Work-related stress can be caused by a number of things. You might feel under pressure at work because of an excessive workload or unrealistic deadlines. Or you may have a difficult working environment due to issues with your colleagues. It may also be due to a combination of factors in your work and personal life.

Over 10.4 million working days are lost each year because of work-related stress. Nearly half a million people in the UK believe that they have work-related stress at a level that is making them ill.

Symptoms of work-related stress

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
  • indecisiveness

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
  • headaches
  • 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

Causes of work-related stress

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.

Diagnosis of work-related stress

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.

Treatment of work-related stress

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.

Self-help

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.

Talking therapies

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.

Medicines

There are no medicines currently available to treat stress.

Complementary therapies

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.

Reviewed by Dylan Merkett, Bupa Health Information Team, June 2014.

Find out more about our health editors.

For answers to frequently asked questions about work-related stress, see FAQs.

For sources and links to further information, see Resources.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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