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Work-related stress


Expert reviewer Stuart Haydock, Organisational psychologist and resilience lead, Bupa UK
Next review due February 2020

Work-related stress is how you feel when you have demands at work that exceed your ability to cope. Almost 12 million working days are lost each year because of perceived work-related stress, and stress can contribute to such conditions as anxiety or depression. And nearly half a million people in the UK have work-related stress at a level that’s making them ill.

Impact of work-related stress

Work-related stress can cause both mental and physical effects. Everyone reacts to stress in different ways so the impact of it can vary and depends on your personality and how you respond to pressure.

Some common mental effects of stress include:

  • feeling that you can't cope
  • finding it hard to concentrate and remember things
  • lacking confidence
  • not feeling motivated or committed
  • feeling disappointed with yourself
  • indecisiveness

Emotional effects of stress include:

  • feeling depressed
  • feeling anxious
  • feeling more emotional – you might be more tearful or sensitive
  • feeling irritable, or having a short temper
  • feeling overwhelmed
  • mood swings

You might get physical effects too, which might include:

  • feeling tired and lacking energy
  • diarrhoea or constipation
  • aches and pains
  • indigestion and nausea
  • headaches
  • putting on, or losing weight
  • chest pains or tightness in your chest
  • osing the desire to have sex

You might also start behaving differently and you might:

  • eat more or less than usual
  • sleep too much or too little
  • isolate yourself from others
  • drink alcohol, smoke or take illegal drugs to relax

Problems other than work-related stress can cause these too. But if you have problems with your mental or physical health and they’re lasting a while (longer than a couple of weeks), go and see your GP.

Identifying work-related stress

To be able to tackle work-related stress, it’s important to recognise the effects or any changes in your behaviour. The sooner you realise that work is causing you problems, the quicker you can take action to make things better.

If you’re experiencing excessive levels of work-related stress, you may find that as well as having some or all of the effects 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 to exercise or relax
  • spend less time with your family
  • don’t take your full holiday entitlement
  • work longer hours

Some days will be more stressful than others so it’s important not to overreact to small changes in your behaviour. But if you feel consistently stressed for a while, longer than a couple of weeks, or any changes in your behaviour continue, you should get some help.

There isn’t a specific test to diagnose stress. If you’re having mental health problems as an effect of stress, talk to your GP. They’ll be able to give you advice about how to deal with them. Don't be afraid to ask 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, or employee assistance programme (EAP) services.

Treatment of work-related stress

There are lots of ways you can 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 having a chat with colleagues or managers. It may also involve using grievance, bullying or harassment procedures.

There aren’t any medicines to treat stress. If work-related stress is causing mental health issues, your GP may suggest other options. These might include changing the way you approach your life, counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help you cope better.

Helping yourself

Try to recognise what’s making you feel stressed at work and what helps you work better. You might find it helps to discuss any issues you have with your colleagues or manager. There are also other things you can try 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.
  • Do some regular exercise to help reduce stress. It can reduce stress hormones (chemicals produced by the body). It also stimulates the release of hormones, called endorphins, which make you feel good. See Related information for tips on getting more active.
  • Learn some relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises, meditation or mindfulness, to help you relax and manage stressful situations. See Related information for more information on mindfulness. Some people find yoga or Pilates helps to reduce stress and anxiety.

Explore some options 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.

Have a look through the Bupa blogs for more ideas on how to deal with stress too.

Support from your employer

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 with them.

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. They have a duty to help you resolve the problem or cause. Explain how you're feeling and discuss your workload. 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.

Talking therapies

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a talking treatment that can help reduce anxiety and stress. It looks at how situations can lead to thoughts that affect your feelings and behaviour. It aims to change the way you think and behave and helps you to challenge negative thoughts or feelings. For more information, see our topic on CBT.

Complementary therapies

Massage and aromatherapy can promote a sense of wellbeing and provide a relaxing environment that may help you unwind. There’s little scientific evidence to show whether or not aromatherapy works for stress. Other complementary therapies that might help include acupuncture, biofeedback and reflexology, but again there isn’t enough research to tell if they work or not.

For more information, see FAQ: Complementary therapies, or our topic on Complementary therapies.

Causes of work-related stress

Working is usually positive because it gives your life structure and most people get satisfaction from it. A certain amount of pressure at work is usually a good thing as it can help you perform better and prepare you for challenges. But if the pressure and demands become too much, they can lead to work-related stress.

Work-related stress can be caused by lots of things. These include:

  • an excessive workload or unrealistic deadlines
  • long working hours
  • difficult relationships with colleagues
  • poor management
  • having too much or too little to do
  • a lack of control in your working environment
  • being unclear about your job role and what you’re meant to do
  • bullying at work
  • being under pressure to meet deadlines
  • being in the wrong job for your skills, abilities and expectations

Sometimes there’s no single cause of work-related stress. It might happen if small things build up over time, or due to a mix of things in both your work and personal life.

Frequently asked questions

  • A lot of people find complementary therapies, such as aromatherapy, acupuncture and massage, helpful even though there isn't much scientific evidence 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. Relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises and meditation, may help you unwind, although more research is needed to show if they really do reduce stress. If you’re depressed as a result of stress, practising mindfulness may help. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends structured therapy sessions incorporating mindfulness as a treatment for depression. This will be arranged by local mental health services if your GP has referred you. For advice and tips on how to incorporate mindfulness into your life, see our blogs.

    Yoga and Pilates may also help to reduce 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 too.

    Although there isn’t enough evidence to tell if complementary therapies work, it might be worth giving them a go to see if they help you. There’s anecdotal evidence that they can help people relax.

  • Although there’s isn’t direct evidence to show that stress causes heart disease or heart attacks, it may increase your risk. If you have heart disease and are under lots of stress, it can bring on symptoms of angina. You might also act in certain ways when you’re stressed that can increase your risk of heart disease too. For example, you might smoke, drink too much alcohol or eat too much.

    Stressful situations can raise your blood pressure temporarily. If you’re stressed over a long time, you could possibly develop long-term high blood pressure. If you exercise regularly, it can help to reduce your stress levels and blood pressure. See Related information for tips on how to get started.

  • Alcohol can make you feel more relaxed in the short term. But if you drink more than the recommended guidelines regularly, it can lead to a range of health and social problems. Drinking too much is likely to make you feel worse and more stressed in the long run.

    More information

    An occasional drink with colleagues after work or when you get home can help you unwind. But 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 affects 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. See our related information on alcohol for more information about these. Drinking every day may also impair how well you do your job.

    There are lots of alternatives to drinking alcohol to help reduce your stress levels. For ideas on how to cut down, see our Top 10 tips for cutting back on drinking.

    If you feel you’re drinking too much or are becoming reliant on alcohol to help you cope with work-related stress, speak to your GP. They’ll give you some advice on cutting down, or refer you to services that can help you.


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Related information

    • 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.

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  • Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Bupa Health Content Team, February 2017
    Expert reviewer Stuart Haydock, Organisational psychologist and resilience lead, Bupa UK
    Next review due February 2020



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