Work-related stress

Expert reviewer Dr Adrian Raby, General Practitioner
Next review due September 2022

Work-related stress is how you feel when you have demands at work that exceed how much you feel you can cope with. Over 11 million working days are lost each year because of work-related stress, and stress can contribute to conditions such as anxiety or depression. And nearly half a million people in the UK have work-related stress at a level that makes them feel ill.

Causes of work-related stress

Work is usually good for us as it gives 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
  • regularly being under pressure to meet targets or deadlines
  • difficult relationships with colleagues, or bullying at work
  • management style
  • a lack of control over the way you do your job
  • being unclear about your job role and what you’re meant to do
  • 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.

Symptoms of work-related stress

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

Some common emotional effects or symptoms of work-related stress include:

  • feeling that you can't cope with your workload
  • finding it hard to concentrate on a piece of work you need to do, and remember things
  • lacking confidence in your workplace
  • not feeling motivated or committed to your job
  • feeling disappointed with yourself at work
  • being indecisive at work
  • feeling depressed
  • feeling anxious (for example, you might dread going to work, which happens to us all occasionally but if it’s every day there’s a problem
  • 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 that you have no energy
  • changes to your poo – you might have diarrhoea or constipation
  • stomach ache
  • aches and pains
  • feeling sick
  • headaches
  • putting on, or losing weight
  • chest pains or tightness in your chest
  • losing the desire to have sex

You might also start behaving differently and you might:

  • eat more or less than usual
  • have trouble sleeping
  • isolate yourself from others
  • drink alcohol, smoke or take illegal drugs to relax

These problems can happen for reasons other than work-related stress. But if you feel like you’re struggling and it’s been affecting your mental or physical health for longer than a couple of weeks, talk to your employer to get some support. Or go and see your GP.

If you need help now

This page is designed to provide general health information. If you need help now, please use the following services.

If you think you might harm yourself or are worried someone else might come to immediate harm, call the emergency services on 999 or go to your local accident and emergency department.

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. It might be that you have problems outside of work that are causing you stress at home. But if it’s your job that’s causing problems, the sooner you realise this, the quicker you can take action to make things better.

If you’re stressed from work you may find that as well as having some or all of the symptoms of work-related stress above, you:

  • often rush to get things done
  • do not perform as well as usual in your job role
  • make uncharacteristic mistakes at work
  • argue with people
  • don’t take breaks or miss lunch
  • feel you don't have enough time to relax
  • spend less time socialising with friends and family
  • don’t take your full holiday entitlement
  • work longer hours
  • take more time off sick

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.

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.

There isn’t a specific test to diagnose stress. If you’re having mental health problems as an effect of stress and feel you need medical help, talk to your GP. They’ll be able to give you advice about how to deal with them.

Treatment of work-related stress

There are lots of ways you can reduce the 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 manager. There are also other things you can try to help yourself. Think about taking steps to do the following at work.

  • Try to develop good relationships with your colleagues – this can help to create a support network at work.
  • Take steps to better manage your time. Prioritise your tasks at work and if you can delegate to others, don’t be afraid to do so.
  • 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 your lunch hour to release stress at work – both exercise and spending time outdoors are good for your mental and physical health.
  • 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 at work differently or discuss it with someone.

There are also things to think about outside of work that will affect how you cope with work-related stress.

  • Try not to drink too much alcohol – drinking too much is likely to make you feel worse and more stressed in the long run. You may find it useful to learn more about how alcohol affects stress and your mental health.
  • Lead a healthy lifestyle – eat a healthy balanced diet and get enough sleep. You may find it useful to learn more about preparing easy meals to make after a busy day at work.
  • Exercise regularly as it can reduce stress hormones (chemicals produced by the body). It also stimulates the release of hormones, called endorphins, which make you feel good.
  • Learn some relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises, meditation or mindfulness, to help you relax and manage stressful situations. Some people find yoga helps to reduce stress and anxiety. You may also find it useful to learn more about other ways to build resilience to stress.

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.

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 should 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. Your company will 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. You may find it useful to learn more about CBT and other talking therapies.

Frequently asked questions

  • A lot of people find complementary therapies, such as aromatherapy, acupuncture yoga and reflexology helpful even though there isn't much scientific evidence that they work. But it might be worth giving them a go to see if they help you to relax. Relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises and meditation, may help you unwind too, 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.

  • Although there isn’t evidence to show that stress directly 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 exercise regularly, it can help to reduce your stress levels and blood pressure.

  • Alcohol can make you feel more relaxed in the short term. 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 cause a range of health and social problems. Drinking every day may also impair how well you do your job.

    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.

    If you feel you’re drinking too much or are becoming reliant on alcohol to help you cope with work-related stress, see if there are any local support services in your area, or speak to your GP for advice. They may refer you to services that can help you.

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  • Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Freelance Health Editor, September 2019
    Expert reviewer Dr Adrian Raby, General Practitioner
    Next review due September 2022