Work-related stress

Your health expert: Dr Melanie Hill, Bupa GP
Content editor review by Pippa Coulter, January 2022
Next review due January 2025

Work-related stress is when the pressures of work become more than you can cope with. It can make you feel ill both physically and mentally. Recognising the signs of work-related stress and dealing with it quickly can mean it will have less negative impact.

About work-related stress

A certain amount of pressure at work can help to motivate you. But if the pressure and demands become too much, this can lead to work-related stress. Work-related stress can have a negative impact on your health and make it harder to do your job effectively. It can also put you at greater risk of other mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

More than 800,000 people (around one in 40 workers) were thought to be affected by work-related stress, anxiety or depression in 2020 to 2021. What’s more, around 18 million working days are thought to be lost each year because of these problems. That’s over half of all the working days that are lost to ill health.

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

  • Samaritans
    116 123 (UK and ROI) - This helpline is free for you to call and talk to someone.
  • NHS Services has a list of where to get urgent help for mental health.
  • Mind website. Click the ‘Get help now’ button on the page. This is a tool that is designed to help you understand what’s happening to you and how you can help yourself.
  • 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.

Causes of work-related stress

There are lots of things that can contribute to work-related stress. These include:

  • demands of your job – for instance, feeling like you have an excessive workload or unrealistic targets or deadlines
  • feeling that you lack of control over the way you do your job
  • not having enough support or information from managers or colleagues
  • difficult relationships with colleagues or bullying at work
  • being unclear about your job role and what you’re meant to do
  • a change in your workplace – whether that’s a change in your job role, team structure, management or something else

Not everyone feels stressed by these things though. Different people cope with pressure differently. Things like your age, experience and ability may affect this. It can also make a difference how resilient you are to dealing with stressful situations, and if you have any other pressures at the time.

Symptoms of work-related stress

Work-related stress can affect both your physical and mental health. The signs of work-related stress can vary depending on your personality and how you respond to pressure.

Common emotional or mental symptoms of work-related stress include:

  • finding it hard to concentrate
  • losing confidence in your job
  • not feeling motivated or committed to your job
  • finding it hard to make decisions
  • feeling depressed
  • feeling anxious
  • feeling more emotional – you might be more tearful or sensitive
  • feeling irritable or having a short temper
  • feeling overwhelmed or unable to ‘switch off’
  • having mood swings

You might get physical effects too. These might include:

  • feeling tired and that you have no energy
  • diarrhoea or constipation
  • indigestion
  • muscle aches and pains
  • feeling sick
  • headaches
  • gaining or losing weight
  • chest pains or tightness in your chest
  • having sexual problems or no longer enjoying sex
  • If you’re stressed, it can also affect how you behave. For instance, you might:

  • eat more or less than usual
  • have trouble sleeping
  • isolate yourself from others or become withdrawn
  • drink alcohol, smoke or take illegal drugs to try to cope
  • Having work-related stress can also mean you may take more time off sick, make more mistakes and not do your job as well.

    When work is causing you stress, the sooner you recognise the signs, the quicker you can take action to make things better. Everyone has the odd day of feeling stressed. But if it’s a regular thing and it’s affecting your mental or physical health, it’s time to speak up and get some support.

    Getting support for work-related stress

    It can be hard to admit to being stressed at work. You may worry that your employer or colleagues will think less of you. But stress can affect anyone and it’s not a sign of weakness. Good employers will be aware of stress-related issues and should have policies in place to help deal with them.

    If stress at work is becoming a problem for you, try to talk to someone you trust. Ideally, this will be your manager. They have a legal duty to assess the risks to your health from stress at work and to help you to tackle the problem or cause. An appraisal or progress meeting could be a good opportunity to raise it with your manager. Explain how you're feeling and discuss your workload or the aspects of your job that you’re finding stressful. If you feel you can’t or would prefer not to talk to your manager, other options include talking to:

    • your company’s Human Resources (HR) department or representative
    • an occupational health service, employee assistance programme or counselling service if your company provides these
    • a trade union or worker representative
    • a trusted colleague

    Managing work-related stress

    Talking things through with your manager or other work representative can help you to pinpoint exactly what’s making you feel stressed at work. You can then think about what actions you can take to reduce your stress and help you work better. Think about how you can take steps to achieve the following at work.

    • Agree a fair and achievable workload with your manager, and make sure deadlines and targets are realistic.
    • Talk to your manager about any additional training or support you need, that can help you to do your job better.
    • Organise your time better. 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.
    • Make sure you take regular breaks. If you can, try to get outside and take a walk. Both exercise and spending time outdoors are good for your mental and physical health.
    • Try to work regular hours and make sure you take any holidays you're entitled to. Having some time off can refresh you and actually increase your productivity.
    • Try to develop good relationships with your colleagues. This can help to create a support network at work.
    • Maintain a healthy work–life balance. Don’t neglect your family or relationships outside of work.

    As well as dealing with whatever’s causing your stress, it’s also important to learn how to build resilience. This will help you to cope better with feelings of stress. The following tips might help.

    • Try not to use alcohol as way to cope with stress. Drinking too much is likely to make you feel worse and increase stress and anxiety in the long run.
    • Make sure you’re eating a healthy, balanced diet. What you eat will make a difference to your energy levels and how you’re feeling.
    • Get enough sleep. You’ll feel more able to deal with stressful situations if you’re well rested.
    • Get plenty of exercise. Exercise can help to relieve stress and improve your mood.
    • Learn some relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises, Yoga, meditation or mindfulness to help you relax and manage stressful situations.

    Treatment of work-related stress

    Taking steps to make changes at work and build your resilience can really help with managing work-related stress. But if you’re continuing to feel stressed or it’s impacting your mental health, you may need to seek help from a professional.

    It’s usually best to contact your GP first. They will discuss ways you can manage your stress, and any treatment options they are able offer you. There aren’t any medicines for stress, but there are for associated problems such as depression. Your GP may prescribe medicines for this.

    In some areas, you may be able to refer yourself directly to local psychological therapies services.

    Talking therapies

    Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a talking therapy that can help reduce anxiety and stress. It looks at how you respond to stressful situations and aims to change the way you think and behave. Sometimes, rather than seeing someone face-to-face, your GP may give you access to online CBT resources that you can do in your own time.

    Complementary therapies

    Some people find that complementary therapies such as aromatherapy, acupuncture and reflexology help with stress. There isn't much scientific evidence that these therapies work. But it might be worth giving them a go to see if they help you to relax and feel better.

    Looking for prompt access to quality care?

    With our health insurance, if you develop new conditions in the future, you could get the help you need as quickly as possible, from treatment through to aftercare.

    To get a quote or to make an enquiry, call us on 0808 273 6216

    Work-related stress affects everyone differently. Some people feel overwhelmed and anxious about work. Others lose motivation or find it hard to concentrate. It might be that you get irritable or you may feel tearful. You can have physical symptoms too – stress can make you feel sick or cause headaches. For more information, see our symptoms section.

    Employers have a duty to protect employees from work-related stress under UK law. Your organisation should assess how your work may cause stress and the risks to your health. They should also take measures to help you tackle work-related stress if it arises. Your employer won’t be able to help if they don’t know there’s a problem, so be sure to speak up if you need support. For more information, see our section on getting support.

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