Work-related stress: signs, symptoms and management

Recognising when work is damaging your mental health, and what you can do to deal with stress in the workplace.

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What qualifies as work-related stress?

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines work-related stress as: “The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure of work or other types of demands placed on them”. It doesn’t just affect a small number of people either. HSE say that over 822,000 suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety (new or long-standing) in 2020/21.

If you’re under an undue amount of stress, there are things you can ask yourself that will clarify whether it’s your job that’s causing it. The HSE have outlined a series of pointers that might indicate that your workload is unmanageable. If you:

  • are unable to cope with the demands of your job
  • are unable to control the way you do your work
  • don't receive enough information and support at work
  • are having trouble with relationships at work, or are being bullied
  • don't fully understand your role and responsibilities
  • are not engaged when a business is undergoing change

Then you could be suffering from an excessive level of workplace stress.

Stress, whether physical or mental, must be taken seriously. We all recognise physical strains on our body and the damage that may be caused. For example, if we injure our knee we don't keeping running on it because it would cause further damage. We take care of it. Psychological stress, as well as being hard to bear and destructive for our lives, can damage the brain. It is too often ignored.

Too much pressure and uncertainty at work, and difficult relationships there and at home, can cause psychological stress. As the figures show, the result can be psychiatric illness, misuse of alcohol and a change in demeanour.

Read our workplace mental health page for more information on how to cope and manage with mental health in the workplace.

Dr Jeremy Broadhead, Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Hayes Grove

5 signs of work-related stress

People struggling with the symptoms of stress tend to adopt a ‘coping’ mechanism, putting their difficulties down to just being extra busy, or believing that they should be able to cope if they just knuckle down.

5 common symptoms work related stress include:

  • Low mood and lack of motivation
  • Low productivity accompanied by feelings of low achievement
  • Regular absence and a higher sickness rate
  • Finding that you’re unable to ‘switch off’ from work
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches, insomnia and changes in weight

Those struggling with stress can also convince themselves that it’s just for a short while until things get better. However, more often than not, it doesn’t work out like this, as the work continues to come in or the source of your stress isn’t resolved.

Overcoming stress in the workplace

Once you’ve recognised that you’re suffering with work-related stress, the best thing you can do is take steps to identify the true cause, minimise symptoms and look to secure your long-term wellbeing. Here are a few things you can do to achieve this:

What’s making you stressed?

If you can pinpoint the exact cause of your stress, you’ll take a big step towards understanding and potentially reducing it. As yourself, is there a specific aspect of your role that leads to heightened symptoms? Is it due to a particular working relationship? Has your workload recently increased, or have other significant changes to your working environment recently occurred?

Make a note of the things that are leading to an increase in stress, and then you can work to find solutions to them. Even if the issues are more fundamental, getting your thoughts together is the first step to facilitating a healthier workplace for yourself and others.

Get support at work

In generations gone by, speaking up against a stressful or toxic working environment may have been seen as a taboo. Today, we all recognise the importance of a healthy work-life balance, and your company will have a relevant team or staff member to speak to about your mental health at work.

A good first step would be to speak to your boss or HR team about the issues you’re experiencing at work and the damage it’s doing to your mental health. Many organisations have support structures and programmes in place to help staff members through struggles with mental health.

If you don’t feel comfortable going to your boss or HR team, speak to a trusted friend, family member or colleague. Remember that those around you care for your wellbeing and will do what they can to help.

Stay healthy

There are countless small lifestyle changes you can make that will add up to an improvement in your mood. Think about:

  • Your diet – try to eat and drink as healthily as you can, and avoid things that are bad for you
  • Exercising – physical and mental health are inextricably linked. Even if it’s a walk away from the office at lunch, get up and about as much as you can
  • Trying mindfulness – techniques like breathing exercises and meditation are proven to reduce your stress levels
  • Switching off – working outside of normal office hours will mean all those stressful thoughts will stay at the forefront of your mind. Sometimes it’s tough, but when the clock strikes 5pm, switch off

This page has been clinically reviewed by Dr Jeremy Broadhead, Consultant Psychiatrist (General Adult Psychiatry), from Priory Hospital Hayes Grove.

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