Seven practical steps to help manage stress in the workplace
We live in a culture where being stressed at work is considered pretty normal. Most of us are guilty of declaring we have far too much on, complain to friends about issues in the office, no matter how small in the grand scheme of things, and think about our jobs long after clocking off.
But when does a healthy amount of adrenaline pumping in the lead up to a deadline or before a presentation, turn into stress that risks seeing you burned out or developing anxiety? If you regularly have to step outside the office to calm down, your day-to-day stress levels could be turning into a problem.
“Things like long working hours, excessive workload, and poor relationships with colleagues can all lead to unmanageable stress. Prolonged, unmanageable stress can lead to mental health problems like depression or anxiety,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind.
“Unmanageable stress affects us all in different ways, but there are signs to look out for: Feeling irritated, finding it hard to sleep or struggling to concentrate. You may feel really upset and emotional. You might also notice some physical signs, like headaches, upset stomach, or difficulty breathing.”
2016 figures from the government-backed Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found stress now accounts for 37% of work-related illness. So what can you do in the office when you feel your stress levels getting out of control?
1. Identify the triggers of your stress
Dr Mark Winwood, director of psychological services for AXA PPP healthcare, adds: “It is important to think about what’s making you want to phone in sick. Are you afraid of failing? Think about what you’d say to a friend or a colleague in the same situation. Would you be as hard on them as you are on yourself?”
Mamo adds: “Working out what triggers stress for you can help you anticipate problems and think of ways to solve them. Even if you can’t avoid these situations, being prepared can help.”
2. Break big tasks down into manageable steps
“Sometimes, your work can seem insurmountable,” says Marcus Herbert, a clinical physiologist for Nuffield Health. “Not knowing where to start, or feeling overwhelmed by the volume of work is a fast track to stress. Break larger tasks down into smaller targets or stages. This will help you to focus on the task in hand step by step. Each step you complete will feel like a small victory, turning a negative into a positive and helping your brain to process the overall project easier.”
3. Practice mindfulness at work
Herbert says: “Being mindful is about being focused on what is happening in the present moment. Research suggests that on average, up to 45% of our time in a day may be spent ‘mind-wandering’, which is when we are thinking about something that we are not currently doing. Being able to focus on the present moment is often difficult in the workplace, due to our workload and task lists. Try ‘sense checking’ – dialling into each of your senses and focusing on what each is feeling, or taking slow and controlled breaths while focusing on the feeling of your heart.”
4. Get some exercise first thing or at lunch
When your mental wellbeing is suffering, it’s a good idea to look at your physical wellbeing. Eating healthily, exercising regularly and sleeping enough can really improve your outlook and ability to cope with stressful situations at work.
“When we get stressed, we often create tension in our upper back and neck,” Herbert says. “Aerobic exercise and resistance training increases our body’s physical awareness of what muscle tension feels like – and when the body is more aware of this feeling, it becomes a physical cue to take a moment to breathe and actively relax the muscles. Physical exercise also uses the stress hormones that we build up as a fuel source, so can be a great way to release tension.”
5. Stay away from coffee
When you’ve got a long to-do list and limited time, on limited sleep, it can be tempting to reach for the caffeine. But it turns out coffee could be making everything worse.
Emma Ross, A.Vogel Nutritionist, says: “Caffeine triggers adrenaline production, which leaves us feeling on edge, especially if we aren’t doing something physically active to use up the adrenaline. Caffeine also counters the absorption of magnesium, leaving our adrenal glands more vulnerable to stress reactions, and iron, making us more tired.
“Switch to lemon balm. It is extremely good at calming agitated nerves. The terpenes found in lemon balm leaves are thought to contribute to its relaxing effect.”
But remember to drink water too. “Properly hydrated kidneys are less likely to trigger unnecessary anxiety responses. Interestingly, the initial stages of panic attacks are the same as symptoms of dehydration – dry mouth, palpitations, and waves of anxiety,” Ross says.
6. Actually talk to your boss
“If your manager doesn’t create the space for you to be able to talk about wellbeing, it can be more difficult to start this dialogue,” Mamo says. “But if you have a good relationship and trust them then you could meet them one-to-one to discuss what’s going on. Having someone from HR present will make the meeting more formal, and normally wouldn’t be necessary in the first instance. But if you didn’t get anywhere with the first meeting then it might be a sensible next step.
“If people are making unreasonable or unrealistic demands on you at work, be prepared to tell them how you feel and say no.”
7. And if you need time off… take it
“Mind want employers to treat physical and mental health problems as equally valid reasons for time off sick,” Mamo says. “It’s up to each individual employee to decide when their mental or physical health prevents them from being able to carry out their job and warrants asking their employer to take time off sick.”