In the UK it is estimated that work-related stress is responsible for six million days of sick leave a year, with stress being linked to many minor and major illnesses.
FOR MOST PEOPLE, work is a significant and meaningful feature of life with the majority of us spending around 25% of our adult lives working. While work can provide us with structure, purpose, satisfaction, self-esteem and spending power, the workplace can also be a setting of stress and worry
What is work-related stress? Everyone is under some pressure in the workplace. Some external pressures can be a positive factor, helping us to be more productive. Some people actually thrive under shortterm added pressure, and our bodies are designed to meet these short-term demands. Hormones including adrenaline are released to prepare us for a “fight or flight” response to demanding situations. However, excessive and prolonged stress can take its toll, producing a range of physical and emotional health problems which have come to be grouped as “work-related stress”. There is no single cause of work-related stress. While stress can be triggered by sudden, unexpected pressures, it is often the result of a combination of stressful factors which accumulate over time. Some people can become so used to the symptoms of excessive stress that it goes unnoticed to their detriment. Most work-related stress is related to management of work, relationships at work, organisational set-up and whether you feel you have power and control in your work. The experience of stress is different for every person. Some people are affected more than others, so what is stressful for one person may not be stressful for another. It can depend on your personality type and on how you have learned to respond to pressure. Typical triggers of stress include:
- lack of control over work
- excessive time pressures
- excessive or inflexible working hours
- too much or too little work or responsibility
- confusion about duties and responsibilities
- lack of job variety and interest
- inadequate training and possibilities for learning new skills
- poor work/life balance
- difficult relationships at work
- lack of support and lack of contact with colleagues
- organisational confusion, restructuring, job change
- uncertainty over job prospects
Symptoms of work-related stress Work-related stress can manifest itself as physical and emotional health problems, and as altered ways of behaving at work and at home.
- increased susceptibility to colds and other infections
- muscular tension
- backache and neckache
- excessive tiredness
- difficulty sleeping
- digestive problems
- raised heart rate
- increased sweating
- lower sex drive
- skin rashes
- blurred vision
- emotional and behavioural changes
- wanting to cry much of the time
- feeling that you can’t cope
- short temperedness at work and at home
- feeling that you’ve achieved nothing at the end of the day
- eating when you’re not hungry
- losing your appetite
- smoking and drinking to get you through the day
- inability to plan, concentrate and ontrol work
- getting less work done
- poor relationships with colleagues or clients
- loss of motivation and commitment
Self-help It is impossible to escape pressure at work altogether, so it is important to learn how to manage stress. There are a number of ways in which you can reduce the negative impact of stress, most of which involve taking a good look at how you function within your work setting and beyond.
Changes at work If work-related stress is affecting you, it is important to deal with the problem as soon as possible. One of the most important factors in reducing stress levels is managing time effectively. Prioritise tasks, delegate where necessary and take care not to take on more than you can handle. Completing one task before going on to the next will help you to feel more in control of work, while varying tasks will help to keep you interested. Make time to relax at work by stretching and breathing deeply. This will help you to keep focused and prevent tired muscles. Simply ensuring you get outside for a walk during your lunch break can be helpful. It is helpful to identify which situations stress you most. Practise how you could behave differently in tricky situations Perhaps you need to be more assertive (see BUPA factsheet titled Improving assertiveness), or you need to learn to “take a step back” in tricky situations. It can seem hard to confront the causes of workplace stress and to ask for help. But sometimes, support and advice from your line manager or human resources department is necessary to help you deal with difficulties at work, whether it is to clarify your job role and responsibilities, or to deal with workplace bullying. If you find talking about your concerns difficult, it may help to make notes to bring along to the work interview with you. Make these clear and specific. Try to remember that it is in everybody’s interest that the workplace is as stress-free as possible.
Lifestyle changes Regular activities outside work will help you to meet new people, take your mind away from work worries and remind you that there is more to life than the office. Bring a sense of fun into your life by starting a creative hobby such as painting, or a new form of physical activity such as dancing or swimming. There is increasing evidence that regular physical activity helps to reduce stress levels. It provides valuable “time out” and can trigger brain chemicals that improve mood. A brisk daily walk is ideal, but the main thing is to choose an activity that you enjoy. Learning to relax can improve sleep and relieve stress-related physical pains such and stomach pains and headaches. Your GP surgery or the local library will have details of adult education classes where you can learn helpful techniques. Libraries loan books, tapes or computer-based packages. Confiding in trusted friends or relatives is a useful way to articulate worries and negative feelings. It can give a fresh perspective and help to make stressful situations more manageable. Avoid unhelpful responses to stress such as increased alcohol intake, smoking, and high caffeine intake. These all increase stress levels. Regular meals and a balanced, high-fibre diet will provide sustained levels of energy to keep you on an even keel. At the end of the day, reflect on what you’ve achieved rather than worrying about future work. Don’t be too hard on yourself and remember to take each day as it comes.
Seeking further help Some people need to seek further help for work related stress, as they may be depressed or have an anxiety disorder which needs treatment. Anyone concerned that they need help should visit their GP for advice. If you are diagnosed with depression, you may be prescribed a course of antidepressants. Other treatments can include a talking therapy such as counselling. There are also courses for stress management and lots of self help resources. Some workplaces may provide a confidential counselling service or telephone helpline. Libraries, social services and local health centres will have details of local courses.
Conclusion Stress is an inevitable but complex companion to our working lives. Without challenges and pressures, work would lack sparkle, but we all have the capacity to be overwhelmed by work-related stress, and to experience its exhausting effects. The aim should be to manage stress by becoming aware of our individual ways of responding to it, and through making effective changes to our working lifestyle.
|British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP) 01254 875277 www.babcp.com Mental Health Foundation 020 7802 0300 www.mentalhealth.org.uk Royal College of Psychiatrists 020 7235 2351 www.rcpsych.ac.uk
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