Workplace stress | The signs, symptoms and coping strategies

Stress-related mental health issues are becoming more and more prevalent in the workplace. How we manage stress at work differs from person to person as we all have our own ways of processing emotions and relaxing.

Talking about stress in the workplace in a non-judgemental fashion is a proven way to help foster healthy mental practices and prevent burnout in the long run. By implementing strategies for stress management and prioritising well-being, employees thrive and contribute to a more productive and fulfilling work environment.

What actually is stress?

Stress is a natural biological response that prepares us for tasks we find threatening or difficult. When a balanced amount of stress is present in the body, we can get things done without feeling overwhelmed or scared.

In fact, a healthy amount of stress can give us the drive and motivation to get things done. Stress is helpful when our bodies return to a normal, restful state after the stressful situation is over.

In today’s fast-paced world, situations capable of triggering our stress response are everywhere, exposing us to people, places, and things we feel we cannot manage or control. 

What are some common symptoms of stress?

We all feel “a bit stressed out” from time to time. Things like approaching deadlines and lengthy work meetings with colleagues understandably make us feel more stressed than usual. 

There are a variety of ways stress can manifest physically and mentally in our bodies. These will vary from person to person. Being aware of some of these indicators can help you monitor your own stress levels.

Here are some of the common signs and symptoms of stress:

  • Physically tense and tight muscles
  • Anxiety and nervousness
  • Fear
  • Disinterest in things previously enjoyable
  • A sudden onset of physical fatigue or tiredness
  • Brain-fog
  • Difficulty eating and a loss of appetite
  • Feeling wound up or impatient
  • Overwhelming thoughts and feelings that appear unmanageable
  • Racing thoughts that cannot be switched off
  • Spontaneous outbursts of anger or irritation

What causes stress at work?

Working seven to eight hours a day means you potentially spend one-third of your day at work. If you’re lucky enough to get the recommended eight hours of sleep per night, this figure lowers to one-half.

The workplace can feel like a second home for a lot of us. If you find certain aspects of your workplace difficult to manage or hard to navigate, you’re not alone. Daily stressors such as conflicts with colleagues, a heavy workload, long commutes or being in a challenging environment can all contribute to some of the feelings listed above.

Your stress bucket

Imagine you have a bucket with a series of taps filling it up from above. These taps all drip at various speeds until your bucket is full and the water starts to overflow.

Now imagine this bucket is you and your capacity for stress and the taps above it represent all the stress factors in your life. It would be sensible to assume you need a way of emptying your bucket before it starts to overflow.

We can’t always stop stress, but what we can do is minimise the effect it has on us. Adding some taps to the side of our bucket allows us to empty some water as the level rises. These taps represent coping mechanisms that help us relieve stress and unwind. They can represent exercise, self-care habits, treating ourselves, indulgence in moderation, socialising, or anything else that helps us relax in a healthy and constructive manner. 

How to reduce stress at work

We are often faced with stressful situations which we can’t change. Whilst we may not always be able to reduce the stressors themselves, we can learn ways to manage how they make us feel. By engaging in activities to manage our stress level, we reduce the impact stress has on us and increase our resilience.

A healthy level of stress helps keep us motivated and driven. Without it, we’d never get anything done. Keep reading to learn how you can effectively manage and lower stress in your workplace. 

Make time for self-care

Self-care is clinically proven to strengthen our capacity for dealing with stressors and challenges. This doesn’t just mean taking a hot bath or putting your feet up in front of the TV after work. Self-care also means healthy and responsible behaviours that we engage in on a daily basis. Some of these we may not even think about. The most effective forms of self-care help enhance energy levels, restore physical or mental wellbeing, and reduce stress levels.

Other forms of self-care are more reward based. We may indulge in our favourite meal or watch a film we love in the evening. It’s good to reflect on the last time you put time aside to care for yourself. How often do you do it and how does it make you feel? By trying to establish healthy patterns of self-care time we can help prevent stress from accumulating.

Take a look below for some self-care inspiration:

  • Practicing healthy diet and nutrition
  • Ensuring we are getting enough good-quality sleep
  • Exercising regularly
  • Relaxing
  • Practicing mindfulness
  • Getting out and about in nature
  • Ensuring our work/life balance is working
  • Limiting time spent on digital devices

Spotting the signs early

Stress is triggered differently in everyone. A situation or environment that makes one person feel anxious and uncomfortable may not even register with another. The amount of stress we can handle also varies from person to person. This means it’s important we understand that others may feel overwhelmed by things we find perfectly manageable.

Understanding what has the potential to increase our stress levels means we can address the issue before it spirals out of control. A great way to start this process is to take a step back and appreciate how much you have on your plate at any given time.

Manage your workload

A seemingly overwhelming workload is a common contributor to stress at work. It can sometimes feel like our workflow is unmanageable and that deadlines do little to quell the dread we feel when we check our inbox or to-do list. To effectively manage workload-related stress, individuals can employ several strategies. 

Prioritising tasks and using a tiered approach is a great way to tackle the most important things first. Communicating and clarifying expectations and responsibility allocation also goes a long way to lowering stress when a deadline is looming.

Effective time management techniques such as creating to-do lists and breaking down tasks into smaller, manageable chunks is another great way to minimise anxiety. There are numerous time-management tools and plugins that can help you manage your time more effectively if this is a trigger for you.

If the problem persists and you feel overwhelmed for a consistent period of time, talk to your manager about how you are feeling and ways you can work together to adjust and restructure your workload.

Maintain a healthy work/life balance

Hybrid work models and late nights in the office can all slowly chisel away at a healthy work/life balance. Maintaining a healthy distinction between our work life and our personal life helps us all in the long run, as we come to work the next day feeling refreshed and ready to go. 

Some great ways to manage your work/life balance include:

  • Establish a routine that works for you and your employer
  • Make time for leisure activities you enjoy
  • Practice mindfulness
  • Communicate any concerns about workload to your employer
  • Switch off in the evening
  • If you work from home, establish a designated workspace
  • Socialise outside of work
  • Exercise regularly
  • Change your environment regularly if you are working long hours in the office

What if I work from home?

Working from home brings with it a unique set of circumstances that can both help and hinder our ability to process and work through stressful work situations.

Thankfully, more time at home means we have more familiar and comforting tools at our disposal to deal with stress.

Take a look below for some top tips on dealing with workplace stress inside a hybrid working model:

  • Designate a workspace: if you’re lucky enough to have an office space, great. If not, work away from your bed if possible. This will help prevent your brain making the association between work and sleep
  • Communicate with your colleagues: working from home means you’ll see your colleagues less. This can cause expectations to blur, adding to stress if you aren’t sure what’s expected of you. Take time to schedule a meeting with colleagues or your manager once a week to clarify where everyone is at and what they’re working on
  • Get dressed: start the day the same way you would if you were going into the office. This helps with continuity and the establishment of healthy routines
  • Switch off in the evening: whilst working into the evening may be necessary at times, it’s not a healthy habit. Our brains need time to relax and rewire after a long day at work
  • Routine, routine, routine: setting rules for yourself helps limit distractions and ensures you remain productive at home. This helps prevent anxiety around self-care and productivity.

Utilise and practice mindfulness

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’. This 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.

There are many forms of mindfulness. These include:

  • Sense checking - dialling into each of your senses and focusing on what each can detect
  • Heart-focused breathing - taking slow and controlled breaths whilst focusing on the feeling of the heart
  • Mindful eating - savouring the taste of the food you are eating but doing so in a relaxed environment i.e. not whilst doing work or checking emails.

Manage or limit your caffeine intake

Caffeine is a stimulant which can feel like it’s giving you energy, but as it increases your heart rate it can increase your feelings of anxiety and stress. Caffeine consumed in the afternoon will also likely have an impact on sleep quality as it affects the areas of the brain responsible for recognising the need to sleep.

A poor quality sleep (even if you have slept for 7-8 hours) will make relieving stress all the more difficult. Try swapping coffee for red bush tea, which contains antioxidants that help to provide you with energy without the stimulants in caffeine. Green tea is a healthy option too but it does still contain caffeine so the naturally caffeine-free red bush tea may be a better option.

If you are struggling

If you work remotely or are finding the stress of the workplace too much, we offer a range of mental health services to help out wherever you’re at. This includes access to therapistsonline CBT therapy coursesmental health awareness material, and more.

If you are distressed or are experiencing despair, talk to someone now. If you or anyone else is in immediate danger or harm, please call 999.

Last updated Tuesday 23 January 2024

First published on Thursday 24 August 2023