Managing stress at work
Pressure on workers in many organisations has risen in recent years, especially in public services. Rising demands and tighter deadlines have coincided with shrinking staff numbers and budgets. As a result people have more on their to-do list, while often taking on more responsibility, sometimes with insufficient support. This can lead to stress, which happens when the demands placed on someone are bigger than the resources they have to deal with them.
This has been amplified in recent weeks, as the coronavirus has led to major changes within all organisations. Many of us are now working at home – maybe while taking care of the kids – while other people are still heading into their place of work every day, under much altered circumstances. Some employees may be covering for colleagues who are unwell, or who may unfortunately have been made redundant.
Workplace stress is common, and costs organisations 11 million lost days per year, according to the Health and Safety Executive. This makes it an important issue for us all to address, whether we’re an employee who wants to stay well or an employer needing to keep staff and the business thriving.
“People become stressed at work for different reasons,” explains psychological therapist Joanne Adams. “It could be due to a change within the organisation, such as a new initiative, manager or restructure which perhaps hasn’t been managed or communicated very well. The resulting stress can have a knock-on effect: if one person goes off sick this increases the burden on their colleagues, who might then become stressed themselves.
“Other people might struggle because pressures at work are adding to sources of stress in their personal life, or because they have an existing mental health problem.”
If you’re experiencing workplace stress, here are some steps you can take to address it.
Identify the source of the stress. Is it something that’s happening in your work life or your personal life, or a combination of both?
Think about any changes you can make yourself. You might be able to improve the situation by doing something really simple. For example, if your workload has increased and you’ve got into the habit of not taking a break, make sure you get time away from your desk to clear your mind, rest your eyes from your screen, and eat a proper lunch.
What small changes might make you feel better? These could be as basic as cutting back on the number of coffees you have throughout the day, or moving your desk nearer to a window to increase the amount of natural light you’re exposed to.
Raise it with your manager. Organisations have a legal responsibility to look after employees’ health and wellbeing. Talk to your manager or to HR if you can see a larger issue, perhaps one that’s affecting a number of people. For instance, if a new process has been introduced and it isn’t working well, your manager may not even be aware! See if you can think of any potential solutions, and share them.
If you’re feeling stressed because you have a lot on your plate at home as well as at work, talk to your manager about the possibility of changing your start and finish times if this might help.
Take control of your inbox! Emails and messaging and collaboration apps like Slack, WhatsApp and Zoom are great for keeping in touch, but they can be a huge contributing factor to work-related stress. The average office worker gets around 120 emails a day, according to one estimate! As many of us are currently working from home, this number could well have risen even higher.
It can feel like work is constantly piling up while we’re not looking, and that we have to respond as soon as we hear that ‘ping’. This encourages us to jump from one task to another, scattering our focus and making us less productive. This can be especially challenging if we’re working from home.
It certainly won’t be practical for everyone, all the time, but as far as possible try to stay on track with the task in hand, concentrating on it from start to finish. If you can, turn off message notifications so you’re not interrupted, instead setting aside defined chunks of time during the day for checking and responding to messages.
Put boundaries in place. The borders between work, leisure and rest time have blurred – especially with more people remote working – but it’s important that we keep these areas of our lives as separate as we can. Feeling constantly on alert and in demand isn’t good for our minds or our physical health, resulting in constantly raised cortisol levels and adrenaline rushes that can be exhausting.
In most organisations and roles it’s not necessary for employees to be available ‘out of hours’ to answer messages and get work done, but it’s sometimes expected as part of the company culture. If this is negatively affecting you and your colleagues, talk to your manager and make it clear that it’s causing stress. If you’re working at home, close the door of the office at the end of the day, or shut your laptop and put it away.
Seek support. Some organisations offer wellbeing support, counselling services or employee assistance programmes (EAPs), perhaps as part of the benefits package. Your manager or HR can point you towards these.
You can also look online for local support services, or talk to your GP about what’s available through the NHS. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can provide highly effective strategies for managing stress, and you can self-refer and undertake treatment online – find out more here.