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Coping with stress at work

Every day an estimated 270,000 employees are absent from work because of stress, and yet only 13% of companies have implemented any scheme to combat it.

Stress at work is still not taken seriously despite it becoming one of the biggest problems facing both employees and employers in the workplace today. But what exactly is stress?

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) of the TUC sum it up as ‘the reaction people have to excessive demands or pressures, arising when people try to cope with tasks, responsibilities or other types of pressure connected with their jobs, but find difficulty; strain or worry in doing so.’

And if you think that’s vague, the medical symptoms broaden it even more. Work-related stress covers everything from minor ailments of headaches, irritable bowel syndrome and anxiety to more serious depression, insomnia, and even suicide.

Stress is as natural as breathing

So stress may be wide-ranging but it’s serious and it’s not going away. We’ve probably all suffered from it at some point in our working lives, whether knowing it or not. In these hectic times, stress isn’t limited to the office but it’s an area where it’s rife. In a recent questionnaire, Americans cited work as the most stressful arena of their lives and Britain can’t be far behind.

It almost goes without saying that those in jobs with high pressure, long hours, big responsibilities jobs are the most stressed. Of course, the more energy devoted to your work and the less to relaxation the more stressed you will be.

After all those breakfast meetings and nights at the office, your mental and physical resources are at zero. You’re so exhausted, no wonder you’re stressed.

But stress isn’t limited to the workaholics amongst us. Although these highly pressured jobs are obviously a source, having not enough work can be just as stressful. Over-exertion may lead to fatigue and anxiety, but doing nothing (or the monotony of doing the same thing over and over) can quickly lead to depression, another symptom of stress.

The environment that you work in is crucial not only to the quality of work that you produce but also your stress levels. There’s nothing worse than feeling unable to communicate with your colleagues or having nowhere to turn when you’re unsure about something. When you feel you’re on your own in the workplace, self-doubt rears its ugly head and there’s the dreaded anxiety again.

These are only a few causes of stress at work that are recorded by the HSE (others include job or organisational change, lack of clear objectives from management and the constant keeping up with new developments, all familiar problems in the workplace today) but they express how hard it is to pin down the causes of stress at work into general categories, rather than individual experience.

Though often caused by work, stress is a personal issue that impacts in wildly different ways, mentally and physically, both in and out of the workplace. This means that the way you deal with it has to be personalised to suit your individual symptoms and lifestyle.

Just as there are general reasons for work-related stress, there are guidelines that everyone can follow for less stress at work and in life.

Firstly, look after yourself

All that work puts a strain on your physical well being making you more prone to fatigue and the irritability and anxiety that go along with that. Eating well and sleeping regular hours will mean you’re able to manage your stress levels and also be at your best to meet that tricky client.

You might be exhausted after a hard day at work but experts suggest exercise as a way of alleviating stress. Endorphins released by exercise create a feeling of physical and mental satisfaction.

You don’t have to become a gym rat, other forms of exercise such as yoga and Tai Chi are equally effective in the fight against stress with a little more emphasis on the relaxation side.

Other relaxation therapies

There are many ways to unwind and relax: meditation, massage and the Alexander technique, ‘constructive self-talk’ and ‘visualisation’, where you relax through visualising your own idea of tranquillity, whenever you feel stressed.

Relaxation is the opposite of stress but, like stress, people experience it in different ways. One thing that the best of these techniques emphasise is the importance of breathing. Most people only use half their lung capacity and we tend to short breaths in times of stress.

This is something that can be done at work (unlike deeply meditating at your desk), to combat stress as it builds up.

Next time there are four phone lines ringing at a time and you’ve got five minutes to get that report on your boss’ desk, just close your eyes, think of a Caribbean island and don’t forget to breathe!

Ten tips for coping with stress at work

  1. Try to eat breakfast every day for extra energy 
  2. Aim to exercise for at least 30 minutes four times a week
  3. Take a full lunch hour away from your desk
  4. When it all seems too much, laugh about it!
  5. If you’re feeling run down, take a daily vitamin supplement
  6. Talk to your colleagues – a problem shared….
  7. Sleep at least six hours every night
  8. Make time for your life outside the office. It’s not all work, work, work
  9. Cut down on coffee and replace it with water
  10. Try to relax in whichever way it suits you