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Work-related stress

Work-related stress is the negative reaction that occurs when demands at work exceed the ability to cope. It can also be caused by other problems at work, such as feeling inadequate or having poor working conditions.

This information was published by Bupa's health information team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been peer reviewed by Bupa doctors. The content is intended for general information only and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional.  

Working can be positive because it may give your life structure and provide satisfaction. A certain amount of pressure at work is a good thing because it can help you perform better and prepare you for challenges and actions. However, if pressure and demands become too much, they can lead to work-related stress.

Work-related stress can be caused by a number of things. You might feel under pressure at work because of your workload, deadlines, the environment you work in or your colleagues.

Work-related stress can cause psychological, emotional, physical and behavioural problems. Because everyone reacts to stress in different ways depending on their personality and how they respond to pressure, symptoms may vary. However, some common psychological symptoms include:

  • feeling that you can't cope
  • being unable to concentrate
  • lacking confidence
  • a loss of motivation and commitment
  • disappointment with yourself

You might also have emotional symptoms, such as:

  • negative or depressive feelings
  • increased emotional reactions (for example, you’re tearful or sensitive)
  • irritability or having a short temper
  • feeling overwhelmed
  • mood swings

You may also get physical symptoms. These may include:

  • diarrhoea or constipation
  • indigestion
  • headaches
  • weight changes
  • chest pains
  • joint or back pain

Your behaviour might also change and may include:

  • eating more or less
  • sleeping too much or too little
  • isolating yourself from others
  • drinking alcohol, smoking or taking illegal drugs to relax

These symptoms and signs may be caused by problems other than work-related stress. If you have any of these symptoms and signs, see a doctor for advice.

If you have work-related stress, you may find that you:

  • often rush to get things done
  • try to be in too many places at once
  • don’t take breaks or miss lunch
  • take work home
  • don't have enough time for exercise or relaxation
  • spend less time with your family
  • don’t take your full holiday entitlement
  • work longer hours

There are a number of factors that cause work-related stress, including:

  • poor working conditions, such as noise or bad lighting
  • long working hours
  • relationships with colleagues
  • having too much or too little to do
  • lack of control in the working environment
  • not feeling valued for the work you do
  • bullying at work
  • being under pressure to meet deadlines

You may feel stressed if you’re in the wrong job for your skills, abilities and expectations. Sometimes there is no single cause of work-related stress. It can be caused by a build-up of small things over time.

To be able to tackle work-related stress, it’s important to recognise the symptoms or any changes in your behaviour. The sooner you realise that it’s causing you problems, the sooner you can take action to make things better.

Remember that some days will be more stressful than others so it’s important not to overreact to small changes in your behaviour. However, if you feel stressed over a long period of time or any changes in your behaviour continue, you should seek help.

Don't be afraid to ask your doctor or your company for help or advice if you’re feeling stressed because of work. You may have a human resources department at work that can help.

Your doctor will usually be able to recognise the symptoms of stress and give you advice about how to deal with it. Your doctor can also refer you to a counsellor if you need one.

There are a number of ways to reduce the negative impact of work-related stress. Most of them involve the way you work and your working environment. If these don’t work, your doctor may recommend other options, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or medicines to help treat work-related stress.

Self-help

Try to recognise what you find stressful at work and what helps you work better. Some things you may need to discuss with your colleagues or manager. However, there are several things you can do to help yourself.

  • Make your working environment as comfortable to work in as you can. If it isn't, ask for help from the relevant person at work.
  • Try to develop good relationships with your colleagues – this can help to create a support network at work.
  • Learn to say no if you can't take on extra work or responsibility – make sure you’re able to explain why.
  • Take a walk or get some fresh air during the day – exercise and daylight are good for both your mental and physical health.
  • Eat a balanced diet, rich in fruit and vegetables, and drink enough water.
  • Try not to drink too much alcohol – drinking too much is likely to make you feel worse and more stressed in the long run.
  • Work regular hours and take the breaks and holidays you're entitled to – it’s important to take time off work.
  • Maintain a healthy work-life balance. Don’t neglect your family or relationships outside of work.

If you feel stressed or anxious at work, talk to someone you trust about what upsets you or what makes you feel stressed. This person could be someone at work or outside of it. It's important to talk directly to your manager if you’re stressed because of work. He or she has a duty to help you resolve the problem or cause. Explain how you're feeling and discuss your workload.

Try to do regular exercise as this can help to reduce stress. Exercise helps reduce stress hormones (chemicals produced by the body) and stimulates the release of endorphins in your body (the hormones that make you feel good). The World Health Organization recommends doing 150 minutes (two and a half hours) of moderate exercise (this means your breathing is faster, your heart rate is increased and you feel warmer) over a week. You can do this by carrying out 30 minutes on at least five days each week. You can incorporate exercise into your daily routine – do something you enjoy like gardening, walking or dancing. Everyday tasks, such as housework, can also be good exercise.

If you feel you're being bullied or harassed at work, speak to your manager or your company's human resources department. Most companies have policies in place to deal with this type of problem.

You may find it helpful to learn relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises and meditation, to help you relax and manage stressful situations.

Some people find yoga or Pilates effective at reducing stress and anxiety. Yoga postures and controlled breathing exercises help you control your body and relax your mind.

Talking therapies

CBT is a talking treatment that can help reduce anxiety and stress. It aims to change the way you think or behave and helps you to challenge negative thoughts or feelings.

Medicines

Sometimes, depending on how severe your stress is, your doctor may prescribe you antidepressant medicines. Although antidepressants are primarily used to treat depression, many can be prescribed for other conditions, such as different forms of anxiety.

Complementary therapies

Massage and aromatherapy can promote a sense of wellbeing and provide a relaxing environment that can help you unwind. There is little scientific evidence to show whether or not aromatherapy is an effective treatment for stress, although there is anecdotal evidence to support its use. Aromatherapy may not be suitable for everyone.

Other complementary therapies that may offer some benefit include acupuncture, visualisation and reflexology. However, there isn’t enough research on these types of therapy to tell if they are effective or not. Always speak to your doctor before you start any complementary therapy or treatments.

Availability and use of different treatments may vary from country to country. Ask your doctor for advice on your treatment options.

Sources

  • Mind guide to managing stress. Mind. www.mind.org.uk , published 2009
  • Personal communication, Dr Gabrielle Pendlebury, Honarary Research Fellow, Institute of Psychiatry, 27 October 2011
  • All about stress. Stress Management Society. www.stress.org.uk , accessed 15 September 2011
  • Work related stress. Health and Safety Executive. www.hse.gov.uk , accessed 29 September 2011
  • Mind guide to surviving working life. Mind. www.mind.org.uk , published 2010
  • Where’s daddy?: the UK fathering deficit. The Work Foundation. www.theworkfoundation.co.uk , accessed 28 September 2011
  • Stress. Mental Health Foundation. www.mentalhealth.org.uk , accessed 15 September 2011
  • Human resource manager. Health and Safety Executive. www.hse.gov.uk , accessed 19 October 2011
  • Stress. British Heart Foundation. www.bhf.org.uk , accessed 15 September 2011
  • Alcohol: a cure for stress? Drinkaware. www.drinkaware.co.uk , published February 2010
  • Start active, stay active: a report on physical activity from the four home countries’ Chief Medical Officers. Department of Health, 2011. www.dh.gov.uk  
  • Top ten stress busting tips. International Stress Management Association UK. www.isma.org.uk , accessed 15 September 2011
  • Medical and alternative treatment. Mind. www.mind.org.uk , published 2009
  • FAQs. Aromatherapy Trade Council. www.a-t-c.org.uk , accessed 11 October 2011
  • Hangovers at work – advice for employers. Drinkaware. www.drinkaware.co.uk , published May 2010
  • Hvidtfeldt UA, Tolstrup JS, Jakobsen MU, et al. Alcohol intake and risk of coronary heart disease in younger, middle-aged and older adults. Circulation 2010; 121(14):1589–97.doi:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.109.887513
  • High blood pressure (hypertension). Mayo Clinic. www.mayoclinic.com , published August 2010

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