Workplace stress

 By Doctor Julia Lyons, Principal Counselling Psychologist at Onebright

In light of Mental Health Awareness Month, it’s crucial to address the stresses of modern life, particularly those stemming from the workplace. Pressures at work are a part of life, regardless of age, experience or job title, and it’s not necessarily negative. Manageable pressure can be motivating and lead to increased productivity. However, when pressure is sustained and unmanageable it can lead to stress. In the UK, nearly a third of adults report feeling stressed more than 10 days a month.

Understanding your brains response

Your brain is equipped with a built-in alarm system designed for your protection. When it detects a threat, it triggers your body to release hormones that quicken your heart rate and elevate your blood pressure. This “fight, flight or freeze” response prepares you to confront the threat effectively. However, once the danger has passed, your body should ideally return to a calm, relaxed state. Yet, due to the relentless challenges and demands of contemporary life, many people find that their alarm systems seldom deactivate.

The long-term impact of stress

Continuously increased stress levels can negatively impact your mental well-being. If left unchecked and unmanaged without any active strategies to lower stress levels over a significant period, it can affect happiness, quality of life and, eventually turn into more serious mental health concerns. Stress and work, combined, can manifest in various ways and differ for each individual but these are some to look out for

Work Performance

  • Performance issues and notable declines or inconsistencies in work
  • Mistakes and errors arising in work outputs
  • Diminished motivation and commitment 
  • Frequent forgetfulness

Conflict and Emotional Signs

  • Mood shifts and irritability
  • Over-reactions to minor issues 
  • Difficulty in getting along with colleagues
  • Decreased social interaction
  • Frequent absences
  • Arriving late to work 
  • Increased criticism of colleagues

Physical Manifestations

  • Difficulty in relaxing and defining boundaries between personal and work life
  • Neglecting personal appearance and hygiene
  • Fatigue and persistent tiredness
  • Headaches related to work tensions

Long-term impact on health

The importance of managing stress is reflected in research which shows that acute and prolonged stress can cause long-term harm due to high levels of cortisol, a biomarker produced when in stress. Prolonged cortisol levels and chronically stressed individuals face the risk of damage to brain chemistry and structure resulting in poor memory, attention and executive functioning. Other research has also shown that stress can also increase the chances of developing neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s in later years. 

Strategies for managing stress

As such, stress management is not only key for effective workplace functioning but also as a part of overall well-being and healthy lifestyles. The list below provides various strategies and solutions to incorporate small changes which can have a positive impact on coping with stress at work:

  • Detach Psychologically from Work: Dedicate time daily to engage in activities unrelated to work (like video games, reading, or cooking) to mentally disconnect and facilitate relaxation.
  • Utilise Micro-Breaks: Schedule brief, frequent breaks during the workday to stretch, hydrate, or have a quick social interaction, which can help rejuvenate your focus and energy.
  • Choose Preferred Recovery Activities: Opt for activities that genuinely interest you during breaks or downtime, whether it’s a solo hobby or relaxing in a way that suits you, to maximise the benefits of recovery.
  • Engage in High-Energy Recovery Activities: Participate in activities that require more dedication and focus, such as exercise, learning new skills, or volunteering. These can replenish your energy and improve your work performance after recovery.
  • Optimise Your Environment: Enhance your workplace with elements of nature, open windows for fresh air, take walks in nearby parks, or use nature imagery to boost recovery and reduce stress.
  • Incorporating Meditation: Regular meditation can reduce cortisol levels by 25%, limit mind wandering, and be more aware of your well-being.
  • Nutrition for Brain Health: Include brain foods in your diet such as proteins, Omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and Vitamin D for optimal brain functioning.
  • Adequate Sleep: Ensure sufficient sleep to restore brain health and reduce stress.

Effective stress management enables you to reduce the impact stress has on your life, allowing you to lead a happier, healthier, and more productive existence. The ultimate aim is to achieve a balanced lifestyle, with ample time dedicated to work, relationships, relaxation, and personal interests, as well as the resilience to withstand pressure and tackle challenges at work directly. However, stress management is not a universal solution; it varies from person to person. That’s why it’s crucial to experiment and discover what methods are most effective for you. It is imperative to note that if you’ve tried these self-help techniques and they haven’t been effective and that you have been feeling stressed or stuck in the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response mode for a prolonged time, consider consulting your GP or a therapist. Your doctor can suggest additional coping strategies or recommend cognitive behavioural therapy to manage your stress levels better.