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Coping with stress in the workplace

Half a million people in Great Britain believe work-related stress is making them ill. Here we give you tips on how to recognise when things are pushing too far, and ways to manage the situation so neither you nor your business suffers.

What is stress?
The word stress is often used to describe the very fast pace of life many people lead, or how we feel when pressure becomes intense. Varying things cause stress and individuals experience different signs and symptoms as a result. But it is a recognised medical condition. Being stressed can put pressure on the body physically and is a major contributor to heart attack and stroke.

Stress in the workplace
Work can often trigger or be the cause of stress. Feeling unable to cope with high demands of work causes worry, depression, and even panic. A workload that under normal circumstances you can cope with very well, can become overwhelming if feeling unwell, or are under emotional pressure at home.

A degree of stress is often necessary to feel motivated and enthusiastic, that is normal. Many people have the personality types that work better under pressure or intense deadlines. As long as they are happy and not feeling worried as a result there usually is no problem. It is dangerous if the workload, for any reason:
  • Causes a constant state of worry
  • Gives frequent or constant headaches
  • Provokes lying by saying everything is fine when the person knows it isn't
  • Causes moodiness or marked personality change
  • Makes work hours constantly beyond reasonable
  • Causes panic or a feeling of hopelessness
  • Continually feels like never getting on top of the top do list
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but any one, or a combination of these means it's time to slow down and reassess your working life and get help.

In some people stress at work can contributes towards coronary heart disease. Stress combined with other risk factors such as smoking, physical inactivity and high blood cholesterol, all act together to lead to life threatening illnesses.

Who is stress likely to affect?
Stress can happen to anyone at any time, at home or at work. More than likely stress takes over with the feeling of little control over work life. Combined with other demands, anyone can suffer stress. It is not a sign of being weak or giving in. Stress is a mental health issue, not one of will power. People cannot just snap out of it. Often asking for help makes them feel inadequate when they are trying to project a strong business persona. Recognising a person is stressed is one thing, getting them to admit it and slow down is another. It's even harder to admit it to ourselves.

Symptoms of Stress
Common reactions to a stressful event include depression, tiredness, irritability, or illness. It can disrupt sleep, work, relationships, and health. Keep a close eye on employees. Some of the first signs and symptoms of stress at work include:
  • Poor performance
  • Excess alcohol intake on a regular basis
  • Seeming tired, or taking lots of sick leave
  • Lack of concentration
Managing Stress in the Workplace
To combat stress, unhealthy 'quick fixes' like alcohol, or cigarettes, or sweet, fatty foods must be avoided. We feel we don't have the time to relax with friends, take a walk or step back and see the problems from another point of view.

Some try to lead a healthy lifestyle, however, with stress this can be hard to keep up. For example if you have had a hard and long day at work it can be difficult to motivate yourself to exercise or to cook a healthy meal. A cycle starts with less exercise and ready-prepared meals because of lethargy, or feeling pressed for time.

It is important to break this cycle and find ways of managing stress levels.

Identify the sources of stress, then if possible have a break away from the source, for example if you are having trouble managing your workload, arrange to go on a time management course.

The situation causing our stress may not be in an individual's control to change but steps to try and manage it effectively really helps. Simply acknowledging to yourself and someone else you aren't coping is half the battle. Positive steps to manage your working day will feel like a breath of fresh air. If an employee or partner comes to you asking for help be sure to take them seriously and take immediate steps to take action. Source support through information channels for example, talking to a colleague or friend about workplace stress, and make stress alleviation readily available for staff.

Coping with Stress
The best way to cope with stress is to make changes to lifestyle:
  • Take more exercise
  • Eat a balanced diet rich in fruit and vegetables
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Cut down on alcohol intake, eliminate smoking and drugs
  • Take time out to relax completely: listen to music, read, watch tv, have a night-out with friends or even something very simple like taking a warm bath.
  • Laugh more. Do things that make you laugh, it's proven to release feel good hormones.
Take More Exercise
Being active will reduce the ill effects of stress. Change your lifestyle routine to be more active so exercise fits easily into your routine. If pressured by time or deadlines, short, frequent breaks of activity throughout the day will work best. Ways to bring natural activity into everyday routines:
  • Take stairs not lift or escalator.
  • Walk to work, shops, park, wherever possible, instead of driving.
  • Light gardening on weekends
  • Make family time more active, e.g. swimming instead of a movie, mini golf instead of games arcade.
  • Take up a low impact, fun sport. Bowling, croquet, gem fossicking.
Other ideas include:
  • 10-minute walk before or after work allows you to establish priorities for the day or week ahead
  • Short breaks of activity throughout the day: move away from the work area and stand tall, stretch or walk
  • Walk at lunch every day for a productive afternoon. The mind works well when the body is moving and solutions can seem clearer
  • Make time to move and stretch when sitting, standing, driving or working
  • Try a new skill, hobby or activity
  • See our article 'Don't go to the Gym!'
More information on stress management

International Stress Management Association

Stress UK

Most of our waking hours are spent in the workplace and as a health-promoting environment the workplace is under-used. The British Heart Foundation has developed the Well @ Work programme to test ways of getting England's workplaces healthier.
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