April has been recognised as ‘Stress Awareness Month’ since 1992 in a bid to increase public awareness on the topic. Thirty years on, millions of people in the UK still experience high levels of stress which is damaging to physical health, mental health and to the economy. By strengthening our awareness we may be able to better understand was causes stress and what steps we can take to reduce it.
What is stress?
When people speak about stress, it can mean many different things to any one person. “My children are ‘stressing me out’ or ‘that was a stressful meeting’, all the way to clinical diagnosis of extreme PTSD. But what does stress really mean? And how can we avoid or at least manage it in the workplace?
Spotting the signs of stress is the first step in reducing or mitigating it entirely. It must be mentioned that what might be a walk in the park for one person might be another’s living hell. For example, many people gain a lot of enjoyment from driving, but others may spend each journey foreseeing accidents that never occur or panicking about where/ how they’re going to park when they reach the destination. Even following a sat-nav, which may seem a simple task to some, may be anxiety inducing to others. They may feel their heart racing and palms sweating. We thus must remember that comfort levels and panic zones differ for everyone. We must also recognise relativity, and not to invalidate someone’s feelings as ‘there’s someone worse off in the world’ will always be the case whether you’re stressed about a messy house or suffering a bereavement- how someone feels in the moment should not be compared to others.
A 2021 Censuswide survey of 2,000 UK adults found an overwhelming majority of UK adults feel stressed at least one day a month- a mammoth 79%, with women topping the charts averaging ten days of stress a month opposed to men’s (still too high) seven days.
How can you spot the signs? You might think you know when you’re stressed. “I get angry or withdrawn”, “my heart rate increases,” “I start to feel an overwhelming sense of panic”. However, it is possible we might not recognise signs of stress, either in ourselves or in others.
Typically, indicators can range from physical to emotional to behavioural, and can range anywhere from a day to years. There is no time-limit, and one person’s experience is likely to differ vastly from somebody else’s.
Some physical indicators might present in headaches, fatigue, constipation, susceptibility to colds and cold sores, high blood pressure or pulse.
Whereas some emotional indicators might be crying, anger, anxiety, petulance, difficulty breathing, heartburn, sweating or simply being sad.
Behavioural indicators could include changes to diet or not sleeping properly, becoming withdrawn, or no longer enjoying activities that were previously pleasurable.
It is possible for whole groups of people to experience stress communally. Signs of team-stress might include high volumes of arguing, high attrition rates, or above average staff absenteeism and lack of motivation. There may be a significant drop in performance or simply a substantial number of complaints being made.
The CIPHR study found that there were 376,048 ‘Fit Notes’ (doctors notes on a person’s fitness for work) issued for mental health and behavioural disorders in 2019 in England alone. (Not all are down to stress.)
What Causes Work-Related Stress?
An Labour Force Survey referenced in HSE’s 2020/21 report determined the predominant causes of work-related stress are workload (in particular tight deadlines), too much work, too much pressure or responsibility. 449,000 of the 822,000 workers recorded as suffering from work-related stress reported it was caused or made worse by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
Other factors identified in the survey as causes for work related stress included, ‘lack of managerial support, organisational changes at work, violence and role uncertainty.’
In addition, 39% of adult in the UK state lack of sleep and money worried are the primary causes of their stress with 23% stating work in general makes them feel stressed (source).
How Can Stress Affect You?
As discussed, stress can affect people in a variety of ways. It can make it harder to make decisions or affect one’s ability to focus. Some people find stress impacts their memory, or they constantly worry or have feelings of dread.
Snapping at people, nail biting, skin-itching, teeth-grinding, loss of interest in sex, eating too much or too little, drinking more than usual, feeling tearful or feeling restless are all common affects of stress.
Looking After Your Wellbeing
Again, reiteration that different methodologies work better for different people, but absolutely key for everyone is to be kind to yourself. Make time for the things you enjoy and for relaxation and reward yourself for your achievements, however small they may seem. Spending time developing your interests and hobbies not only acts as a distractor but can also be a great method of meeting new people, which in turn can prevent feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Spending time in nature has been proven to benefit both mental and physical wellbeing and can even improve confidence and self-esteem.
Relaxation may seem easy to achieve to some, however a lot of people struggle to know when or how to relax. Mental health charity, ‘Mind’ has some great tips on relaxation here, in addition, there’s a multitude of apps which can also be a great help- for example, ‘headspace’, which has a variety of applications, such as helping to fall asleep or get back to sleep.
Looking after your physical health is often cited as a leading stressbuster. This doesn’t mean you have to start running marathons every week, however light physical activity has a range of benefits including increasing your brains feel-good neurotransmitters known as endorphins, whilst simultaneously releasing ‘happy hormones’ dopamine and serotonin.
In addition to exercise, taking care of your physical wellbeing includes, crucially, getting enough sleep. If you’re not a ‘natural’ sleeper, there is different mechanisms which can be learnt for getting to and back to sleep, for example ‘box breathing,’ breathing in for a count of three and breathe out for a count of six whilst visualising a ‘box’ being drawn in your mind- one side for each inhale and exhale. If that fails, using a sleep app, though have it pre-loaded as screens at night are not recommended. There is a reason sleep deprivation has been used as a form of torture, thus it is integral for your own mental and physical wellbeing that you endeavour to get an adequate amount of rest, to allow your brain to repair itself.
Work is a leading cause of adult stress despite organisations having a duty of care to their employees, though we have a duty to ourselves to take practical steps to manage our own mental wellbeing. For example, taking regular breaks away from your screen is a great way to ‘reset’. Thinking about your routine and the tools you can apply to differentiate between work and home is especially important, with the increase in home working we no longer have the commute to debrief and digest our day, thus and action as simple as getting changed as soon as you close your laptop might help switch your brain to home time mode.
If you constantly have unmanageable workloads, it’s integral to inform your line manager. They won’t know unless you tell them and the root cause is likely to either be a training need or too much going on, either way it won’t be resolved if you bury your head and don’t communicate. Whilst it’s normal (and acceptable) to have phases of over-time, when it becomes the norm is when it needs to be addressed.
We should also take the time to check in on our colleagues (and, where appropriate, clients). It may feel like we don’t have capacity, but a 15-minute coffee and chat might make more difference to someone that you realise.
Over-working is a vicious cycle, you work late, you’re tired, so you take longer to do the work the next day, which means you must work late again, which means you produce sub-par work, which means you must work late again… and so it goes on. The best way to break this cycle is to be honest with yourself and your line manager- don’t be afraid to speak out, you will be judged harder by submitting poor quality work than if you raise a hand and ask for help. There is absolutely no shame in doing so, it should be encouraged, and we need to break the thinking that there’s a negative stigma in needing support.
Mental health and workplace stress is an incredibly vast topic, this only lightly brushes the very top of the surface, however if you ever feel you need a listening ear or have concerns about someone else, there’s an extensive range of resources available such as Mind, ACAS, Fit for Work and Samaritans- this list is far from exhaustive. Or, if you would be more comfortable talking to a colleague, encourage your organisation to invest in Mental Health First Aider training to ensure the right support is available. Whoever you talk to, the most important thing is you do talk.
Let’s make a conscious effort to take the time to take care of ourselves, and of each other.