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Stress in the workplace

Stress is the body’s reaction to demands. Stress can be positive or negative; it can energise you and keep you going, rather like a call to action. However, too much stress over a prolonged period, can impact on our body, behaviour and emotions. When the body experiences a situation as a threat, it releases chemicals such as adrenalin and this can cause our fight flight response to kick in to action. This may cause our heart rate to increase, our breathing may become faster, we might sweat more, feel confused or on alert, as if ready for something frightening to happen.


Work related stress occurs when we find we can no longer cope with the demands we are facing. Stress can lead to mental and physical illness and The Labour Force Survey estimated that the total cases of work related illness due to stress in 2011 -12 was 428 000 (40%), from a workforce of 1073000. (1) This is not to say our working life cannot be rewarding and stimulating. We can find companionship and creativity in the workplace and it can offer a refuge from difficulties at home, or a place of recognition and validation.


Conditions that may cause stress in the workplace


  • Too many demands – overload of work,

  • Lack of stimulation or lack of work, which creates a sense meaninglessness

  • A lack of variety in your work

  • Lack of autonomy or ability to make your own decisions or use your initiative

  • Long hours at work or shift work

  • Working alone or feeling isolated within a team

  • A bad work environment – it could be noisy, lack ventilation, be uncomfortable, you might not have the facilities to complete the work you need to undertake

  • Lack of clarity in your role – what are my responsibilities, or should someone else is doing this?

  • Unclear expectations

  • Criticism or your work, which feels unjust or involves micro management, or performance targets which are unrealistic or lacking clarity

  • A lack of job security

  • Lack of progression in your job

  • Problematic relationships, with colleagues, managers, clients, or those you manage

  • Threats of violence or verbal abuse

  • Difficult communication with managers or colleagues which do not get resolved

  • External influences which impact on your ability to carry out your role

  • Threat or actual redundancy or restructuring

  • Values that are not compatible with your own

  • Stress can be compounded, if you feel you are being judged for not coping or you are not understood when you speak out


    Freelancers may face issues such as


  • Lack of consistent finances

  • Isolation if working alone

  • Anxieties about the business and its development

  • Long hours

  • Feeling of responsibility

  • Not knowing what is going to happen next


    Workplace stress can have an impact on our home life, maintaining a boundary between work life and home can become difficult when we are working to deadlines or under pressure to achieve. This can have a knock on impact on performance and self esteem. If you are facing stresses at work, you may find it is difficult to talk about your concerns with colleagues. You may feel they are already going through their own pressures, or you feel unsafe about talking to colleagues about not coping. If you are managing a team it can be difficult to find support, as you are on your own and are the one that needs to be strong in relation to your team, in the face of day to day pressures.


    Warning signs


  • Feelings of panic

  • Not sleeping

  • Feeling irritable

  • Unfocused

  • Overwhelmed

  • Lacking in energy and motivation

  • Feeling tearful

  • Feeling frustrated or lacking in patience

  • Feeling that you are racing through life

  • Lack of perspective

  • Feeling confused

  • Feeling numb

  • Ruminating about what might happen in the future  


    Self care in relation to work stress


    If you feel stressed do not ignore it recognise and don’t be critical of yourself. Get to know your stress so you can find ways to look after yourself. We often hear the same old mantras of work life balance, it can be difficult to really put this into action, a better balance just means trying to readjust or harmonise your working life. In addition self care is not about being selfish, it’s about looking after your needs, in order that you can continue to live life more fully and also care about and for others.  



    After work


  • Make time to switch off after work

  • Try and get plenty of sleep and rest

  • See friends and family and have leisure time  

  • Avoid where possible looking at your phone or emails outside work, or after 1900

  • Do nothing, yes it’s essential; it gives you space to reflect and just be without having to do anything

  • Develop a Mindfulness practice, do Yoga, Tai Chi or relaxation exercises

  • Get up five minutes earlier and instead of grabbing your coffee and breakfast and gulping it down, spend time savouring each mouthful.

  • Look out the window; really look at the sky, at the clouds, the shades of grey, the blues and the sun peaking through the haze.

  • Take a walk around  garden and take in the colours, new growth, and notice what you might not have seen before. Get to know what’s around you.

  • Participate in any interests which give you joy and you find stimulating.

  • Try out some some gardening

  • Listen to yourself and what you need, be aware of how you move, be mindful when you walk or when you are running


    What can you do when you are at work?


  • Pay attention to your breath when you get stressed, return to calm breathing when you feel overwhelmed of under pressure. Slowly breathe in for six and slowly breathe out for six.  

  • When your first thought or knee jerk feeling is to react, stop for a few minutes and give yourself space to think. Allow yourself a little more time to think things through and respond from a calmer place, rather than being reactive.

  • Next time your see 100's of email in your inbox, take time to breathe before opening them and before acting upon on it.

  • Make sure you have breaks talk to colleagues, if you are stuck with something ask for help, rather than struggling alone.

  • Give space for thoughts to meander, play with ideas, and let your mind dilly dally a little longer. This isn't wasting time, it's allowing yourself time, to be creative, playful and imaginative.

  • Give yourself a break and take time to pay attention to your lunch, savour each mouthful have a break and walk for a while.

  • Taking yourself away from a stressful environment can change your energy and enable you to face the rest of the day. Learning to relax - having to remind and learn it changes habits

  • Learn to let go of the idea that you can achieve everything, its okay to say no I can’t do this now.  

  • When you feel angry with your manager or colleague, give yourself a little reminder that they have their struggles too. Hold them in mind with kindness, even when they let you down or you feel irritated by their demands.

  • If you are a carer or parent you can go to the bottom of the list when it comes to taking care of yourself, taking care of yourself is not being selfish. If you do not care for yourself you cannot look after those you care for and cannot look after yourself. Looking after yourself is you matter that


You can’t control everything in your work environment, but that doesn’t mean you are powerless, even when you feel stuck in a difficult situation. Finding ways to manage workplace stress isn’t about making huge changes or necessarily jumping to the conclusion that you need to change your career; try to focus on baby steps that are within your grasp, this can help you feel you have more autonomy and control.

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Ann Rapstoff, Individual & Couples Counselling,

Psychotherapy, Mindfulness & CBT

T: 07703 182 186 E:

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