How to deal with stress at work

We all get stressed out at work sometimes, but what happens when short-term worry turns into prolonged anxiety that affects our health and professional performance?

We explore work-related stress and what to do if you are suffering from it.

The problem
Stress is a major issue in the UK workforce, with 428 000 reported cases in 2011/12, according to the latest Labour Force Survey (LFS). However, the true picture is thought to be much worse as many cases go undiagnosed. In fact, figures from PruHealth report that at least one in four British workers is displaying symptoms of the most common mental health problems such as stress and anxiety.

Work-related stress caused the UK to lose 10.4 million working days in 2011/12, according to the LFS, with nursing, social work, education, public administration and defence among the industries reporting the highest number of cases.

The causes
Stress at work develops when we are unable to cope with the demands of our job, when the job requirements outweigh our capabilities. It can often go unnoticed as it tends to be the result of a gradual build of many work pressures – which can be dealt with individually – but feel overwhelming when combined with other issues going on in our lives.

According to the LFS, the most common cause of work-related stress is workload (186,000 cases) – including tight deadlines; too much work, pressure or responsibility, followed by lack of managerial support (61,000 cases) and bullying (54,000 cases).

The symptoms
Stress affects people in different ways and there are a whole host of different telltale signs, from behavioural and emotional changes, to physical and mental indicators. Common symptoms are outlined on the Health and Safety Executive website, but you should generally look out for any changes in your attitude or behaviour triggered by a situation at work. Are you drinking more heavily after work, for example, or suffering from headaches or heart palpitations?

Worryingly, workplace violence and 'desk rage' is also on the rise, according to Pru Health, with employees reporting a rise in incidents such as seeing a colleague break down and cry; being rude to or swearing at a colleague, and taking frustration out on office equipment such as hitting computers, throwing something or slamming fists on the desk.

The prevention
Careful monitoring of your mood and behavior is key to prevent the onset of stress, as well as recognising when a workload feels unmanageable and you need to ask for help. Self acceptance and maintaining self-esteem are also important, explains Cat Williams, relationship councilor and author of Stay Calm and Content.

"We are all challenged at certain times. Stress and being 'out of our comfort zone' are normal and necessary parts of learning and living. The people who cope the best are those who don't resort to criticism of themselves or others. They also accept that there will be things they cannot do and they will not be perfect, so they learn to do what they can and accept what they cannot."

Don't let work take over your life and prevent you from doing things you enjoy, such as working out at the gym or meeting friends for dinner after work. A balance between work and play is key to job satisfaction and mental well-being .

The cure
If you recognise the symptoms of stress and feel that it is impacting your health, it is important to act quickly. Identify why you are feeling overwhelmed, for example, unrealistic deadlines or unachievable sales targets, and who can help you deal with the issues, such as your manager or human resources department.

Explain how you are feeling, why your limits are being tested and what solution you would like to see. Learning to say no is a key tool to dealing with stress. It teaches that have you have a choice not to overwork and will empower you to only take on the jobs that you can manage. Employee health should be a priority in all companies and if your problem is not dealt with sensitively, it may be time to move onto a new job.

Remember your GP can help too – pay a visit if your mental or physical health is suffering as a result of your job.
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