Stress at work

Stress is our body’s natural reaction to any kind of excess demand or threat. While having some challenge at work can be positive, work-related stress can be a risk to your mental and physical health. Fortunately, there are things you can do to reduce your levels of stress at work.

Key points

  1. In general, stress at work is increasing. A high workload is cited as the main reason, but stress at work can occur for other reasons too, such as long hours, job insecurity, the threat of job loss or redundancy, workplace bullying, inadequate social support, harassment and conflicts with other workers or bosses.
  2. Ongoing work-related stress may result in mental health problems. For example, a New Zealand study found that young people exposed to high job demands (excessive workload, extreme time pressures) had twice the risk of major depression or generalised anxiety disorder compared to those with low job demands.
  3. Continuous stress may also lead to other conditions such as chronic headaches or heart disease, either because of changes in your body or the overeating, smoking and other bad habits you use to cope with stress.
  4. Your employer has obligations to your health and safety at work and may provide you with sick leave if you have work-related stress.
  5. There are steps you can take at work and at home to help you manage your work-related stress.

(Image source: Pixabay)

What are the causes of work-related stress?

As well as too much work, issues that can create stress at work include:

  • harassment – bullying, violence, sexual, racial, disability or being different
  • expectations of long working hours
  • narrow and limited job content
  • too much or too little work
  • lack of recognition or positive feedback
  • uncertainty about what is expected or required in the job and the future of the organisation
  • accident hazards and dangers
  • poor management styles that do not include consultation or value diversity in the workplace
  • unresolved conflict in the workplace
  • poor support for workers experiencing personal or professional difficulties. 

What are the signs of work-related stress?

Signs of stress at work include the following feelings or behaviours when you are at work or in relation to your work:

  • irritable, impatient or wound up
  • over-burdened
  • worried, anxious or nervous
  • like your thoughts are racing and you can't switch off
  • finding it hard to concentrate or make decisions
  • unable to enjoy yourself
  • tense and tired
  • restless or panicked. 

Over time, these symptoms can lead to mental health problems, such as depression or anxiety, or physical conditions such as such as chronic headaches or heart disease.

What can I do if I have work-related stress?

In New Zealand, your employer must make as sure as reasonably possible that health and safety risks in the workplace are identified and managed properly. This includes workplace stress and fatigue. 

They are obliged to monitor employees for potential workplace stress, such as keeping an eye on workload, job performance and the types of tasks being performed, as well as looking for any physical signs of stress. They may provide you with sick leave if you have work-related stress.

Your stress may not always be obvious to your employer, so it’s important that if you are stressed at work, you talk to your manager about it. Often there are support options available through your workplace, such as employee assistance programmes (including free counselling), or the options of delegating work, longer deadlines or more flexible working arrangements.

An employer may ask an employee who says they have workplace stress to see a doctor to be properly diagnosed and confirm the reason for the stress, but you are under no obligation to do this. However, you have a duty to report any workplace threat to your health and safety, which may include stress. 

How can I reduce or manage work-related stress?

At work

  • Make sure you take your scheduled breaks.
  • Go for a walk at lunchtime.
  • Take a few slow, deep breaths – this can calm down your nervous system and lower your stress.
  • Reduce interruptions, for example, only answer emails during certain blocks of time.
  • If you have too much work, talk to your manager or delegate some of it if you can.
  • Use your leave when you need a break – that’s what it’s there for.
  • Cultivate good relationships with the people you work with – they can be a support to you.

Out of work time

  • Get regular exercise.
  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Get plenty of sleep.
  • Learn a mindfulness technique.
  • Talk to someone you trust about how you are feeling.
  • Have fun – don’t make work your whole life.
  • Don’t use alcohol, drugs or comfort eating to reduce stress: you will only add to the problem.
  • Talk to your doctor or get help from a professional if you can’t manage these self-help strategies.

Find out more about beating stress.

What can employers do to reduce workplace stress?

WorkSafe NZ recommends the following actions:

  • Set achievable demands for your workers in relation to agreed hours of work.
  • Match worker’s skills and abilities to job demands.
  • Support workers to have a level of control over their pace of work.
  • Develop multi-disciplinary teams to share ideas and perspectives on ways to address situations.
  • Involve workers in decisions that may impact their health and safety, and have processes to enable workers to raise issues and concerns they might have.
  • Ensure managers and supervisors have the capability and knowledge to identify, understand and support workers who may be feeling stressed
  • Provide workers with access to independent counselling services
  • Have agreed on policies and procedures to prevent or resolve unacceptable behaviour.
  • Engage and consult with workers before implementing change processes, and ensure they genuinely have the ability to influence the decisions you make.

Learn more

Five ways to wellbeing at work Mental Health Foundation, NZ, 2017
Workplace wellness 5+ a day, NZ
Wellplace NZ 
Good4work NZ. Free online workplace wellbeing tool.
Open Minds Tips and fact sheets for talking about mental health at work. Mental Health Foundation, NZ
10 stress busters NHS Choices, UK, 2016
Stress Public Health England, 2017
Coping with stress Free online course. This Way Up, Australia, 2017
Work-related stress Better Health Channel
Coping with stress – workplace tips Mayo Clinic, 2016

References

  1. Wellness in the workplace survey 2017 Business NZ & Southern Cross Health Society
  2. Stress and mental health at work Health and Safety Executive, UK.
  3. Melchior, M. Caspi A. et al. (2007). Work stress precipitates depression and anxiety in young, working women and men  Psychol Med. 2007 Aug; 37(8): 1119–1129.
  4. How stress affects your health American Psychological Association, US, 2013
  5. Stress leave Employment New Zealand, 2017
  6. Returning to work after experiencing a mental illness Mental Health Foundation, NZ, 2007
  7. Work-related stress WorkSafe, NZ, 2017
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team.