Ambiguous communication, jumping to conclusions, constantly imagining the worst-case scenario… many of these hard-wired defaults are a result of pressures at the office. Despite this, workplace stress often goes unrecognized, and can be brushed off as ‘normal’ by employees. But workplace stress is inherently unhealthy and can snowball into bigger problems, if left unchecked. Here’s how you can identify and address work-related stress to ensure your health and wellbeing isn’t at risk.
What causes workplace stress?
Work-related stress is defined as a harmful reaction that people have to excessive pressures and demands placed on them at work. Poorer judgement, difficulty concentrating, ‘brain fog’, indecisiveness and self-doubt are all symptoms of a high-stress work environment.
Although stress affects people in different ways, there are six main areas that directly contribute to it at work, which can become much worse over time if not identified properly:
- Demand: you feel unable to cope with the demands of their job.
- Control: you feel control over your work is restricted, or that you’ve lost control of your workflow.
- Support: you don’t feel supported enough at work, or lack information about where to find support.
- Relationships: you struggle to communicate with peers, or are even a victim of bullying or harassment.
- Role: you don’t fully understand your role or responsibilities – which can lead to underperforming or burnout.
- Change: you are not engaged with change going on within a team or business.
Of course, there can be several other factors unique to your personal circumstances – experience, age, mental health issues or disabilities can also impact your abilities to cope with specific work situations.
How does workplace stress manifest?
Cues from our behaviors – both emotional and physical – are the best indicators of work-related stress.
The emotional symptoms of stress often include having a low mood, feeling uneasy or anxious, or feeling more sensitive than usual. You might have a more general sensation of feeling overwhelmed, or even experience mood swings. Feeling powerless, or feeling like you’re losing your sense of identity and wellbeing, are also common.
On the physical side, some people experience shortness of breath, an increase or decrease in appetite, heart palpitations and difficulty sleeping. These are often more obvious than emotional symptoms, which can easily be ignored at first.
Everyone needs to understand the damaging effects of workplace stress. From reducing our ability to have meaningful connections with others, to losing our ability to focus, it can affect us in very tangible ways both in and out of the workplace.
Listening is key
Talking about workplace stress is a great start, but to those of us who experience it infrequently or even not at all, it can still seem a little alien. It’s more helpful to hear from real individuals and understand their story, from their own words, to gauge the impact it can have.
Consider the story below from Helen, an emergency call handler in the UK, on how workplace stress can manifest in very real, intimidating ways:
“It was around three years ago when I suffered panic attacks. I was feeling sick, not wanting to go into work. I had depression as well; you don’t even want to get out of bed, you just want to hide. I work in a room full of 30 or 40 people and I felt like I was the only person in there. You can feel so alone and you just want to hide in a cupboard. It’s like you’re in a little bubble.”
Many of us find it difficult to talk about what’s worrying us, but it’s usually best to be honest about what’s making you feel stressed. Transparency is key to opening up the conversation - without it, symptoms can be exacerbated, eventually hindering team morale and harming engagement.
The good news is that conversations around work-related stress are becoming more recognized by HR as we continue to learn about its potentially devastating impacts to our mental, emotional and physical health. And it’s important that these departments play a proactive part, too, knowing where to step in if a high-pressure environment is becoming too much for their employees. Workplace stress is clearly of huge concern to every business when you consider:
- Globally, businesses lose up to $300 billion in lost productivity due to workplace stress.
- In the UK, almost a fifth (17%) of vacation time is spent worrying about work.
- In a study, 65% of workers said that workplace stress had caused difficulties – and more than 10% described these as having major effects.
Workplace stress isn’t always avoidable, but it should be manageable. As long as HR teams can quickly identify high-risk areas and offer solutions, stress levels can be reduced quickly – or avoided altogether. Even just asking “how’s it going?” or “how can I help?” can make a world of difference to a stressed colleague.