How to deal with stress at work
Reviewed by our clinical team
Stress is a natural bodily response to external events, and our bodies can experience stress during a range of activities. Occasionally we might get stressed at work due to excessive workloads, difficult tasks, or other issues.
Stress is a natural reaction, but long-term, untreated stress at work can cause poor mental health and even physical health issues.
What is work-related stress?
Work-related stress is a bodily response to demands or pressures at work that exceed our ability to cope with them.
This type of stress usually occurs when we are confronted with tasks that we aren’t trained for, have little to no control over, or which have been poorly planned. Many jobs are challenging or high-pressure, but should not cause long-term stress.
Work-related stress is not uncommon. One study found that 79% of workers in the UK commonly experience work-related stress. With public administration and defence, health and social care, and education seeing the highest level of reports in 2021/22 according to the HSE.
An acceptable level of pressure is perfectly fine for our bodies and can motivate us to achieve more in our jobs. However, when the pressure becomes excessive or unmanageable, it can cause stress, damaging your health. Stress at work can often be mistaken for, or exacerbate, depression and anxiety.
Causes of work-related stress
Although each job comes with its own bespoke challenges, there are some non-specific causes of stress at work that can occur in almost every business and industry. These include:
Humans can only do so much work before it starts to impact our health. According to Citizens Advice, your employer can't make you work more than 48 hours a week on average, though you can sign an agreement to willingly do more hours if you like. It’s crucial to remember that this does not mean you are required to work more than you are physically able to, and you can opt-out of this agreement at any time.
Workload can vary by job, and sometimes we have to do more work due to staff sickness etc. Nevertheless, this work should be planned by your manager to ensure it is not overwhelming, and you should be given all the resources you need to complete it.
Tight deadlines are a fact of life in many jobs, but as with the above, this should not exceed your ability. Work should be planned to ensure it can be completed in time, and tight deadlines should be avoided wherever possible.
Not feeling stable in our job or position can also cause stress. If you are worried about losing your job, you will likely be on edge and anxious about your finances. Not only will this impact your ability to carry out your job, but the endless worry can make you sick
Another potential factor in work-related stress. If you come into conflict with your colleagues or are being treated disrespectfully or bullied, then you are likely to experience stress. If you are having issues with colleagues you should bring them to the attention of your manager to be resolved.
Work-related stress symptoms
Work-related stress can go unnoticed for a while, explained away as natural frustration, or be confused with other problems such as stress and anxiety. Unless the reason for the stress is remedied, however, it will continue to get worse.
Signs of stress at work include:
You may feel tired, or as though you can’t recover no matter how much you rest.
A common symptom of work-related stress, you may suffer from headaches. So-called "tension-type headaches" are usually felt like a band or tight helmet all across the head. Pain in the neck, shoulders and scalp can be caused by tense muscles or poor posture. Spending long hours looking at a computer screen can cause eye strain, which can also cause headaches. Migraine sufferers often find that stress triggers a migraine.
Stress makes it difficult to relax, which causes us to tense our muscles, leading to tension and pain.
Stress at work can also make it harder to fall asleep. If you find yourself replaying your day at work in your head at night, or worrying about tomorrow to the point where it keeps you awake, then you may be suffering from work-related stress.
Stress can make existing skin conditions worse, such as psoriasis and eczema worse. This may be due to the stress itself or the fact that you don't find the time to stick to your usual skincare routine.
We know that long-term stress can lead to hair loss due to conditions such as telogen effluvium, alopecia areata and trichotillomania (habitual hair pulling). These are usually temporary, and hair should returns once you begin to manage your stress levels.
Other symptoms of work-related stress can include:
- Heart palpitations
- Flare up of IBS
- Worsening heartburn (acid reflux)
- Weight gain/weight loss
- Reduced ability to concentrate
- Feelings of being overwhelmed
- Aggression and mood swings
- Less patience/tolerance for others
- Feeling isolated
How to deal with stress at work
There are a few ways to reduce work-related stress.
Take time to recharge
It can be difficult but try not to bring work home with you. Take time to relax and de-stress by doing something enjoyable in the evening. Make sure you take breaks regularly whilst at work and leave your desk in between tasks.
If your workload and deadlines are reasonable, but you still find that you’re getting stressed, try employing a time management strategy, such as the Pomodoro method, to reduce distractions and better manage your time. You should keep in mind that this will only work if you are given enough time to complete the task in the first place, so talk to your manager if you think your workload is unreasonable.
Try to remember that you have a life outside of work, and you should dedicate as much time to your home life as you do to work, if not more. Take part in enjoyable activities outside of work, and spend time with friends and family to break up the stress.
Take care of yourself
It can be easy to get so caught up in your problems that you forget to take care of yourself, which can worsen the problem. Eating healthily, exercising, and trying to look after yourself are all very important to our wellbeing and mental health. Remember, it’s much harder to deal with stress if you’re not giving your body the resources it needs.
Many people find that relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and meditation can help reduce stress. Try to put time aside for introspection and relaxation wherever possible.
Ultimately, if your problems are caused by excessive workload, unreasonable deadlines, or issues with colleagues, the only way to resolve them is by talking to your manager. It’s their responsibility to look after your mental health in the same way that they are required to look after your physical safety.
If your manager is not willing to put reasonable adjustments in place for your mental wellbeing, you should take the issue to their manager or your company’s HR department. If that fails, you can seek help from Citizens Advice.
How to get signed off work with stress
It is possible to be signed off work if you become so stressed that you are unable to carry out your role.
What is stress leave?
Just like sick leave, stress leave is time off from work to allow you to recover. It's best to discuss this with your GP so they can sign you off by issuing a fit note (also known as sick line or sick note) which will state how long you should be off work and recommend changes your employer should make.
Returning to work after stress leave
After your period of stress leave ends, you should be able to get straight back to work if you’re feeling up to it. Your employer may ask you to complete a form, known as self-certification, if you've been off for less than 7 days and you did not get a fit note (sick note) from your doctor. You can also negotiate a change in work pattern, tasks or work hours to help you with a successful return to work.
Treatment for work-related stress
As mentioned above, some periodic stress at work is fine, but when it becomes the norm rather than the exception you should seek help before it begins to impact your mental and physical health.
Your first port of call should be to try and resolve the issues with your manager. If you are not comfortable discussing this with your (line) manager, you can go to their manager or HR.
You can also visit your GP or book an online consultation with a VideoGP to discuss your health.
Your GP might also recommend therapy, either talking therapy/psychotherapy or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), to help you better cope with the demands of your role.