Most of us have experienced stress at work at different times in our lives. We may have turned the pressure into a positive by making a big change, or fulfilling a career goal. We may also have adopted stress-busting habits, such as keeping active, empowering ourselves by taking control, and using our support networks to help us relax or problem-solve. But sometimes new jobs, promotions or changes in workload mean an increase in stress and, before we know it, the negative effects of stress have crept up on us.
According to the Health and Safety Executive in the UK, every year over 11 million working days are lost due to stress, yet we are often reluctant to raise mental health issues at work. A recent study by Accenture found that just 22% of people would be open about mental health at work and 27% believed that it would damage their career prospects.
For 26-year-old Sophie, ignoring the the initial signs of stress at work led to poor health and anxiety. Her job had always been fast-paced, but her company didn’t take on more staff when the workload continued to grow. “The stress of the job was partly from the nature of the work itself – being shouted and sworn at down the phone was a fairly regular occurrence, as was speaking to people in challenging circumstances,” she says.
Sophie went part-time in a bid to reduce her stress, but ended up trying to cram five days’ work into three. Her hair began to thin due to stress and, in the end, things became critical. “I was working on a ghastly assignment and dealing with a very challenging manager in relation to this project,” she recalls. “One day, I had a difficult call with the manager that lasted an hour, and I ended up going home and having the worst panic attack I’d experienced for a few years – it was awful.
“When I spoke to the manager again the following week, I ended up breaking down in tears in the office. I couldn’t stop crying, it was painfully embarrassing. In the end, I had to excuse myself from work and go home mid-afternoon. I knew I ought to go to the doctor and get signed off properly, but I couldn’t bear to. I knew the work and the problems would be waiting for me when I got back, and I felt weak for not having been able to cope with everything: everybody else seemed to cope, so why couldn’t I?” In Sophie’s case, it was a wake-up call and she resigned without a new job to go to. Happily, she quickly found a new role that she loves.
Suzy Glaskie of Peppermint Wellness experienced similar feelings of guilt when she was working in a stressful public relations job a few years ago. At first she tried to ignore her stress levels, but her mental and physical health began to deteriorate. “I wasn’t coping well with it, I had two very young children and the job was unbelievably stressful,” she recalls. “I had a very unsympathetic boss and the kids seemed to take it in turns to be ill. I would wake up every morning with my heart in my mouth wondering if one of them would be unfit to go to nursery and questioning how I would get to work too.”
Eventually, it got too much and she resigned, but her boss convinced her to stay. “Being ever the professional and not wanting to let anyone down, I let myself be persuaded,” she explains. “The next day I had this really awful red eye, which I’ve never had before or since. I tried every sort of drops and it just wouldn’t go. When you work in PR, you’re supposed to look well-put-together when you’re meeting clients, it’s pretty awful to show up looking like something out of the Twilight films.”
Three months later, Suzy went to her doctor because she’d lost a lot of weight. He warned her that if she carried on there was a risk her periods would stop. “That jolted me and I realised that I was on the way to being very poorly,” she explains. “The next day, I resigned properly. The day after that my eye just cleared up. Looking back, I see that red eye as a red alert. My body was screaming at me that whole time, but I ignored every single signal.”
Setting up your own business can also be a stressful time. Tania Diggory of Calmer works with businesses and entrepreneurs to help them be mindful at work. She previously ran an international events company and found it difficult to cope in the early days.
“In the transitional phase at the beginning, I was struggling to manage my own wellbeing. It was a bit more than I had mentally prepared myself for,” she says.
At the time she was also experiencing a few personal issues: “I wasn’t really looking after myself and I kept working, working, working. I ended up going through depression, anxiety and panic attacks for a year on and off. I didn’t really know that was what I was going through at the time – I just thought I was feeling ill.”
Tania got through it doing research about how she was feeling, building up her own support system and getting coaching in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). She also spent some time learning about wellbeing and what worked for her. “I haven’t had a panic attack in three years,” she says.
She believes that it’s important to put your wellbeing at the heart of your work, whether you’re an entrepreneur or working for a company and that there are lots of ways to self-coach yourself through difficult days. In her case, practising mindfulness and meditation made a big difference to how stressed she felt.
Dealing with stress at work
Stress has been described as a modern epidemic, and that’s a sentiment with which Dr Rangan Chatterjee, author of The Stress Solution, strongly agrees. He regularly sees patients who are struggling with work-related stress and have forgotten how to switch off: “Stress affects every single organ of the body. It can be good or it can be bad; as a GP, I see symptoms every single day that are seemingly unrelated, but actually at their root they all have stress as a big driver.”
“We can work from anywhere now, but is that a good thing?” he asks. “On Saturdays and Sundays, when we’re on the beach, we’re still checking our work emails. We’ve forgotten how important disconnecting is, from our lives, from our work, and it’s just all contributing to this general feeling of overload.”
We’re used to thinking of stress as a problem, but Dr Chatterjee explains that in small doses stress can be beneficial. “If you’ve got a presentation or a deadline you have to meet you get a little bit of stress. You think more clearly and it allows you to be more productive.
“If you have too much stress, that can start to become problematic. So if you get too stressed before your presentation, you could suddenly forget everything. You’re not able to speak in front of your work colleagues, or you’re so overwhelmed that you can’t actually think or meet your deadline because that stress has got too much.”
Dr Rangan explains that our stress response can make us hyper-alert at work so that we see dangers everywhere. Our ‘fight or flight’ instincts may have helped our cavewoman ancestors to survive, but in the modern world the way we react to stress can make us ill: “If you’re running away from a lion, quite a few different things happen in the body, but one of them is your emotional brain – the amygdala – goes into high alert, because you need to be more vigilant to threats that are around you.
“That’s brilliant if it lasts for half an hour or an hour and then switches off. That’s normal. If you’re constantly being stressed out by things in your work then your brain is reacting in the same way so your amygdala – your emotional brain – is on high alert. You’re going to have anxiety, because that’s what your amygdala is meant to do, it’s meant to make you vigilant to threats. But what if you get an email from your boss, it’s an innocent email but you take it the wrong way and think: ‘Oh my god, I’m about to get fired.’ Or you’re in the staff room or just walking past a colleague and they look at you, just an innocent glance, you might think ‘Oh no, what have I done?’. The same stress response that can be helpful in the short term becomes harmful in the long term.”
If you’re frequently stressed you can become trapped in a ‘feed-forward’ cycle, where the more stressed you feel, the more stressed you become. For many people, this cycle of stress can lead to depression and anxiety. One common cause of stress at work is not getting on with your manager, or your colleagues. “Feeling socially isolated can be a huge stress on your body. If you feel rejected in a social environment your markers of inflammation and genetic expression change within around 45 minutes, it’s that quick, because as humans we’ve always needed to belong to a tribe. That’s exactly why loneliness is a huge source of stress for many people,” says Dr Rangan.
“If you don’t like your work colleagues, that can be very tricky, so you almost have to maximise all the other aspects of your life. You have to recognise that this will probably be a stress for you while you’re at work, so you’ll have to get better with the other things that you do and make sure that you’re coming into work in a stress-free state.”
Feeling stressed might lead you to leave your job, but it’s not always that straightforward if you have family commitments or a mortgage keeping you in your role. If you are struggling with mental health at work, it’s really helpful if you can find a colleague that you trust and confide in them, says Emma Mamo, head of Workplace Wellbeing at Mind: “Good managers should offer you support and the space for you to talk about your problems, whether personal or professional. If you have a supportive line manager, talk to them. If not, talk to your HR department if you have one. If you’d prefer to speak to someone in confidence, use your Employee Assistance Programme if you have one, but bear in mind that if you don’t tell your employer, they won’t necessarily know there’s a problem.”
Under the Equality Act 2010, employers in the UK have to make reasonable adjustments if your mental health is impacting on day-to-day activities. While there’s still a lot of stigma associated with stress and mental illness in the workplace, there are signs that things are changing for the better. A growing number of businesses are recruiting mental health first aiders to support their staff when they’re under stress.
If you don’t feel able to raise your concerns at work, there are still positive steps that you can take to reduce your stress levels. Read on for Dr Rangan’s expert advice on how to relieve stress at work.
5 ways to help you reduce stress in the workplace from Dr Rangan Chatterjee
Be aware of your personal stress threshold
When you’re rushing around in the morning, hitting snooze on the alarm clock, trying to get the kids out of the house or checking your emails on your phone, you’re edging ever closer to your personal stress threshold – often before you’ve even reached work. “We’ve all got a threshold. If we’re under it we can deal with things, we don’t feel stressed, but once we exceed it – boom – everything starts to become a big, big problem.”
Start the day right
Dr Rangan believes that starting the day with just 6-10 minutes for yourself can help you to feel calmer. “Have a bit of silence, listen to some music, do a bit of movement or meditate using an app,” he suggests. Try to incorporate the three Ms: mindfulness, movement and mindset.
“Food is a huge source of stress in our bodies. The food you eat can either stress your body out, or lower your stress levels and it’s all to do with our gut,” he says. “There’s a thing called the gut brain axis, these trillions of bugs that live inside our gut. Many scientists refer to them as our brain’s peacekeepers because we know that if you keep them happy they send calm signals to your brain.”
“When you have a panic attack, or you’re stressed full-stop, your breathing starts to change immediately,” explains Dr Rangan. “Breathing slowly is the quickest way to tell your body that everything is calm and that you are not stressed. Even a one-minute practice of deep breathing can have a profound impact on your stress levels.” If you suffer a panic attack at work, use Rangan’s simple 3-4-5 breathing technique: breathe in for a count of three, hold for four and breathe out for five.
“Many of us work in offices, so we are indoors and we are looking at screens. Fine, that’s what society requires us to do, but a really great hack for that is to use your lunchtime – almost everybody gets a lunchbreak – to go outside. If you’re going to eat at a café, walk to it and eat there. If you brought your own lunch, go for a quick 10-minute walk. Even better, if there’s a park or some green space, sit down and look at trees, look at nature. They have geometric shapes called fractals inside them. And we know that by looking at fractals, which we only get in nature, our cortisol levels, which is one of our main stress response hormones, go down. Just by looking at nature – it’s incredible.”
How to cope with stress podcast
We interviewed Dr Rangan Chatterjee for the In The Moment Magazine podcast to get his advice on how to manage stress in every area of our lives. This episode is packed with practical tips to help you feel calmer every day.
Featured image by Unsplash/Christina @ wocintechchat.com.