2 November is National Stress Awareness Day in the UK.
A certain amount of healthy pressure now and again is inevitable in most jobs, and can help us achieve our goals and perform better. But excessive persistent pressure without respite can put our mental and physical wellbeing at serious risk.
- Stress affects one in five of the working population.
- It is the single biggest cause of long-term sickness absence in the UK.
- This costs UK employers up to £5 billion a year.
- 9.9 million working days were lost to stress, depression and anxiety in 2014/15 alone.
Health, social work and education are among the lines of work worst affected by stress, but no industry or employee, from board level exec to first-jobber, is immune to its effects. Stress is one of the main causes of anxiety and depression.
How much pressure is too much pressure?
There is a difference between pressure and stress. Provided we’re not being constantly pushed to our limits and beyond by heavy workloads, long hours and tight deadlines, pressure can be a positive, motivating factor.
Stress on the other hand is, as defined by the Health and Safety Executive, “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them.” Stress at work can lead, among other things, to poor attendance and a higher risk of accidents. It can leave workers demoralised, unproductive and, in the worst cases, unable to work.
Other causes of stress
Stress can also result when workers have too few demands placed upon them. The less say people have over the work they do or how the do it, the more they feel undervalued, ignored and unable to make a meaningful contribution.
Other common stress factors include lack of managerial support, employees' lack of certainty about what is expected of them, organisational changes at work, job insecurity, low pay, bullying and violence.
Dealing with stress
If you are feeling under too much pressure at work, it’s vital you don't blame yourself for becoming stressed or ‘failing’ to cope. There are several practical steps you can take instead:
- Talk to someone you trust, at work or outside work. Speak to your union rep if you have one. Talking is not a sign of weakness, but the first step in regaining control over your working life.
- Understand your feelings. Think about where and when you experience the most stress. Is it at home or at work? Are you trying to meet impossible demands? Where do they come from?
- Look for warning signs. Each of us has our own stress response. It may be a headache, diarrhoea, insomnia or loss of concentration. Watch out for increases in tension, irritability and moodiness. These changes may be more obvious to other people than to you.
- Tell your GP about your work and your health symptoms. You may need time off work to decide what you are going to do.
- Call a helpline. Many employers, unions and voluntary agencies offer confidential advice on tackling stress.
- Look after yourself. Take regular exercise, eat healthily and take proper breaks at work. Avoid too much caffeine. Try a creative activity, such as learning a musical instrument, or a new sport. Avoid 'false friends', particularly increased drinking, smoking or drugs.
- Make use of your support network of colleagues. Sounding off about the latest turn of events at work can help to put things into perspective.
- Talk to your manager. It is your employer’s responsibility to ensure your work is not organised in such a way that you are needlessly exposed to unhealthy levels of pressure. That said, bosses may unwittingly or deliberately cause or contribute to stress among those under their supervision. If you are not comfortable talking to your manager, other workplace help may be available. For example, your employer may have policies on harassment, bullying and discrimination, so that you know how to tackle these issues and what support you will get. Remember, if you decide to meet management, you have the right to be accompanied by a union rep, fellow worker or other person of your choice.
See workSMART’s section on Stress for comprehensive advice and information about the causes, signs and consequences of stress, and for ideas of what you and your employer can do to manage stress in the workplace.