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How to Manage Workplace Stress

Workplace stress has become a significant issue in Australia, despite the legal obligations for employers to create and manage safe and mentally healthy workplaces.

While most jobs will have some level of stress, more than half the workforce (in a 2022 survey) now reports their work is suffering because of poor mental health.

When occupational stress becomes excessive it can negatively impact your mental and physical health, productivity and overall well-being.

Stress can also interfere with your ability to think clearly and make effective decisions.

Whether from an overwhelming workload, unrealistic deadlines, job insecurity, unhealthy work culture or other reasons, many workers regularly experience workplace stress.

What is Stress?

Stress is a natural response to challenging or demanding situations. It can arise from various sources, such as work, relationships or personal circumstances.

When you experience stress, your body releases stress hormones like cortisol, preparing you to cope with the perceived threat. In small doses, stress can be beneficial as it motivates you to perform better. However, prolonged or excessive stress can have detrimental effects on your physical and mental health.

What is Workplace Stress?

Workplace stress specifically refers to the stressors and pressures you encounter in your professional life. It can arise from factors such as heavy workloads, tight deadlines, lack of control or autonomy, conflicts with colleagues or job insecurity, among other reasons.

Workplace stress can affect anyone, regardless of their position or industry, and it is important to address it proactively to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

The Australian Human Rights Commission identified that:

  • More than 3 days per worker per year were lost through workplace stress.
  • Stress-related workers’ compensation claims had doubled in recent years, costing more than $10 billion each year.
  • More than 25% of workers took time off each year for stress-related reasons.

Symptoms of Workplace Stress

Different people experience stress in a variety of different ways. Some common signs of work-related stress you may experience include:

  • Physical symptoms: These may include headaches, muscle tension, fatigue, changes in appetite or sleep patterns and gastrointestinal issues.
  • Emotional symptoms: Workplace stress can manifest as feelings of anxiety, irritability, mood swings, sadness, heightened emotions, or a loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities.
  • Cognitive symptoms: You may have trouble concentrating, making decisions, or remembering important details. Your thoughts may race and you may have a negative outlook on work or life in general.
  • Behavioural symptoms: These can include changes in work habits, such as procrastination, decreased productivity, increased absenteeism, social withdrawal or conflicts with colleagues.

Causes of Workplace Stress

Stress at work can have many causes and is often specific to you as an individual and your workplace situation. In most cases, multiple stressors combine to produce work-related stress, varying in severity over time.

Some common workplace stressors are:

  1. Workload: Excessive workloads, unrealistic deadlines, too many meetings and a lack of resources can create stress.
  2. Lack of control: Feeling powerless or having limited control over work-related decisions, a perception of incompetent or uncaring managers and meaningless targets can contribute to stress levels.
  3. Job insecurity: Fear of losing your job, not having opportunities for development or advancement or facing financial difficulties can be a significant source of stress.
  4. Interpersonal conflicts: Difficult relationships with colleagues, conflicts, or bullying in the workplace can also contribute to stress and anxiety.

How to Best Manage Workplace Stress

Managing workplace stress often requires a multifaceted approach. Stress can be managed by addressing, reducing, or removing some of the causes, where possible, establishing boundaries between work and your personal life and allowing time to recharge.

Over time, you can develop techniques that reduce your feelings of being overwhelmed, develop new habits and change your relationship to workplace stress.

Here are some effective strategies to help you cope with and reduce workplace stress:

  • Identify and prioritise: Start by identifying the specific stressors in your work environment. Are there any patterns in what is causing you stress and how you react? When you have identified them, prioritise the most pressing issues and tackle them one by one.
  • Establish boundaries: Set clear boundaries between your work and personal life. Avoid bringing work-related stress home with you by creating a clear separation between the two.
  • Time management: Efficiently manage your time by prioritising tasks, breaking them down into smaller, manageable steps and setting realistic deadlines. Avoid overcommitting and learn to say no when necessary.
  • Practice self-care: Engage in activities that promote relaxation and well-being, such as exercise, mindfulness meditation, deep breathing exercises, or pursuing hobbies outside of work. Taking care of your physical and mental health is crucial in managing workplace stress.
  • Seek support: Build a strong support system by connecting with trusted colleagues, friends or family members who can provide a listening ear and offer guidance. Sharing your experiences and concerns can provide a fresh perspective and emotional support.

Tips to Prevent Workplace Stress

Prevention is always better than cure when it comes to workplace stress. Here are some tips to help you prevent stress from overwhelming you:

  1. Develop healthy coping mechanisms: Engage in stress-reducing activities regularly, such as exercise, meditation, or journaling. Find what works best for you and incorporate it into your daily routine.
  2. Improve communication: Maintain open and honest communication with your colleagues and superiors. Effective communication can prevent misunderstandings, resolve conflicts and create a more supportive work environment.
  3. Enhance your skills: Identify areas where you feel less confident or competent and invest in professional development. Developing new skills can increase your sense of control and confidence in the workplace.
  4. Foster a positive work environment: Be proactive in creating a positive work environment by promoting teamwork, showing appreciation for colleagues’ contributions and fostering a culture of mutual respect and support.

When to Get Help from a Psychologist

Sometimes, managing workplace stress on your own may not be sufficient, and it may be beneficial to seek help from a psychologist. Consider consulting a psychologist if:

  1. Your workplace stress is significantly affecting your mental health, well-being, or personal relationships.
  2. You have tried various strategies to manage stress but have not seen any significant improvement.
  3. You experience severe symptoms of anxiety or depression, such as persistent sadness, panic attacks, or suicidal thoughts.

Our psychologists can provide professional guidance, support, and evidence-based interventions to help you manage workplace stress effectively and help you thrive in your professional life. Contact us today to book an appointment.