Everyone gets stressed from time to time, and it’s not always a bad thing. Moderate levels of manageable stress can spur us to increase our motivation, build resilience and focus on our personal growth.
While stress is part and parcel of daily life, it can have a darker side. Chronic stress – when you continually feel overwhelmed and under pressure – can lead to a whole host of problems. These range from mental health issues such as anxiety and depression to problems at work, including low productivity, a lack of motivation, irritability, fatigue and poor morale.
Today, one of the top causes of chronic stress is our work. In 2022, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that 79% of people reported stress-related absences in their organisations over the previous year. This rose to 90% for large organisations with more than 250 employees.
Because workplace stress can be debilitating, employers and employees need to take it seriously. Employers and managers can help by learning to recognise signs of work-related stress, allowing them to support individuals more quickly. If you are an employee, you can learn to understand what causes your stress and then develop habits and strategies to prevent and manage it. To help you, in this blog post, we run through our top 8 techniques for managing stress in the workplace.
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1. How to deal with stress at work
Unless you know what’s causing you stress, it can be difficult to manage it.
One helpful technique is keeping a journal to track what makes you stressed. When something triggers stress, write it down. There’s no single way to keep a journal, but you could write about your feelings and thoughts about stressful events and any solutions you identify as a result. You may also find that speaking to a colleague will help you to identify your stressors, i.e. what triggers your stress.
When you have identified what is causing you stress, you can develop practical strategies to minimise the impact. For example, if you discover that an overflowing inbox is ramping up your stress level, you’ll know that workload is a stressor. There could also be a combination of stressors between work, and at home, that when combined make stress unmanageable. Knowing this will enable you to look at strategies to reduce the cause of the stress.
2. Ask for help and talk to others
Reaching out for help can lead to positive results, especially if you’ve clearly identified what’s causing you stress. In the first instance, speak to someone you trust in a safe and confidential environment. This could be a manager, colleague, friend or family member.
Talking through your challenging situation may help you to identify solutions yourself. The person you are speaking with may be able to help you identify what has worked well in the past.
For example, if you are struggling with your workload, you could say to your manager: “I’m having problems dealing with my workload, and I’ve tried a number of things that haven’t solved the problem. I’m sure you’ve been here before. What would you recommend?”
Asking for help in this way is a sign of strength, not weakness. It shows you have identified a problem, that you trust the person you’re talking to and that you have faith in their ability to help. Often, a conversation like this, which is you taking control, is a major step to solving the stressful situation you’re in.
3. Work smarter, not harder
Improving your time management helps you keep stress under control. This is because it lets you focus on high-quality rather than high-quantity work.
One simple tool that can help you do this is the Eisenhower Matrix. This simple grid lets you prioritise tasks quickly, depending on how important and urgent they are.
Imagine you had to write an article for a 12PM deadline. This would be important and urgent, so you’d do that task first. If you needed to draft a departmental budget in three days’ time, that would be important but not urgent.
You’d put that on your to-do list. If you needed to book a meeting room for the next day, that would be urgent but you could delegate it to someone else. Finally, tasks like sorting through your junk mail are neither important nor urgent, so you would eliminate them altogether.
Using this technique will help you reduce stress in several ways:
1. You will find yourself concentrating mostly on important but not urgent tasks, preventing many of them from becoming urgent and stressful in the first place.
2. You will reduce your workload by smart delegation and by eliminating unimportant tasks.
3. If you deal with your workload methodically, you’ll multitask less. While multitasking may seem like a good way to improve your productivity, it actually makes you more stressed and fatigued as you pump out higher levels of stress hormones.
Of course, it’s not only office work that causes stress. Working in any context, whether it’s on a construction site or in a restaurant, driving a truck or caring for people in a hospital, can be stressful. For example, if you lack autonomy in your work, it’s stressful whether you’re a civil servant or a bricklayer. Using the Eisenhower Matrix can be helpful, whatever your job.
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4. Take regular breaks
It can be tempting to skip breaks during the working day, especially if you have a lot of work to get through. Sadly, doing so is counterproductive and actually contributes to higher levels of stress, fatigue and poor performance.
Try taking proper breaks as they can help you to de-stress. If you work more than 6 hours per day, you’re entitled to at least one uninterrupted 20-minute break. Many people will get more, such as an hour’s break for lunch. If you do, getting outside and taking a walk is a good habit to help improve your physical and mental wellbeing.
If you also get short breaks during the day, try and avoid grabbing a quick coffee while you’re still working. Instead, try spending a little time doing something that’s not work-related. Try listening to a favourite podcast, reading a few pages of a book or doing a puzzle on your phone. Just taking your mind off work for a few minutes can help lower stress.
It’s also wise to take your full holiday entitlement each year (even though only 60% of UK workers do). Be sure to book your annual leave ahead of time so you’re not taking it at the last minute or at times when you can’t make the most of it. Not only do holidays help to reduce stress and burnout, but holiday plans can also make stress more manageable by giving you something to look forward to.
5. Don't take your work home (even if you work from home)
It can be very difficult to leave stress behind when you finish work for the day. According to recent YouGov research, 39% of people say they feel stressed when thinking about work outside of work hours. Worse, 66% of people who say they are stressed at work spend a lot or a fair amount of time thinking about their job during their free time.
A good way to manage this kind of stress is to create physical, mental and digital boundaries between your work and your personal life. If you work from home, create a dedicated workspace (if possible) and avoid working in rooms you associate with relaxation, such as your sitting room or bedroom. That way, when you stop work, you can close the door on your working day, both literally and metaphorically.
If you don’t have a dedicated workspace at home, at the very least try to find a quiet area in which to work. It’s also a good idea to set boundaries between your work and home life, such as not working through your lunch break. For more tips, see our post 6 ways to manage your mental health if you struggle working from home.
Whether you work at home or not, resist the temptation to respond to work calls and emails during your personal time. If you feel your work life is ‘always on’, it’s stressful and ultimately makes you less productive.
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6. Make time for yourself
Enjoying your leisure time and making space for activities you enjoy is a great way to de-stress. Whether you’re into yoga, sailing, watching football, helping out in the community or spending time with family and friends, enjoyable activities can give you a sense of purpose and help you to avoid burnout.
Be careful, though. One trap people sometimes fall into is thinking that leisure time is wasteful. If you do this, your mindset can end up making you feel even more stressed. Not everything in life is about productivity, so give yourself permission to enjoy your spare time, and it’ll do wonders for your wellbeing.
7. Learn to relax
Our stress response is a physical reaction. When we’re stressed, our bodies react by creating stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. This ‘fight or flight’ response can be useful if we need to react to a dangerous situation, but it’s bad for our health to experience it for prolonged periods.
This is why it’s so important to learn how to relax. One pioneering cardiologist, Dr Herbert Benson, developed something called the ‘The Relaxation Response’ as an opposite to the ‘fight or flight’ response. In a nutshell, he discovered that people who practised relaxation techniques such as meditation had lower stress levels and increased wellbeing.
You don’t even have to opt for meditation to relax. There are lots of different techniques that work, ranging from yoga and mindfulness to breathing exercises and guided imagery (imagining or looking at soothing scenes). You can also do many of your favourite activities in a mindful way, such as baking, gardening and dancing. Taking time to enjoy sensations of smell, touch, taste, sound and vision as you engage with the present moment. For more tips, see our blog post on 7 easy mindfulness activities you may surprisingly enjoy.
Digital technology can impact our mental health in different ways, but used wisely it can help us to de-stress. Search for some of the popular mobile apps that can help guide you through a wide range of relaxation techniques.
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8. Look after yourself
Perhaps the best way to prevent or minimise stress is to look after your physical and mental health. A healthy diet with plenty of omega-3 fats and vegetables can help you to regulate cortisol levels, bringing down stress levels. Sleeping at least eight hours per night is associated with lower stress. Regular exercise can also bring down levels of stress hormones while stimulating endorphins, our body’s natural mood elevators. Even if your workday is busy, try fitting in regular exercise, perhaps by cycling to work or taking a walk at lunchtime. If it’s impossible to build exercise into your working day, why not try some of these quick home exercises to help boost your mood and energy levels?
If you are stressed, it can also be tempting to turn to alcohol to lift your mood. If you do this, the chances are that you’re numbing your stress rather than finding healthier ways of dealing with it. You also run the risk of longer-term health problems, such as weight gain, liver damage and addiction. Drinking alcohol also has a negative impact on your sleep quality, which in turn can make you more stressed. By all means, have the occasional drink, but do so in moderation while eating healthily and exercising regularly.
Help with managing workplace stress
We hope these techniques have given you an insight into how to manage stress in the workplace. While they have been written with employees in mind, employers, managers and others all have an important role to play, especially in recognising signs of stress in their teams.
Many employees find it hard to talk about stress, so the more supportive your work culture the better. To help you encourage these important conversations, we’ve created a useful guide to talking to employees about their mental health as well as this checklist which gives you a great starting point for learning how managers can reduce stress in the workplace.