Stress levels have never been higher for workers this year. Uncertainty and change in the workplace are causing high levels of stress in people who have never experienced it before.
Economic and work-related uncertainty is responsible for much of the stress. Many businesses are facing hardship and their employees know their jobs are on the line. Workers are doing what they can to hold on to their job by taking on more work, working longer hours and improving the quality of their work.
Because of the amount of time spent working, the potential for ongoing chronic stress is concerning for the mental and physical health of workers in the short and long term.
Magnitude of Employees Suffering From Stress
Even before the pandemic, the number of self-reported incidences of depression and anxiety was on the rise. In Australia, one in five workers (21%) reported taking time off work due to feeling mentally unwell in the past 12 months.
In Britain in 2018/19 there was a prevalence rate of 1,800 per 100,000 workers, up from 1,500 in previous years. Stress, depression and anxiety accounted for 44% of all work-related ill health cases and 54% of all working days lost due to ill health. There is an average of 21.2 work days lost per case.
Common Sources of Stress
Stress can build up slowly or it can come on quick depending on the cause. Some people suffer from stress at work and also other areas of their everyday life including:
Major life events that cause stress include:
Most jobs involve some degree of stress, but when it’s combined with other sources of stress, it can cause serious health problems.
Long History of Stress
Humans have felt the effects of stress for thousands of years. In much earlier times, the stress would have been caused by life threatening events. Our ancestors would have experienced a fight-or-flight response.
The acute stress response is triggered by a surge of hormones that prepare the body to stay and fight or run to safety. The physical changes in the body include an increased heart rate, rapid breathing, trembling, pale skin and dilated pupils. These changes are designed to increase blood volume in the muscles and organs to assist with fighting or running.
Today, humans experience fewer instances of mortal danger that requires us to flee from a situation. We’re more likely to experience high levels of stress for long periods of time.
Why is Work Stressful?
Work is stressful for a variety of reasons. Some people find the heavy workload is the main cause of their stress while some feel they aren’t qualified to do the role due to their limited skills and experience. Others consider workplace bullying and harassment from superiors and colleagues to be the source of their stress.
The thought of work can cause the feeling of dread from the moment people open their eyes in the morning. The stress of work can consume them until they fall asleep at night. Months or years of constant stress can take its toll on workers’ physical and mental health.
When Does Stress Become a Problem?
Stress gets a bad rap but not all stress is bad. Low and moderate levels of stress can actually be beneficial, it’s the high and chronic levels of stress that cause the problems.
The Impact on Our Mental Health
High levels of stress are linked to mental health conditions including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Long term stress can change the structure of the brain, particularly in the areas that support learning and memory. This is caused by the release of the chemicals serotonin and adrenaline which are the signals between nerve cells (neurotransmitters).
Stress can make us feel angry or more aggressive than normal and cause us to become withdrawn, indecisive or inflexible. Stress can lead to depression by impacting on healthy mood regulation strategies. Work stress may cause someone to work more hours which doesn’t allow them to do the exercise they would normally do, go out with friends or spend time relaxing.
Work stress or job change can bring on anxiety conditions. Noticing early symptoms of anxiety and making changes to prevent the triggers can reduce the chance of anxiety developing into a disorder.
Some occupations have higher rates of stress and PTSD than others. Health and social care workers, police and prison officers and armed forces have high rates of work-related mental illness. Emergency workers, first responders and the armed forces are at high risk of developing PTSD because they are exposed to traumatic and stressful situations regularly. The less time between highly stressful events, the harder it is for the brain to recover. They are more likely to use drugs or alcohol to help cope with the trauma than someone who doesn’t work in the field.
The Impact on Our Physical Health
Stress has many physiological effects on the body. When the adrenal glands pump out cortisol, the heart beats faster, breathing becomes quicker and sugar is released into the bloodstream.
Stress can cause the following conditions:
High blood pressure
Colds and viral infections
Ear ringing, excess sweating of hands and feet
Dry mouth and difficulty swallowing
Short Term Effects of Stress
The body is impacted by stress through tense muscles, faster breathing which can lead to hyperventilation, panic attacks and high blood pressure. Stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline flood the body and the liver produces more blood sugar. Gastrointestinal changes are common including stomach pain, nausea, feeling of butterflies in the stomach, diarrhoea or vomiting.
Long Term Effects of Stress
When muscles are often tense, they can cause headaches, migraines and chronic pain. An ongoing increased heart rate and blood pressure can increase the chances of heart attack, stroke and hypertension.
Not everyone can reabsorb the extra sugar that the liver pumps out which can cause type two diabetes and the extra cortisol can lead to thyroid problems. Over the long term, stress can lead to chronic stomach pain, changed eating habits and acid reflux.
Stress can cause some people to self-harm. They may abuse drugs, alcohol or other harmful coping mechanisms to deal with the stress. The harmful activity can soon become a vicious cycle of abuse and stress.
The Positive Effects of Stress
Some stress helps us perform. Moderate stress strengthens the neurons in the brain which improves memory, attention and helps with productivity. Some workers report being able to focus better and get through the work quicker when they experience some stress compared to no stress during a workday.
We all think of stress as reducing our immunity and increasing inflammation in the body, but that’s linked to chronic stress. Moderate levels of stress stimulates the production of the chemical interleukins which boosts the immune system and can help protect us against colds and viruses.
Stress also makes us more resilient. When we experience stress, we’re more likely to remember the situation and how we dealt with it. When a similar situation occurs, we can bounce back from it and experience personal growth.
Steps to Manage Stress
No one should have to deal with constant stress. By recognising you have a problem with stress allows you to take charge of the problem and find solutions so you can avoid some of the physical and mental effects of stress.
Recognising the Problem
It’s easy to tell yourself that the stress you feel isn’t a big deal. The first step is to realise you’re suffering from stress. Keep watch for the physical warning signs of stress and determine if there is a connection between the pressure at work.
Find a Coping Mechanism
Once you’ve recognised that you’re experiencing stress, it’s ideal to find an activity that helps you deal with the stress if it’s not possible to eliminate the stress.
Everyone is different and what works for one won’t be as effective for another. A reliable stress reliever can make stress easier to cope on a daily basis.
Many people use exercise as a reliable stress reliever. It can be enough to act as a circuit breaker to the stress during the day. When a worker feels their stress levels rise, they leave their desk to take a short walk or run to clear their head. The exercise provides a hit of the feel-good hormones, endorphins. Stepping away from the problem for a while also allows them to think about it and potentially finding a solution.
See Friends and Family
When stress is relenting, you may not have the energy or inclination to socialise. If relationships with friends and family suffer, you miss out on the enjoyment of their company and the opportunity to talk about your problems. As hard as it may seem, you’ll benefit by keeping up your relationships. Dedicate time and energy to seeing friends and family to enjoy their company and share your problems.
Widening your group of friends may be beneficial too. Join a local group that interests you or do some volunteer work. Helping others can have additional benefits on your mood.
Eat a Healthy Diet
There have been studies that show diet can impact our mood. Eating a healthy diet and drinking plenty of water is a good place to start. Also, you don’t want to feel stressed about your poor diet on top of work related stress.
Some of the best foods for boosting your mood include:
Fatty fish for its high level of omega-3 acids
Dark chocolate has flavonoids that increase blood flow to the brain
Bananas help synthesize feel-good neurotransmitters
Berries help reduce inflammation which is linked to depression and mood disorders
Oats stabilise blood sugar levels for better mood and energy levels
Nuts and seeds provide tryptophan which produces mood-boosting serotonin
Fermented foods have probiotics which improve gut health
Beans and lentils increase levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine
Find a Hobby
Hobbies or interests are ideal for taking your mind off a problem. When you’re engaged in an activity you enjoy, you’re less likely to think about work and feel stressed. Taking time out for self-care and relaxation not only reduces your stress levels but also makes you more productive when you return to work.
Get a Good Night's Sleep
Sleep problems are common amongst people who suffer from high levels of stress. A lack of sleep causes mental fog and mistakes at work which further increase stress. If you’re struggling to fall asleep or stay asleep, try reducing your caffeine intake during the day, write out a list of things you will do tomorrow then make a conscious effort not to think about the list in bed and avoid looking at TV or computer screens an hour before bed. If you have tried improving your sleep without any improvement, see your GP.
Mindful meditation is something you can do at work to reduce the effects of stress and anxiety. When you feel stress levels rise, take some time out to leave your workstation and do some meditation. A short break can be all it takes to reset your mind and bring your stress levels down so you can think through a problem more clearly.
Be Aware of Drinking and Smoking
Many people see alcohol or smoking as the only way to cope with high stress levels but they are compounding the problem. Smoking causes an increased heart rate and changes to the chemicals in the brain so the symptoms of stress are exacerbated from smoking. If alcohol is used as a coping mechanism, it can quickly develop into excessive drinking which has its own physical and mental problems.
Seek Professional Help
If you’re experiencing high levels of stress, don’t wait until it impacts your physical or mental health. Try some different strategies for reducing your stress or talk to your doctor.