In the light of the coronavirus pandemic, mental health has become an important issue for all of us. However, a report by the Health and Safety Executive has found that, even before the Covid-19 outbreak, levels of occupational stress were already rising. In the year between 2016 and 2017, the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) Labour Force Survey revealed that almost 50% of all absences from work were a result of occupational stress. Between 2018 and 2019, this figure rose by 5%. However, these figures pale into insignificance when compared to the statistics thrown up during the first year of the pandemic. Between 2020 and 2021, the number of working days lost to work-related stress weighed in at 79%. Similarly, the financial cost to UK employers is also on the rise, currently costing an estimated £26 billion each year. If you, an employee, or someone you know is suffering from occupational stress, read on to find out eight great ways to help reduce it.
What is occupational stress?
A study by Dr. Jitendar Singh Narban describes non-occupational stress as “an adaptive response to an external situation that results in physical, psychological and behavioural deviations.” However, in writing about the specifics of occupational stress, he says that it can be defined as “the physiological and emotional responses that originate when workers feel an imbalance between their work demands and their capability and/or resources to meet these demands.” For some employees, those stressors can be perceived as challenges, driving them forward to meet them. However, for others, they can promote a permanent state of ‘fight or flight,’ leading to exhaustion, depression, and a host of physical and mental problems. He goes on to suggest that the route a given worker will take depends very much on “the type of demands placed on them, the amount of control they exercise over the situation, the amount of support they get and also the individual response of the person.” Those who fall foul of occupational stress are likely to feel overwhelmed and, as a result, are likely to underperform. In more severe cases, this can lead to suffering from ‘burnout’ and, ultimately, lead to absences or even resignation.
Symptoms of occupational stress
According to the British United Provident Association (BUPA), occupational can present in a range of symptoms, dependent mainly on the employee’s personality, how they respond to pressure, and the types of pressures placed on them. Common mental or emotional symptoms of occupational stress can include:
- Feelings of anxiety
- Loss of confidence in your ability to cope with the job
- Difficulty in focusing
- Lack of motivation
- Elevated levels of sensitivity, often displayed through tears or anger
- An inability to ‘switch off’ from thinking about work
However, symptoms of occupational stress can also manifest physically. Common physical symptoms can include:
- Elevated levels of fatigue and constant feelings of tiredness
- Indigestion and stomach complaints
- Increased frequency of headaches
- Feelings of nausea
- Tightness in the chest or chest pains
- Sudden changes in weight
Both the emotional and physical symptoms can combine to create unusual patterns of behaviour, such as:
- Changes in the amount of food eaten at mealtimes
- Increased levels of snacking
- Sleeping too little or too much
- A tendency to withdraw from others
- Turning to substances such as drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism
- Less care taken in personal appearance
Before we learn how to reduce occupational stress, it’s worth taking a look at the potential causes.
What are the causes of occupational stress?
Health insurance company, AXA, has identified ten major causes of occupational stress:
- A toxic working environment
A workplace where factors such as bullying, micromanaging, conflict, and harmful gossip are commonplace can escalate the ‘fight or flight’ symptom.
- Unreasonable demands
Managers or bosses who expect too much from their employees can contribute to increased levels of stress.
- Harassment or bullying
The Trade Union Congress has found that almost 30% of employees have been bullied at work. Of that number, more than 70% stated that they had been bullied or harassed by their boss or manager.
- Lack of communication
Poor communication between teams, employees, bosses, and managers, can leave workers feeling confused and increase levels of anxiety.
- Competition in the workplace
While a bit of competition between co-workers can be a good thing, too much can harm some people’s mental health.
- Changes in the workplace
While change is inevitable, sudden changes in the workplace can add to feelings of insecurity. From staff replacements to changes in software, surprises aren’t always welcome.
- Feeling undervalued
An employee who feels there is a lack of opportunities in their job will very quickly find their self-esteem dropping through the floor and perceive the job as a ‘daily grind.’
- A poor working environment
Employees that are surrounded by poor facilities, inadequate equipment, and harsh lighting can come to resent their surroundings. Check out the Avansas range of office equipment and furniture to ensure that your working environment ticks all the right boxes.
- Job security
While few people’s jobs are guaranteed for life, some workers can worry about whether theirs will last. Coupled with the increasing cost of living, this can significantly impact stress and worry.
- Taking work home
Having too much work can lead to an imbalance between someone’s personal and professional life. Taking work home to catch up or complete tasks that have been set with an unrealistic timeframe can blur the lines between work and leisure, leading to exhaustion and burnout.
Eight ways to reduce occupational stress
Occupational stress can have a considerable impact on individuals, teams, and entire organisations. However, there are ways you can help yourself, your co-workers, and your employees to reduce its causes and symptoms. Here are our top X ways to reduce occupational stress:
Whether you work from home or in a busy office, taking time to get the blood pumping is an effective stress-buster. Exercise helps to increase the levels of serotonin in the body, which acts as the body’s natural antidepressant. Even a brisk walk during your lunch break can help to engender feelings of well-being. If you’re a manager, consider offering a gym membership as part of your employees’ employment package. However, if you run a small business, operating a wellness programme can make your workers feel valued and more positive.
If you’re an employee and you’re feeling overwhelmed, speak to your manager about the problems you think you’re facing. Health and Safety law states that your employer must identify and manage occupational stress in the workplace. If you’re a manager, make yourself open to communication and, most importantly, listen. The HSE website provides a range of tools, resources, and advice to help you help your employee.
- Prioritise your workload
Having piles of paperwork or unchecked tasks on your desk can add to the feeling that you’re losing control of your workload. Take some time to sort through the jobs that need to be completed and prioritise them accordingly. Those that are lower down the list can wait. As a manager, check in with your employees to ensure that they’re not feeling swamped by their workload. If they are, delegate what you can, or put some on the back-burner until they are ready to tackle them.
- Set time aside for yourself
UK workers endure the longest working hours in Europe. As a result, work is often taken home, blurring the lines between work and play. Be sure to set at least two evenings a week aside to do the things you enjoy and leave your work in the workplace. If you find you’re taking too much work home with you, have a chat with your manager and see if you can work out a positive solution between you.
- Improve the working environment
Environmental psychologist Jennifer Veitch, PhD, says that “people who are employed full-time outside the home spend approximately 33 per cent of their waking hours at their workplace. Exposures to physical conditions at work that can affect one’s physical or mental health are both lengthy and frequent.” If your office lacks comfortable furniture, appropriate equipment, tea and coffee facilities, or even the right cleaning equipment, browse the Avansas range of office supplies and help your employees and colleagues to feel better about their working environment.
- Avoid unhealthy habits
When things at work become stressful or overwhelming, the temptation can be to use exterior sources to cope, such as smoking, alcohol, drugs, and even chocolate and caffeine. However, while these might offer a temporary distraction, the problems you’re dealing with will remain. In addition, using crutches such as these can result in more problems than you had to begin with. Instead, try and embrace healthier habits. Cut down on snacking, choose healthier meal options, and drink plenty of water. All of these can combine to make you feel better about yourself and more capable of dealing with your workload.
- Admit what you can’t control
Too many workers take on too much work, whether it’s to impress the boss or stake their claim on a promotion. One of the most significant steps anyone can take is to say when they’ve got too much to deal with. However, your colleagues or boss are going to look far less kindly on a job that’s been rushed and not completed to the best of your ability than they are if you ask for a little help. While this might feel like a form of surrender, admitting that you cannot cope is going to be far more beneficial to the business as a whole than presenting work that might have to be done again.
- Speak to a professional
You don’t have to be in the final stages of burnout to seek professional help. Taking control before things get out of hand can be a superb way of gaining a new perspective on your personal and professional lives as a whole. There are plenty of counsellors offering their skills on the Internet, and you can even choose talking therapy by telephone or through video conferencing services. As a rule of thumb, look for those accredited by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.