Work stress

What is work stress?

Stress is the body’s response to any kind of threat, whether that's because of real or imagined danger. The defences kick into either ‘fight or flight’ mode or as a ‘stress response’. In some circumstances, stress can help a person stay focused and alert, and even help them rise to meet challenges. In a work environment, it could keep an employee on their toes during a presentation, for example.

However, working under pressure too often with a lot of demands or in an intense atmosphere may mean that the adrenaline stops being helpful and can start causing serious damage to an employee’s health, mood and productivity.

What symptoms do occupational stress present?

The main symptoms are consistent with other types of stress and can lead to both psychological and physical problems. Symptoms may affect the performance of the employee, with an overall feeling of lack of concentration and exhaustion. The mental effects of work stress are:

  • feelings of concern
  • insecurity – feeling doubtful and unable to cope
  • lack of confidence – especially in making decisions
  • fear of losing control and being wrong
  • difficulty in studying – as well as thinking and concentrating
  • anxiety and depression

The physical symptoms of stress include:

  • sweating
  • exhaustion – feeling tired and lacking energy
  • palpitations
  • headaches
  • muscle tension
  • tachycardia – an abnormally high heart rate
  • stomach discomfort – which in turn can lead to constipation or diarrhoea 
  • respiratory difficulties
  • dizziness and nausea

What are the causes of work-related stress?

The causes of work stress can vary. Most reasons may include:

  • excessive workload – pressure on employees who are required to perform too many tasks
  • lack of incentives – very monotonous, repetitive work which is unfulfilling
  • unstable employment – the employee may be constantly afraid of losing his job
  • a high level of responsibility – where a small error carries serious consequences
  • hazardous tasks or unhealthy conditions
  • lack of support from peers, subordinates or superiors
  • workplace harassment or mobbing by colleagues or superiors
  • Lack of recognition or appreciation for success, lack of positive incentives and rewards for effort

What is the treatment?

There are not many medicines to treat the condition but there are changes that can help reduce the levels of work-related stress. This could be from changing the way an employee works, by having a chat with colleagues or the manager or consulting with the company’s HR department. It may also be worth searching for a new job position elsewhere. Seeking counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may work as a coping strategy.

To make the work environment more comfortable, it is recommended to develop good relationships with colleagues to create a network of support. Outside of work, lifestyle changes such as learning some relaxation techniques (breathing exercises or meditation) are tools to help manage stressful situations. Regular exercise reduces stress hormones and stimulates the release of endorphins, which are good-feeling hormones.