8 ways to help manage stress in the workplace

26 April 2017

Stress is one of the leading causes of illness at work, accounting for 37% of annual sick days in the UK. According to HSE, there were 488,000 cases of work-related stress in 2016, with over 11 million working days lost because of stress, anxiety and depression in the workplace.

From tight deadlines and workload pressures to a lack of managerial support; undue demands and pressures in the workplace can have a dramatic impact on people’s health and wellbeing, leading to the onset of stress and anxiety. Latest figures from HSE suggest that workers in public service industries are the most likely to suffer work-related stress, though the condition is now prevalent across all sectors.

April is Stress Awareness Month, a chance for healthcare professionals and experts to raise public awareness for the ongoing problem of stress. And so, to show our support for this important event, here we hear from workplace performance and training expert, Jan Sargent, about some of the ways we can all help to minimise the impact of stress on individuals, before looking at 8 simple ways to help manage stress in the workplace.

The science of stress at work — and how best to overcome it

Stress is a physical condition which can lead to a harmful reaction in people of all ages, and at all stages of their career. Due to its very nature, stress is difficult to manage and monitor, meaning that thousands of sufferers find themselves living with the condition day after day, without getting the help they need.

stress in the workplace

From both an individual and company-wide perspective, stress can be detrimental to a person’s work performance and attendance. That’s why it’s crucial that stress is properly dealt with in the workplace, ensuring the condition doesn’t hamper a person’s ability to attend work and perform at their best.

Jan Sargent is an expert performance, mentoring and training coach, helping businesses, big and small, get the best from their people. Together with Julie Hutchison, Jan co-directs Transforming Performance, a specialist development and performance coaching consultancy. Here, Jan provides background on how stress affects people at work, and offers tips on how to help stress sufferers overcome the condition.

"‘I’m stressed’. Individuals react differently to things; we can’t assume that what ‘stresses me out, stresses you out’. One size doesn’t fit all. The immediate physical response to ‘stress’ is a hard-wired survival mechanism. It developed when we had to run away from predators. In that situation, your body goes into survival mode; blood rushes to your brain preparing you to either fight or run away. Your brain turns to cotton wool as blood floods it. In milliseconds, your IQ reduces by up to 20 points. You now cannot concentrate on anything other than survival. You’re in ‘survival mode’, not ‘competency mode’.

"This severe stress response translates into the modern world. Certain work or personal events and behaviours cause individuals to go into survival mode. They can no longer think straight, their heart comes under huge pressure to pump blood to their brain, their blood becomes sticky. Not healthy when there’s nothing to flee from."

What can we do to help someone?

"In the immediate instance, we can help that person out of ‘survival mode’ and return to ‘competency mode’ so they can think straight. Ask them to sit down and be still; to close their eyes; take in a very deep breath and count to seven, then deeply breathe out and count to 11. Repeat at least three times. This helps that person become calmer and allow their blood to flow away from their brain and clear the befuddled state. You now have an opportunity for a positive impact upon them.

"A lower amount of pressure can energise us to perform at a higher level. As employers, we should be mindful (and be aware of legal requirements) of not causing acute or chronic levels of distress on individuals. For optimum performance from our people, we should provide a good physical working environment so people can thrive physically; work which is interesting and positively stretching and over which an individual has a degree of autonomy; make targets stretching but reasonable and help people achieve them; treat people as individuals, with courtesy and respect; encourage participation and share the rewards of success with them. People will almost always respond in a positive way to positive treatment."

overcoming stress at work

How to manage and reduce stress in the workplace

Given the damaging impact stress can have on individuals, as well as the wider business, it’s important that senior members of staff within an organisation do what they can to minimise workplace stress. Here, we provide practical steps your business can use to manage and reduce stress across your business.

How employees can manage stress

  1. Reach out to friends, family and co-workers — One of the biggest symptoms of excessive workplace stress is social withdrawal, which is caused by feelings of anxiety and a loss of confidence. For stress-sufferers, it’s important to have a solid support network both at work and at home to buffer you from the negative impact of work-related stress. Try to reach out to co-workers and share your feelings with them face-to-face — this is a great way to blow off steam and regain a sense of calm.
  1. Improve the quality of your sleep — A poor night’s sleep will harm your daytime productivity, making it more difficult to get simple tasks done and increasing the risk of developing stress. Improve the quality of your sleep by aiming to get at least eight hours a night, and sticking to this pattern even on weekends. Sleep is also essential for emotional balance, helping your mind to more easily overcome the symptoms of stress and anxiety.
  1. Don’t overcommit to too much work — When people suffer from stress, they’re more likely to take on more work to compensate for feelings of anxiety and a loss of confidence — essentially to please their manager and colleagues. However, in doing so they risk putting more pressure on themselves, amplifying any feelings of stress. Try not to overcommit to too much work; while it may appease your manager in the short term, the harmful effects of stress could hinder your work performance and attendance in the long term.
  1. Resist perfectionism — While it’s always important to strive to do a good job at work, giving yourself unrealistic expectations and falling victim to perfectionism will only cause undue stress and pressure. Don’t allow your perfectionist tendencies to dominate your day’s work. Instead, aim to do your best and work to overcome self-defeating habits like perfectionism.

supportive managers in workplace

What employers can do to manage workplace stress

  1. Always clarify your expectations — Stress sufferers require plenty of managerial support to help them overcome feelings of workplace anxiety, so always be prepared to clarify what’s expected of them and share any information or updates which may help them relax at their desk. Feelings of uncertainty are one of the biggest root causes of stress, and place additional pressure on employees, causing them undue panic and worry.
  1. Involve your employees in the decision-making process — While it’s important to maintain a company hierarchy, involving your staff in the basic decision-making process will alleviate stress and ensure they’re completely committed to the role. By involving staff in the process, you’ll open a healthy dialogue between colleagues, and provide a platform upon which people can express their worries and concerns, rather than bottling them up until they culminate in an unhealthy problem.
  1. Make an effort to praise good performance — As a business leader or manager, it can be difficult to know when to give praise to employees — and even more difficult to find the time to do so. However, offering regular praise to your employees is a great motivator, providing positive encouragement that can help alleviate excess stress and pressure. This is particularly true of people who have only recently joined the business, and will provide them with the much-needed reassurance that they’re doing a great job.
  1. Find time for one-on-one communication — Making time to have one-on-one catch up meetings with your staff is one of the best ways to manage workplace stress and anxiety. Communication of this kind will not only lower their stress levels, it will provide useful insight into how individual members of your team think and work, helping you make improvements in the workplace that further reduce stress and anxiety.

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