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Work-related stress

This factsheet is for people who are experiencing stress at work, or who would like information about it.

Working can provide our lives with structure, purpose, satisfaction and financial income. However, the workplace can also be a cause of stress and worry.

Click on the tabs below for more information about work-related stress.

Published by Bupa's health information team, January 2010.

About

About

We all need some pressure in our working lives - it makes our work satisfying and helps us to meet deadlines. But too much pressure, without the chance to recover, causes stress.

Workplace stress is different for everyone - what is stressful for one person may not be stressful for another. It can depend on your personality type and how you have learned to respond to pressure.

Causes


There are a number of factors that can make you feel stressed at work, including:

  • poor working conditions
  • long working hours
  • relationships with colleagues
  • lack of job security
  • difficult journeys to and from work
  • the way the company is managed
  • mismatch between the requirements of the job and your own capabilities and needs
  • inflexible working hours
  • too much or too little responsibility
However, often there is no single cause of work-related stress. Although it can be triggered by sudden, unexpected pressures, it's often the result of a combination of stressful factors that build up over time.

Symptoms and diagnosis

Symptoms and diagnosis

You may have noticed some factors contributing to the way you feel. For example, you may feel that you:

  • often rush about, trying to be in too many places at once
  • miss breaks and take work home with you
  • don't have enough time for exercise, relaxation or spending time with your family

Symptoms of stress


Work-related stress can cause both physical and emotional health problems. It can cause you to be more prone to physical symptoms such as:

  • headaches
  • muscular tension
  • backache and/or neck ache
  • tiredness and sleep problems
  • digestive problems
  • a raised heart rate
  • skin rashes
  • sweating
  • blurred vision
Chronic (long-term) stress can also contribute to anxiety and depression, and can even increase your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

You may also be prone to psychological symptoms such as:

  • feelings that you can't cope
  • irritability and mood swings
  • disturbed eating patterns
  • finding it hard to concentrate
  • feeling less motivated
  • a lower sex drive (libido)

Diagnosis


You may need to get further help if you have already tried to solve your work-related stress and things aren't getting better. This isn't giving in; it's taking action.

Don't be afraid to ask a doctor, or find out if your company has an occupational health therapist who can help.

A doctor will usually be able to spot the physical symptoms of stress. He or she may also help you identify the causes of stress, give advice on techniques to help you relax or refer you to a counsellor. You may need to have some tests to exclude other conditions if you're having certain physical symptoms.

If you feel you're being bullied or harassed, speak to your company's human resources or personnel department. Many companies now have policies in place in order to deal with this type of problem.

Treatment

Treatment

Self-help


There are a number of ways to reduce the negative impact of stress. Most of these involve examining how you go about your work.

One of the most important factors is managing your time more effectively. Prioritise tasks, delegate where you can and make sure you don't take on more work than you can handle. Take regular breaks at work and try to finish one task before starting another. Other things that you can do yourself include the following.

  • Make sure your work environment is comfortable.
  • If possible, don't work long hours - sometimes projects need extra time, but working long hours over many weeks or months doesn't generally lead to more or better results at work.
  • Take a look at your relationships with your colleagues - do you treat each other with respect and consideration? If not, try to find a way to improve relationships with your colleagues.
  • Find out if your organisation offers flexible working hours
It's important to talk directly to your manager about work-related stress. He or she has a duty to take reasonable steps to try to resolve the problem. Explain how you're feeling and discuss your workload. If you find talking about your concerns difficult, it may help to make notes during your discussion. It's worth asking if your organisation has any policies on harassment, bullying or racism. Ask your human resources department how to challenge these policies and make sure you know what support there is for you if you decide to do this.

There are things you can do outside of work to help reduce your stress levels. Try to exercise every day if possible. Exercise helps to use up the stress hormones that cause your symptoms, giving you a sense of wellbeing and helping your muscles to relax. Even a brisk walk for 30 minutes a day will combat stress.

Other self-help steps are listed below.

  • Talk to a friend or relative - this is a good way to get your worries off your chest. It can give you a fresh perspective and help to make stressful situations more manageable.
  • Don't drink too much alcohol or caffeine, or smoke. Instead of helping, these stimulants may increase your stress levels.
  • Eat regular meals and a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables.
  • Take up a new hobby or interest to take your mind off things.
  • Have some fun - meet your friends or do something you love.
  • At the end of each day, reflect on what you've achieved rather than worrying about future work. Don't be too hard on yourself and remember to take each day as it comes.
You may need to take some time off work, but this isn't always advised.

Stress management


It's impossible to escape pressure at work altogether, so you need to learn how to manage stress effectively.

There are four basic approaches to dealing with stress:

  • removing or changing the source of stress
  • learning to change how you react to a stressful event
  • reducing the effect stress has on your body
  • learning alternative ways of coping
Stress management techniques aim to promote one or more of these approaches. You can learn these techniques from self-help books, attending a stress management course, or at therapy sessions run by a counsellor or psychotherapist.

Talking therapies


These can include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which challenges negative thought patterns and helps you to react differently to events.

Complementary therapies


Aromatherapy, reflexology and massage may provide a quiet, relaxed environment in which to wind down.

Learning relaxation techniques such as meditation, self-hypnosis, visualisation and, breathing exercises can also help you to relax. Yoga and Pilates may also help relieve muscle pains and help you control your breathing in stressful situations. They may also help you sleep better and relieve stress-related physical pains such as stomach pains and headaches.

Availability and use of different treatments may vary from country to country. Ask your doctor for advice on your treatment options.

Sources

Sources

  • Working together to reduce stress. Health and Safety Executive. www.hse.gov.uk, accessed 8 September 2009
  • Stress at work. The Stress Management Society. www.stress.org.uk, accessed 8 September 2009
  • Stress. Mental Health Foundation. www.mentalhealth.org.uk, accessed 8 September 2009
  • Work stress. The Stress Management Society. www.stress.org.uk, accessed 8 September 2009
  • How to identify stress. International Stress Management Association. www.isma.org.uk, accessed 8 September 2009
  • Effective ways to tackle stress. Health and Safety Executive. www.hse.gov.uk accessed, 8 September 2009
  • Stress-related and psychological disorders. Health and Safety Executive. www.hse.gov.uk, accessed 8 September 2009
  • Cost of UK workplace absence tops £13bn - new CBI survey. Confederation of British Industry (CBI). www.cbi.org.uk, accessed 8 September 2009
  • Stress. The British Heart Foundation. www.bhf.org.uk, accessed 8 September 2009
  • Top 10 stress busting tips. The Stress Management Society. www.isma.org.uk, accessed 8 September 2009
  • Self-hypnosis. The Stress Management Society. www.stress.org.uk, accessed 8 September 2009
  • Work-life balance. The Mental Health Foundation. www.mentalhealth.org.uk, accessed 8 September 2009
  • Mind guide to managing stress. Mind. www.mind.org.uk, accessed 8 September 2009
  • Making sense of CBT. Mind. www.mind.org.uk, accessed 8 September 2009
  • Guide to surviving working life. Mind. www.mind.org.uk, accessed 8 September 2009
  • Work stress and coronary heart disease: what are the mechanisms? Eur Heart J 2008 29(5):640-48; doi:10.1093/eurheartj/ehm584
  • Little P, Lewith G, Webley F et al. Randomised controlled trial of Alexander technique lessons, exercise and massage (ATEAM) for chronic and recurrent back pain. BMJ 2008; 337(7667): 438-41
  • Simon C, Everitt H, and Kendrick T, Oxford Handbook of General Practice. 2nd ed: Oxford University Press, 2005: 966

This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been peer reviewed by Bupa doctors. This content was compiled by Bupa based on clinical information and practice current as at the stated date of publication. Content is likely to reflect clinical practice in a particular geographical region (as indicated by the sources cited) – accordingly, it may not reflect clinical practice in the reader’s country of habitation. This content is intended for general information only and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. Photos and videos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition.

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