Work related stress: A doctor’s advice on how to cope with excessive stress and avoid burnout

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A new report has revealed the extent of work stress and burnout in the UK. Here’s how to tackle it

We’ve probably all fallen victim to work stress – constantly feeling tired, burned out and absolutely dreading going back to the office every morning. Whether we love our jobs or hate them, we’re pretty much all familiar with that nagging feeling that you’re not quite on top of everything you need to be. 

And a new report suggests that the problem could be even more widespread than we previously thought. The quarterly National Wellbeing Index Report, which was released this week, revealed this week a “heightened sense of pressure” during the summer months had lead to increased burnout – and it’s severely impacting our mental health.

The average employee has taken four days off for stress, anxiety or depression  in the last three months, with under 34s the group “most at risk” of work-related stress. Overtime has also increased by 23% since April, another factor in our increased feelings of burnout

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We’re aware of it, too, the report says. Almost half of those they surveyed (48%) said they suffered from workplace stress and anxiety, though one in five also said they had “not done anything in relation to their wellbeing in the last three months”. Only 36% had been physically active.

David Capper, CEO of health and wellbeing provider Westfield Health, described the “vicious cycle of stress and anxiety” many of us are facing.

“This is having a detrimental impact on wellbeing in the run up to, during and after they come back from their summer break, leaving them no time for vital recovery,” he said.

“The state of the nation’s workplace wellbeing is at boiling point.”

We spoke to Dr Sarah Brewer, medical director of Healthspan, and author of Cut Your Stress, about how to identify work stress and what you can do about it.

How do I know what a normal level of work stress is?

“Stress is a modern term used to describe the unpleasant physical and emotional symptoms you experience with excess pressure. A certain amount of pressure is beneficial - it gets you out of bed in the mornings, and primes you to meet life’s challenges. Stress only develops when pressure rises above the level with which you feel able to cope. This level varies from person to person, and also from time to time, as it depends on many factors including diet, fitness, quality of sleep and other things going on in your life and relationships. 

“Feeling stressed simply means you are under more pressure (which may be real or perceived) than you feel comfortable with at a particular point in time. If you feel on top of work needs and don’t feel unduly anxious when viewing your ‘To Do’ list, or facing changes at work, then you probably have a normal level of stress.”

How does working too much overtime impact our mental health?

“Overwork and lack of relaxation can lead to anxiety, difficulty sleeping and depression. Long-term stress can lead to complex social phobias that are grounded in negative thoughts of not being able to cope, of having nothing interesting to say, or of being embarrassed in front of others.”

How can we handle increased pressure at work?

“Take back control using a To Do list. Identify tasks that you need to do, would like to do (but not necessarily today) and those you need not do. Delegate where possible to free up your time and stress load. Feel comfortable saying ‘no’ to new tasks if you are already overloaded. Breathing deeper and slower can help anxiety as it acts as a signal to your brain that re-sets your body from fight-or-flight mode to a more relaxed state. 

“Ensure you have plenty of breaks, even if it’s just 15 minutes. Eat a healthy diet and don’t skip meals, however busy you are. Take regular exercise. A brisk walk may seem a waste of time when deadlines loom, but it helps to neutralise the effects of stress hormones.

To do lists can be a way of keeping on top of your schedule

 You will feel refreshed, less tense, and work more efficiently as a result. Double the benefit by using walking time as thinking time. Have walking meetings outdoors with colleagues when the weather is nice.

“Mindfulness can help you to focus on your anxieties by accepting them uncritically in the moment and then letting them pass. In effect, this helps you train your thinking so you become less distracted and disturbed by worrying thoughts.”

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What are the symptoms of workplace stress or burnout?

“You start to feel uneasy, tense and flustered. Your mouth may feel dry, your hands feel clammy and you may have difficulty concentrating or making decisions. There is a loss of self-confidence, a tendency to snap or be irritable, and you may develop a characteristic sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. Headache, difficulty sleeping due to worry about work can occur, and you may become reliant on alcohol or cigarettes.”

What can we do to protect ourselves from too much work-related stress?

“The government-backed Escape Your Anxiety programme offers a whole range of tools and resources to help you understand and manage anxiety including how helping others can help shift your focus away from your own worries. It also recommends a range of relaxation and mindfulness apps.”

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What are the best ways to destress after work/cope from heightened stress?

“Exercise not only takes you away from your worries but helps to burn off the effects of stress and stimulates release of your body’s own feel-good chemicals known as endorphins. Any form of exercise you enjoy, such as walking, swimming, cycling, dancing or gardening will all help.

“Cannabidiol (CBD) oil interacts with your endocannabinoid system to reduce anxiety and promote relaxation, sleep quality and feelings of general well-being. According to a 2015 review from the journal of Neurotherapeutics ‘evidence from human studies strongly supports the potential for CBD as a treatment for anxiety disorders’. 

“Rhodiola rosea is a traditional herbal medicine that helps to reduce anxiety while enhancing alertness, concentration and stamina. And lavender oil is a traditional herbal medicine used to treat symptoms of anxiety, stress and nervousness.”

 How can you speak to your boss about feeling stressed/burnt out? 

“Try to identify solutions to the main problems you are experiencing – if your work load is increasing, you may need another member of staff, a change in work hours or to relinquish some areas of responsibility to others. Check your employee handbook for how to address work-related stress. If you belong to a health scheme see if you are covered for talking therapies – seeing a counsellor may help you put things into better perspective and view things differently.”