Workplace stress: a doctor’s advice on how to cope with job-related stress and avoid burnout

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For many of us, dealing with workplace stress is a daily occurrence – but that doesn’t mean we’re primed to manage it. Here, an expert explains how we can tell when the stress gets too much, and what we can do about it.

We’ve probably all fallen victim to work stress – constantly feeling tired, frustrated 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. 

With the risk of developing burnout hanging over us, it’s as important as ever to make sure we’re managing our stress in a way that helps us to stay healthy and engaged with our jobs. 

But what can we do about it, and how can we tell when it’s all getting a bit too much?

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We spoke to Dr Sarah Brewer, medical director of Healthspan, and author of Cut Your Stress, about the healthy way to approach this subject, including when overtime becomes too much overtime, and what the symptoms of workplace burnout really look like. 

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. 

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

“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.

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.

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“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.”

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.”

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’. 

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“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.”

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