4 ways to manage stress at work

The industrial diseases of our time are stress-related conditions. In the UK the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) calculates that 40% of all work-related illness is caused by stress. The leading stress-related conditions at work are depression and anxiety; the NHS reports that 1 in 5 GP consultations are prompted by these two conditions. This statistic is even more shocking when you consider that only 1 in 3 people will seek help for a mental health issue.

Some presure at work can be a powerful motivator and the right amount of stress can improve our productivity. However if you increase stress pat a certain point you get the oposite effect: productivity rapidly declines and we become vulnerable to various health conditions.

The HSE has a rather vague definition of stress: 'the adverse reaction people hae to excessive pressures and demands placed on them.' While it does seem to describe it intuitively it is so broad that a conciencious human resources manager would not be able to test for it very reliably. Stress can be best understood in terms of two things: stressors and personal characteristics of the individual.


These are the things in the work environment that actually cause stress. The most common examples include work pressure, lack of support, harassment (including sexual harassment), bullying and violence. There are other stressors that might also be present that, while not being strickly work related, they can be compounded by what is going on at work. These include caring for a family member, financial concerns, having a long communte, having a chronic health condition or having marital difficulties.

Some stressors can have a time-limited effect, such as losing a loved one. Others can have an ongoing effect like, going through a divorce. 

 Individual characteristics

Stressors will affect different people differently. Some of us are able to cope with some stressors better than with others and it is important to be aware of our strengths and weaknesses and to think of ways to strengthen our resilience versus specific stressors that can affect us. 

This is where the concept of resilience comes from. Mental health professionals have observed that some people are able to cope with very adverse situations and come through relatively unscathed. Other people faced with a relatively minor stressor can be very severely affected by it. Furthermore, some people have shown great resilience for one type of stressor (say, ongoing bullying) whilst being severely affected by another (having financial concerns).

The persons ability to cope changes with time and the circumstances. We also know that experiencing more than one stressor at a time will increase the chances of having a bad reaction to stress. 

From these observations comes the idea of resilience. Resilience is the ability to manage stressors effectively so that they do not cause any of the bad effects they can cause. This is not to be confused with harmful short-term ways to manage stress such as smoking, overeating or drinking excessively. These are attractive because they will give us immediate release from the bad feelings, but unfortunately all of them end up reducing our resilience and making the problem worse.

Managing stress 

1. Look for stressors that can be changed

In the modern workplace there are various ways to whistle blow if things are unsafe, poorly managed or you are being harassed. As an employee try to understand what is causing stress and look for solutions that your manager can put in place. Most managers will want to help if they can. If you can come up with solutions to alleviate the pressure then your manager is much more likely to act.

As a manager meet regularly with the people in your team and try to understand what the pressures are. If you can modify them then do it, if you cannot you can explain to your team why those presures are there, what is their purpose and what the company is trying to achieve. If you do that you may find that just having the information will reduce stress, even if you cannot do anything about the situation. Think about how much better it is to be told why there is a traffic jam and how long the delay will be rather than sit in the car without a clue, even if the waiting time is exactly the same. Be as transparent as you can be and you can be more transparent than you think.

2. Speak out

 Your manager does not want you to be unproductive so if you tell her what your limits are you will be helping both yourself and her. She will be aware that someone trying to do too much at once will do nothing well so she will appreciate you signalling when you are at capacity. One important thing is to give choices when doing this. She may have a set of priorities you are not aware of so telling her that you could indeed do what she is asking you to do, but you would have to drop something else you are doing is very powerful. It will probably lead to a discussion about your workload and how to prioritise it. Be clear and specific and outline your arguments in a measurable way: 'it takes me 3 hours to do this type of report and 7 to prepare for that kind of meeting, I only have 8 hours, what do you want me to do?'

As a manager your role is to offer the opportunity for this sort of discussion where workload is measured and prioritised and to get the buy in from your team member. You can empower the team member to quantify how long each task should take and to allocate task to available time giving the person as much autonomy over his time as possible.  A feeling of control over one's situation goes a long way to reducing stress.

3. Be aware of the effect stress is having on you

Are you being stimulated by the challenge or are you crumbling under the pressure. The physical symptoms of stress can be a powerful way to tell. Be aware of things like using alcohol excessively, smoking excessively, overeating, sleeping poorly, having palpitations (racing heart), shaking, having chills or hot flushes, having a tingling sensation in your arms or legs, having butterflies in your stomach, feeling restless, irritable, hopeless, excessively tired or losing interest in the things you enjoy can all be early signs of trouble. 

If you notice these or others that make you think something is different, seek help, don't leave it for later. 

As a manager it is your responsibility to help individuals come forward when stress is getting to them. Your company will have a policy on how to support your team members, be sure you are familiar with it. 

4. Build your resilience

Sometimes it is not possible to change the environment and you know the stressors are not going away. As we saw earlier, some people are able to cope with quite difficult situations and not experience the negative effects of stress. How do they do it? The key is to build resilience. This can be divided into eliminating things that take away our resilience and doing things that train us to be more resilent. Think of this like preparing for a marathon. If you have never trained you will be quite ill very early on in the race and you will collapse before you finish. If you have planned and trained for it carefully, you wil be able to cope with the demands of the race and finish it. It will still be hard, but it will be doable. A lot of the same principles apply. If you want to run a marathon you will be eating healthy, and you will cut down on the alcohol and the cigarettes. You will also be running regularly..

 Improve your health

Reduce the things that take your resilience away: 

  • Eat healthily
  • Take regular exercise, at least 30 minutes twice a day
  • Reduce (or stop if you can) smoking and drinking
  • Sleep 7-8 hours

All of these have shown to improve your resilience when coping with stress.

Build resilience 

Develop the skills that you need to cope through regular practice. 

  • Learn to meditate if you can. Once you have learned do it for a few minutes every day
  • Learn cognitive behavioural therapy skills to manage automatic negative thoughts. Sounds like a mouthful but this is just about understanding that the first thing that pops into our head when we are in a stressful situation might be very unhelpful and we may be jumping to conclusions. Learning not to take our automatic thoughts at face value can be very protective
  • Use diaphragmatic breathing regularly. This basic exercise can relax you immediately before that big meeting, but more importantly, if you paractice it regularly it will help you be more able to cope with stress.
  • When you can't stop thinking about something try to do something else that distracts you completely. The more the activity demands your full attention the better. Some people find dancing or singing particularly useful. Games that distract your attention can also be useful. Art is a very powerful way of distracting yourself as well when you are worried. 
  • Progressive deep muscle relaxation is a very effective technique that works within a few minutes, and also improves your resilience if you practice it regularly. 

All of these techniques are included in our app Feel Stress Free if you wish to see for yourself what they are like. Remember, the most important thing to build resilience is to train regularly, just like preparing for that marathon.