April is Stress Awareness Month, and a time to reflect on the impacts of stress and worry in our lives.
Studies show that managing work-related stress and worry are growing problems for UK businesses. According to the Mental Health Foundation, at some point in the last year, 74% of us have felt so mentally stressed that we cannot cope.
Stress can’t be eliminated entirely, and a healthy amount of stress leads to productivity and creativity. According to what is known as “The Yerkes-Dodson law,” performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, such as stress. But this only happens up to a point.
Poor mental health collectively costs UK employers up to £56 billion each year. Preventing stress in the workplace begins with education. Whether a small company or large corporate employer, providing mental health training for your workforce should be considered.
We all worry. It is a natural phenomenon. Even so, at what point do experts consider worrying a problem? If we can’t actively work past it and it stops us from living the life we want to live, this is where worrying can impact mental health and disrupt someone’s quality of life. When we find ourselves in a state of ongoing uncertainty and things continue to be unpredictable, this can lead to ‘unique worries’ and concerns which can be specific to an individual or to a group of individuals.
The good news is that human beings have a fantastic ability to think about the future and future events. Generally, thinking ahead means we can anticipate obstacles, which allows us to plan, come up with solutions and meet our goals. Let’s think about something simple to illustrate this, such as getting to work on time. By thinking ahead, we can plan our journey, consider any obstacles that may make us late for work, and plan an alternative route or adjust our set-off time to allow us to still make it on time.
But it is helpful to understand that thinking ahead can pose some difficulties, too. Excessive worry can drive us to catastrophise. This is where we think about worst-case scenarios, which can make us feel overly anxious and apprehensive. The emotional impact can lead to us having a lived experience of the associated symptoms of an event or outcome without the actual experience itself happening. Our bodies act as if it were a true event and gives the worry credibility and our mind can perceive the worst-case scenario as a reality.
Worrying often moves us past the point of active problem-solving. It becomes an obstacle to effective functioning. It can be helpful to understand and be able to distinguish between the two different kinds of worry: real and hypothetical. Real worries are about real problems that are affecting you right now.
A chain of thoughts leads to a spiral into more and more ‘catastrophic’ thinking. Sometimes these can take a life of their own and feel very real, which manifest into those physical experiences, creating the sense of restlessness that can make it quite uncomfortable to be in your own skin.
The symptoms of stress
We look at signs in the workplace that might indicate an employee is experiencing higher levels of stress:
Absence: taking an unusual amount of time off work
Reduced tolerance: overreacting to situations in the workplace
Pessimism: focusing too much on the negative aspects of the job
Performance issues: struggling to concentrate or complete tasks either day to day or by set deadlines
Isolation: reduced social skills or less interpersonal interactions with other colleagues, concerns about what others think
Low confidence: turning down opportunities for development or promotion or plateauing in their career
What can you do about work-related stress and worry?
You can take action if you notice yourself worrying or signpost colleagues to these tips if you notice they may be worrying:
Recognise the symptoms
A good way of coping with heightened stress levels is to be fully aware of the triggers and symptoms. Understanding that these reactions aren’t justified is the first step to overcoming them. Feelings of stress and overthinking tend to interfere with day-to-day life, making regular activities challenging to control. Recognising the instances where stress levels are heightened, so you can start working through them or finding ways to mitigate them together is important. Problem-solve what you can and leave the rest aside.
Wellbeing comes from a life with a balance of activities that you value and give you feelings of pleasure, achievement, and closeness.
Identify your worry
Is it a ‘real’ worry or a hypothetical worry? If it’s the latter, it is important to remind yourself that your mind is not focusing on a problem you can solve now and find ways to let the worry go and focus on something else.
Postpone your worry
Worry is insistent, and it can make you feel as if you have to engage with it right now. Instead, deliberately set aside time to let yourself worry and don’t worry for the rest of the day.
Worry can come from a place of concern. We worry about others when we care about them. Responding to our own or others’ worries with kindness and compassion can make a huge difference.
Learning and practising mindfulness can help us to notice but not engage with worrying thoughts. It helps us to let go and break free of worries by staying in the present moment, stopping them from taking hold.
Take small steps
Someone with job stress won’t necessarily feel less stressed when returning from the office. Employees should be encouraged to lay out realistic milestones or goals for the future, no matter the size, and work towards those. Employees can find support from colleagues and managers who may feel the same, and together, they can shift towards a calmer, less stressed life.
If you think work-related stress and worry are a problem among your employees, there are many ways to help workers manage these feelings, including techniques from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) that can help people to overcome excessive work-related stress and worry, so it doesn’t negatively impact your mental health and body.
Clare Price is a mental health nurse by background, an accredited Cognitive Behavioural Therapist and former lecturer on the Post Graduate CBT course at the University of Hull. Having worked in the mental health sector since 1992, Clare has experience across a variety of NHS, third sector and private sector organisations in a wide range of clinical, operational and strategic roles. Clare is responsible for Onebright's internal clinical team and the delivery of excellence in clinical services. She has designed, developed and implemented a wide range of clinical services and pathways.