Have you ever felt a sense of dread on your way to work in the morning? If so, you may be suffering from work-related stress, which is the negative reaction we have to pressures at work. In other words, it is how we feel when the demands at work exceed our ability to cope.
A Bloomberg study found that the South African workforce suffers the second most from stress in the world. Sustained work-related stress can affect mental health negatively. A survey in 2013 estimated the cost of major depression and anxiety disorders to South Africa’s economy at R40,6 billion (2.2% of GDP). And in 2015, worker inability to carry out their day-to-day roles was estimated at 28 days per person per year for anxiety, and at 27 days per person per year for depression. At present, according to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group one in four South African employees are suffering from symptoms of depression.
Stress in the workplace is unfortunately an inevitable fact of life. It is however important to recognise early on if you are chronically suffering from high levels of stress and to address this as soon as possible. By prioritising mental wellness, you can also prevent work-related stress from ever reaching a level that is unhealthy for you. Stress is not all bad. A healthy dose of “good stress” can simply motivate you to perform to the best of your ability. How much stress is “too much” differs from person to person. It is important for you to know your own “stress limit”.
Signs and Symptoms of Stress in the Workplace
One of the first warning signs of work-related stress becoming unmanageable is starting to work longer and longer hours as it feels like there is never enough time to complete everything. One starts to miss tea breaks and lunch breaks, never take annual leave, and spend less and less time with family and friends. Working such long hours in the short term to meet a looming deadline is fine, but working to this extent for several months or years can lead to a decline in mental health. There are many signs and symptoms which may indicate possible stress overload. Some of the main symptoms have been categorised below into cognitive, emotional, physical, and behavioural symptoms:
Inability to concentrate (being easily distracted, reduced problem solving and ability to learn)
Seeing only the negative, constantly finding fault
Anxious or racing thoughts
Constant worrying (inability to switch off due to worrying about problems at work)
A growing feeling that the workplace is a threat and a sense of dread at the thought of going into work each day.
Depression or general unhappiness (lacking confidence, feelings of low achievement, not feeling motivated, feelings of helplessness or hopelessness, or of being trapped)
Anxiety and agitation (feeling that you can’t cope)
Mood swings, irritability, or anger (being cynical and defensive)
Feeling overwhelmed (being more tearful or sensitive than usual)
Loneliness and isolation
Feeling tired and lacking energy
Aches and pains (headaches, muscle spasms, back/shoulder/neck pain)
Diarrhoea or constipation
Indigestion, nausea, dizziness
Chest pain, rapid heart rate, high blood pressure
Frequent colds or flu
Weight loss or gain
Eating more or eating less
Sleeping too much or too little (particularly finding it difficult to sleep on a Sunday night)
Withdrawing from others
Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities, low productivity, regular absence from work
Using alcohol, cigarettes, or illegal drugs to relax
Nervous habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing)
·Poor personal hygiene
Please note that some of the symptoms above may also indicate physical illness. Therefore, it is always advisable to consult a doctor first to eliminate this possibility.
Stress and Mental Wellness at Work
Work-related stress can lead to the development of common mental health problems such as anxiety or depression. Stress may also trigger an existing mental health problem. Symptoms of stress often overlap significantly with symptoms of other mental health problems. It can therefore be hard to separate work-related stress from another mental health problem. In general, if symptoms are more severe, endure for longer, and lead to a loss of functionality in everyday life, it may indicate that you are suffering from a separate mental health problem and not only from stress.
“You can suffer from a mental illness and still have a successful career and you don’t need to hide it.” (Nick Baber, KPMG UK). If you suspect you may be suffering from a mental health problem, it is best to seek out the assistance of a psychologist, doctor, or psychiatrist as soon as possible. A psychologist can diagnose a mental health problem and provide treatment through psychotherapy. If you also need medication to manage your symptoms, you will need to consult a doctor or psychiatrist in this regard.
Indicators of Risk
It is important to recognise symptoms of depression in colleagues and to assist them in obtaining help. A combination of five or more of the following symptoms may indicate that someone is suffering from depression. At least one of the first two symptoms needs to be present:
Feeling sad, empty, or hopeless most of the day
Noticeable decrease of interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day
Significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain or decrease or increase in appetite
Sleeping too little or sleeping too much
Physical restlessness or movement being slowed down (must be observable by others)
Fatigue or loss of energy
Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt
Decreased ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness
Recurrent thoughts of death (not just fear of dying), recurrent suicidal thoughts without a specific plan, or a suicide attempt or a specific plan for committing suicide.
If you or someone you know has experienced at least two of these symptoms for at least 2 weeks it is advised that you consult a mental health professional.
Managing Mental Wellness
Fortunately, there are many things we can do at work and in our personal lives to prevent stress from becoming detrimental to our mental health. We can learn to relax, maintain a healthy work-life balance, manage our time well, communicate effectively at work, change our mindsets, learn to express ourselves, and make some lifestyle changes.
Learn to relax
Take several deep breaths throughout the day.
Implement regular stretch breaks - it only takes a few seconds to stretch
Take the breaks throughout the work day that you are entitled to. Try to get away from your desk for lunch.
If a situation at work becomes very stressful, take a quick break from it to calm yourself down before you continue.
Take a walk or get some fresh air during the day.
Include time for rest and relaxation in your daily schedule.
Do something you enjoy every day, whether it be drawing, playing cards, watching a movie, or taking a bubble bath.
Perhaps learn special relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises, mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and Pilates.
Maintain a healthy work-life balance
Try to keep to regular work hours, only working longer hours when necessary to meet a deadline.
Use your annual leave entitlement. It is important to take time off work.
Avoid constantly checking your work e-mails at home and on holiday.
Do not let your work responsibilities prevent you from having a social life. It is very important to connect to others. Spend time with people who make you feel good. Make it a priority to build satisfying connections and nurture existing relationships.
Find hobbies that you enjoy and spend enough time doing them.
Manage your time well at work
Take 10 minutes at the start of each day to organize your day. List your daily tasks in order of priority and do the high-priority items first. Schedule the most difficult tasks for times when you are feeling fresh. Also try to clear particularly stressful tasks off your desk early in the day.
Do not try to fit too much into one day. We often underestimate how long tasks will actually take us. Drop tasks that aren't really necessary to the bottom of your list or eliminate them completely.
Break projects into small steps. Make a step-by-step plan to tackle a large problem as it may be overwhelming if you try to take everything on at once.
Delegate responsibility. If there are others who can take care of a task, learn to let go and to delegate instead doing everything yourself.
Communicate effectively at work
Identify what causes you stress at work and what could make you work more effectively. If necessary, discuss this with your boss or your human resources manager. Be honest, but be constructive and remain realistic about what can be changed.
Speak to your colleagues as they may have the same problems at work as you. You could resolve the problem together, for example designing a new system that helps work to get done faster or more efficiently.
Develop good relationships with your colleagues as they are your support network at work.
Learn to say “no” if you can't take on extra work, but make sure you are able to explain why.
Resolve conflict at work in healthy, constructive ways. If a conflict can't be resolved, choose to rather end the argument, even while you still disagree.
Laughter is the best medicine. Always look for the humour in a stressful work situation. Also, sometimes share a joke or funny story to help lighten the mood at work.
Change your mindset
Accept the things you can’t change regarding your work circumstances. Concentrate on the things that are under your control.
Develop a positive thinking style, looking at a problem differently, seeing it as a mental challenge and recognising any opportunity for innovation.
Learn to be at peace with yourself. Explore who you are and what makes you truly happy. Change what you can and learn to accept what you cannot change about yourself.
Resist perfectionism as trying to maintain unrealistically high standards in everything you do, may leave you feeling constantly stressed.
Learn to express yourself
Tell your loved ones about your work problems and ask for their support and suggestions instead of taking out your stress on them.
Seek professional counselling from a psychologist or registered counsellor to help you to deal with the effects of stress on you. You may also prefer to make use of pastoral counselling services.
Keep a daily Stress Journal where you write down:
What caused your stress
How you felt, physically and emotionally
How you acted in response
What you did to make yourself feel better
This can help you to release unpleasant emotions and to address sources of stress better, that is if you can’t eliminate them from your life altogether.
Do regular exercise as it distracts you from your worries and helps to lift your mood. Exercise helps to reduce stress hormones and it stimulates the release of “feel good” hormones, called endorphins.
Aerobic exercise (exercise that makes your heart pound and makes you sweat) is very effective at reducing stress levels. For maximum stress relief, try to do at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity on most days of the week, all in one go or divided into two or three shorter segments.
Rhythmic exercises such as walking, running, swimming, and dancing are also very effective at reducing stress levels, particularly if you exercise mindfully by focusing your attention on the bodily sensations you experience while moving.
Eat a healthy balanced diet. Start your day with breakfast. Avoid eating too much processed and convenience food, refined carbohydrates, and sugary snacks and ensure that you eat enough fresh fruit and vegetables, high-quality protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and drink enough water.
Reduce your caffeine and sugar intake. You will feel more relaxed and you will sleep better if you do. The temporary "highs" provided by these substances unfortunately often end with a crash in mood and energy.
Eating small but frequent meals can help your body to maintain an even level of blood sugar, helping you to avoid moodiness, and at the same time keeping your energy levels up.
Avoid excessive drinking, smoking, and drugs
Excessive drinking, smoking, and drugs may provide instant relief from stress, but it makes you feel worse and more stressed over the long term.
Get enough sleep
Keep a sleep schedule to keep track of your sleeping patterns and aim for 8 hours a night.
Basic tips to aid sleep are to go to sleep and get up at the same time every day, to avoid sleeping in, to limit naps to 15 to 20 minutes in the early afternoon, and many more…
If you consistently battle to sleep and self-help techniques to aid sleep are not working for you, consider getting professional help.
In the long run, prevention is always better than cure. In the business of everyday life, we however forget to prioritise our own mental wellness. Perhaps take some time now to choose a few of the above tips and start implementing them straight away. I wish you all the best on your journey to mental wellness.