Managing Work Stress


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:

Cognitive symptoms

  • Memory problems

  • Inability to concentrate (being easily distracted, reduced problem solving and ability to learn)

  • Indecisiveness

  • Poor judgment

  • Seeing only the negative, constantly finding fault

  • Anxious or racing thoughts

  • Constant worrying (inability to switch off due to worrying about problems at work)

Emotional symptoms

  • 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

Physical symptoms

  • 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

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Behavioural symptoms

  • 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:

  1. Feeling sad, empty, or hopeless most of the day

  2. Noticeable decrease of interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day

  3. Significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain or decrease or increase in appetite

  4. Sleeping too little or sleeping too much

  5. Physical restlessness or movement being slowed down (must be observable by others)

  6. Fatigue or loss of energy

  7. Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt

  8. Decreased ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness

  9. 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