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What is workplace stress and what you can do about it

Last updated: 25 Mar 2021

Stress in the workplace can take many different forms and can affect people differently. Parents and carers can be particularly susceptible to workplace stress, especially when juggling competing demands at work and home.

The Health and Safety Executive (Britain’s national regulator for workplace health and safety) gives a broad definition of work-related stress as a reaction “to excessive demands or pressures, arising when people try to cope with tasks, responsibilities or other types of pressure connected with their job, but find difficulty, strain or worry in doing so.”

How to recognise workplace stress

Workplace stress can have both mental and physical effects. Your experience will vary depending on your personality, how you respond to pressure, and how much stress you are experiencing at any given time.

Some common symptoms of workplace stress to look out for are:

  • Feeling that you can’t cope with your workload
  • Feeling unusually tired or low-energy at work
  • Finding it hard to concentrate on a piece of work you need to do, or avoiding tasks completely
  • A lack of motivation or commitment to your job
  • Feeling consistently disappointed with yourself at work
  • Feeling anxious about being at work or dreading going into the office
  • Physical reactions such as headaches or stomach aches when dealing with your work
  • Experiencing a sustained change in emotion – i.e. feeling more sensitive or irritable than usual
  • Feelings of being constantly overwhelmed
  • Changes in appetite and/or increase in smoking and drinking alcohol

What causes workplace stress?

Sometimes stress can be caused by one specific issue or individual at work, although often there is a number of smaller issues that can build up over time and cause stress.

Some common factors that can contribute to workplace stress are:

  • An excessive workload or unrealistic deadlines
  • Regularly being under intense pressure to meet targets
  • Difficult relationships with colleagues or bullying at work
  • Feeling uncertain about your job role and/or what you’re meant to be doing
  • Lack of job satisfaction, or feelings of boredom or isolation
  • Problems with environment (such as noise, overcrowding or poor facilities)

How to deal with workplace stress

It can be helpful to learn coping techniques to deal with a stressful work environment. Try to recognise what is causing you stress, and what actions you can take to help to alleviate those feelings:

  • Creating strong bonds and relationships with your colleagues can help to create a support network and alleviate feelings of isolation and pressure
  • Taking control of your workload can be critical in controlling your stress levels, and prioritisation and delegation of tasks can help lighten the load
  • Try your best to say no to extra work or responsibility that you know you are unable to cope with
  • Try to take time away from your desk and/or office when appropriate – a lunchtime walk can relieve tension and spending time outdoors is good for your mental and physical health
  • A healthy work-life balance can prevent stress from building up – it is important to take the holidays you’re entitled to so as to avoid burnout, and prioritising your family or relationships outside of work can provide extra relief
  • Trying to look at a problem at work differently, or discussing it with someone is often a good first step in finding a solution

Remember: stress can not only have a serious effect on your productivity at work, but the psychological impact can lead to or contribute to mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.  If you feel consistently stressed for a prolonged period of time (e.g. longer than a couple of weeks), it is important to get help.

What to do if you are stressed at work

If you are struggling with workplace stress and your coping techniques are not helping, you should speak to your manager. Explain how you are feeling, what is contributing to your feelings of stress, and how you think it could be helped. Your manager should help you address your concerns.

If you feel like you can’t talk to your manager about your problem, speak to someone else – this could be someone in your human resources department, a trade union representative if you have one, or your GP if you feel that you would benefit from medical help. The earlier a problem is tackled, the better.

Your employer has a duty of care to consider the impact of stress in the workplace and a legal obligation to ensure your health, safety and welfare as an employee. Where this hasn’t happened and your mental or physical health has suffered as a result, you may be entitled to make a work-related stress compensation claim.

Your employer may have its own procedures on how to deal with issues of workplace stress. You should check your employer’s policy, if they have one. Before making a claim, your options for resolving the situation include:

  • Making an informal complaint by talking to or writing to your employer
  • Making a formal complaint to your employer – ‘raising a grievance’
  • Using mediation (where a trained mediator will try to help you and your employer reach an agreement about how best to deal with your situation)

If you feel that these options are not suitable or you are not satisfied with your employer’s handling of the situation you can seek advice on your options.

If you are suffering from depression or another stress-related condition, your condition may amount to a disability and you may be protected from disability discrimination.

The information on the law contained on this site is provided free of charge and does not, and is not intended to, amount to legal advice to any person on a specific case or matter. If you are not a solicitor, you are advised to obtain specific legal advice about your case or matter and not to rely solely on this information. Law and guidance is changing regularly in this area.