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What is workplace stress?

For many people, the challenges and demands of their work are rewarding and a key element of what motivates them, contributing to career development and drive to learn.

But what happens when these demands become too high?

Steadily increasing pressure to deliver can result in challenges becoming overwhelming, turning motivation into stress and anxiety – a situation that is especially prevalent in the modern workplace under the shadow of the pandemic. Read below to find out how to identify and understand personal stress triggers, recognise symptoms of stress at work and its potential impact in both the long and short term.

How do you identify workplace stress?

Workplace stress is a wide-reaching and universal concern that can affect anyone regardless of their job role, sector or industry. While roles will often feature their own form of demanding or high-pressure situations, which can be a positive experience, stress occurs when these become too much for an individual to comfortably manage.

What are stress triggers?

The types and levels of stress that an individual finds tolerable is unique to them. The causes, known as stress triggers or stressors, are equally varied. These can include:

  • Physical issues within the workplace such as noise, lighting, comfort/posture
  • Role issues including working hours, organisation and workload, lack of job progression and job security
  • Personal issues; around gender, age, race, ethnicity, disability and work/life balance.

With such a broad range of potential stress triggers, in addition to role and industry-specific issues, the combination and volume of stressors may not even be clear to the individual involved. This means that it is important for both employees and their managers to maintain an open dialogue and closely monitor and identify these factors - from a combination of ‘smaller’ concerns such as the office layout to a single, larger issue such as workplace harassment.

Understanding your stress triggers

To resolve stress-related issues in the workplace, you need to separate and identify the individual factors that are contributing to your high stress levels. In some cases, this could be a single, large issue that is not directly related to your work - such as an illness in the family. In others, it could be an accumulation of small issues and frustrations - or any combination in between.

Taking the time to separate each trigger will allow for action to be taken where possible to bring down stress levels. To identify and manage specific stressors, they could be split down into categories such as places, people, tasks or situations. Once categorised, it should be easier to plan next steps for resolving or coping with the issues raised.

Find out more in our article: How to reduce stress at work

What are the symptoms of stress at work?

The human body has many responses to help deal with stress, making it a reaction to external events rather than an illness in itself. However, experiencing sustained stress over a long period can result in a range of physical or mental issues. These can include:

Physical symptoms

  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Stomach issues
  • Chest pains.

Mental symptoms

  • Anxiety
  • Apathy
  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Lack of focus

What are the effects of work-related stress? 

In the workplace, indicators of stress can be seen in out-of-character actions and mood changes. These may be apparent to colleagues as well as the individual:

  • Lower levels of productivity
  • Reduced quality of work
  • Often distracted
  • Lack of attention to detail/increase errors
  • Frustration at others

For the individual, coping with workplace stress can become a cycle of issues or concerns building on each other and increasing the overall sense of anxiety. For example, a lack of focus at work and not getting enough sleep can impact performance and result in concerns over job security. This can then feed into further lack of sleep and inertia over completing tasks. 

Eventually, a person struggling to manage their work-related stress may react in one of two ways: increasing the number of sick days they use or continuing to work through. Presenteeism is a common response that occurs when staff, who are suffering from stress or health issues, continue to come into work despite their condition. While they are still attending and completing tasks as normal, their focus, quality of work and productivity are all likely to be significantly reduced - and their stressors remain unchallenged.

Long-term issues, or chronic stress, may also contribute to a range of serious health concerns including high blood pressure, heart disease, depression and insomnia.

How can workplace stress be reduced?

There are many ways to broadly understand and manage stress in the workplace including healthy eating, meditation and having conversations with trusted individuals. But the key to effectively reducing workplace stress is to not tackle stress as a standalone issue. Instead, try to identify and focus on tackling the smaller factors which have accumulated to turn a healthy level of pressure into a level of stress beyond comfort or control.

For more support and information visit Aetna Well-being, which provides benefits to members including the Health hub, offering access to tools and professional services for improving overall wellbeing.

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