Managing Anxiety and Stress in the Workplace
March 08, 2018 - Gini Beqiri
Stress and anxiety in the workplace is common. In 2016/17, work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 40% of work-related illnesses. At some point during your career, you will most likely experience work-related stress. A small amount of stress is normal but when it becomes chronic it is harmful and can spill into your personal life.
To manage stress, you must be able to recognise the symptoms and learn the techniques to cope with it. In this article we have outlined some steps you can take to deal with your stress and anxiety at work.
The right level of stress
You may assume that stress can never be a good thing but some stress can be beneficial:
- Not experiencing any stress could leave you feeling too unmotivated to, for example, meet deadlines, because you would not be worried about the consequences
- A little stress can keep you focused and motivated so your performance levels are high
- Too much stress can be unhelpful and leave you feeling overwhelmed
Common causes of workplace stress and anxiety
There are many causes of workplace stress and anxiety, here are some common ones:
- Participating in meetings
- Public speaking
- Fear of interacting with authority
- Dealing with difficult staff or clients
- Meeting deadlines
- Fear of saying "no"
- Managing staff
- Excessive workloads
- Lack of control over how you do your work
- Pressure to perform to meet rising expectations
- Working long hours or overtime
- Lack of role clarity
- Social anxiety
- Emotionally difficult work
- Lack of support from the organisation
- Job insecurity
Why do certain situations cause stress and anxiety?
Stress differs between people - a situation may be significantly more stressful for one person compared to another person who may find it easier to deal with. Different factors affect how stressful you will find something:
- How you perceive a situation can determine your stress and anxiety levels. For example, if an employee was asked to go to their boss' office they might think "Oh no, I've done something wrong, she's going to shout at me." Their stress levels would be high. On the other hand, another person may think "I wonder what this is about, can't be anything too serious." So this person's stress levels would be low.
- If you have lots of deadlines approaching you are likely to feel more stressed.
- Less experience of dealing with a particular demand can increase anxiety levels as you will feel less confident.
- The more support you are receiving, from work and also socially, can help ease stress.
- People differ in how emotionally resilient they are to stressful situations - some people may be able to adapt quicker to adversity than others.
Symptoms of workplace stress and anxiety
The first step to managing stress and anxiety is to be aware of your symptoms:
- Feeling tired
- Problems with sleeping
- Stomach problems
- High blood pressure
- Loss of libido
- Shallow breathing or hyperventilating
- Muscle tension
- Poor memory
- Stomach problems
- Chest pains
When we feel stressed and anxious our bodies release hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline. This is the body's way of preparing you to respond to a perceived threat or danger, for example, this may be activated when a colleague informs you that a difficult customer would like to speak with you again.
These hormones produce physically unpleasant symptoms, such as, increased heart rate and muscle tension.
- Social withdrawal
- Drinking excessively
- Using drugs
- Eating unhealthily
- Difficulty making decisions
- Being tearful/crying
- Change in appetite - eating more or less
- Avoiding tasks and activities that make you anxious
- Difficulty concentrating
- Snapping at people
- Neglecting personal needs, such as, lunch breaks
- Avoiding going to work
Cognitive symptoms (thoughts)
When we are stressed and anxious we often experience negative automatic thoughts (NATs). These are:
- Unhelpful - They make you feel more stressed
- Believable - You accept them as facts, especially since they are repetitive
- Automatic - You often won't notice these thoughts as they are automatic
- Distorted - All of the evidence does not support them - they are biased
NATs can follow certain patterns of unhelpful thinking styles:
- Catastrophising - Predicting the worst possible outcome: "If I say I can't take on the project they'll fire me."
- Predictive thinking - Assuming you know what's going to happen in the future: “The manager is going to call me into her office and shout at me."
- Mind reading - Assuming you know what others are thinking: "Everyone thought I was embarrassing."
- Magnification and minimisation - Unfairly magnifying the negative and minimising the positive: An individual received feedback from his manager, he only had one area of improvement and the rest of the feedback was positive. However, he has magnified the negative comment and minimised the positive feedback to conclude "I'm hopeless at this job."
- Mental filter - Focusing only on the most negative aspects of a situation whilst filtering out the positive features, for example, in the example above the individual may have filtered the information so he can only remember the negative comment.
- Personalisation - Assuming that others are behaving negatively because of you: "The boss is in a terrible mood because he doesn't like me."
- Over-generalisation - If something bad has happened once, you believe it will happen every time: "I received a bad review, all my clients must dislike me."
- Labelling - Labelling yourself or others without fully considering the evidence: “I’m so useless.”
- Emotional reasoning - Mistaking your anxious feelings for facts: “I feel really nervous so I must be in danger.”
- Uncompromising words - Thinking to yourself I should.. I must... I always... I have to... I never... For example, “I should be able to do this”.
- Black and white thinking - Believing that something or someone can be only good or bad, right or wrong etc. Switching from one extreme to another: “I have to finish all of my work today or everything will be a mess."
Worrying is common when you feel stressed and anxious. It is a thought process in which you predict that an outcome of a future event will be negative because the outcome is currently uncertain. This makes you feel stressed and anxious.
If you are worrying a lot you may:
- Avoid things which are causing you to worry or you may distract yourself.
- Believe that the worry is helpful because you feel as though things are under control when you worry.
- Believe that the worry is making you unwell thus escalating the worry.
- Use a lot of your time and energy worrying whilst other responsibilities build up.
There are two types of worry - practical and hypothetical worries:
- Practical worries are often worries about a current situation that have a practical solution, such as, "I need to request leave for my holiday."
- Hypothetical worries are often worries about situations in the future which you do not currently have control over. They are usually "what if" thoughts, for example, "What if the presentation goes badly and then everyone thinks I'm stupid?"
Hypothetical worries are usually the most distressing for an individual because there is usually no solution.
Tips to manage stress and anxiety at work
If stress is interfering with your: job performance, mental or physical healthy or personal life, then something needs to change. Several of the stressors will be out of your control but there are some things that you can do to reduce and manage the stress - you cannot always change the situation but you can change how you think about it and respond to it.
Explore your triggers: Keep a diary for one week to discover which situations increase your stress levels the most. Record: what exactly happened, what thoughts and emotions you had and how you behaved in the situation. This will highlight your stressors and how you deal with them.
Time management is important for reducing workplace stress.
Practice time management: Trying to do everything at once isn't an effective way to handle stress as it usually takes you longer to complete your tasks. Ensure that you are organised by managing your time efficiently:
- Compile a list of the tasks you need to complete.
- Break big tasks into smaller ones so it's less overwhelming.
- Prioritise your tasks in order of urgency.
- Think about any external factors that could get in the way of completing tasks.
- If possible, complete unpleasant tasks first so the rest of your day is more relaxing.
- Set realistic deadlines using knowledge from past experiences. You don't want to set unrealistic deadlines because you will set yourself up for a failure which will negatively impact your mood.
- When you are setting deadlines, think about whether some tasks rely on other people, such as, approval from a manager, as this could delay the completion of some tasks.
- Avoid fitting too much in on one day - each task should have your complete attention.
Keep your workspace organised: Ensure that your workspace is organised, for example, clean up your desk, set up a good filing system, clean up your computer's desktop etc. This can prevent future problems and save time.
2. Setting boundaries
Avoid bringing work home with you: It's easy to be available 24 hours a day due to current technology. Establish some boundaries so work is distanced from your personal life:
- Avoid adding your work email to your personal mobile phone.
- Don't check emails outside of work.
- Turn your work phone off when the working day is over.
- If you don't have time to respond to all urgent emails/phone calls during work you may have to speak with your manager as this suggests you have too much work.
- Avoid taking work home with you if you don't need to.
- If you have to take work home with you try to do it earlier to prevent thinking about work before going to bed.
Say no: Many employees struggle to say no when they are given more tasks because we like to please and be seen as capable. But if you have too many demands and no more capacity available you should say no and explain why. Try not to feel guilty because it means that someone else can dedicate the right amount of time and attention to the task.
Being assertive is important for these situations, here are some tips:
- Ensure that you tell the other person how you feel.
- Listen to what the other person says and empathise.
- Accept positive and negative feedback respectfully.
- Speak at a normal conversational volume.
- Sound firm but not aggressive.
- Maintain eye contact.
- Use "I" statements to get your messages across firmly, such as, "I want".
- Avoid words that exaggerate, such as, "always" and never". For example, say "This is the third time this week you've delegated your work to me", rather than "You always give me your work."
- Use facts rather than judgements, such as saying "This article has information about X missing" rather than "You've done a bad job again."
- Use clear-cut verbs so your message gets across, for instance, instead of saying "could" or "should" you can say "will", rather than using "need" you can say "want". For example, "I want to attend this conference because..."
- Broken record technique: If the person initially does not accept your “No”, then keep repeating yourself.
Examples of assertiveness:
"I currently can't take on any extra projects. My calendar is full for the next month."
"I understand what you're saying, but I disagree..."
Delegate tasks / ask for help: You may want to complete all of the tasks by yourself, but this may be increasing your stress and therefore increasing your chances of making mistakes. Ask your colleagues for help and you can return the favour in the future.
3. Life outside of work
"Me time": To avoid experiencing burnout you must take some time to look after yourself and engage in activities you find pleasurable. This can be anything you enjoy - from going to the cinema to simply having a bath.
When people feel stressed they often want to go straight home and not engage in any activities. This often leads to them thinking repeatedly (rumination) about their work day. Ensure you plan activities after work so you can counteract any negativity experienced due to work.
Balanced week: Plan for a week that has a balance of work, social activities, family life/relationships, leisure, exercise and daily responsibilities. This will ensure that you are dedicating time and effort into all the areas of your life and not just work. If you depend on just work, you put more pressure on yourself to succeed in it and if something goes wrong there will be nothing to fall back onto.
Use your annual leave: Ensure that you use your annual leave as this will provide you will a complete disengagement from work. On your return you're likely to be feel more refreshed and less stressed.
Don't neglect your needs: When you're stressed you may start eating at your desk or avoiding taking your breaks. Make sure you do take your breaks as this will give you some space to clear your thoughts:
- Take small breaks every hour
- Leave the workplace during lunch
- Go for a walk or exercise during lunch
Limit overtime: Make overtime the exception and not the norm. If it becomes an issue discuss this with your manager. Escalation to Human Resources is possible if your manager does not take action.
Switch off ritual: When the working day is coming to an end, do something that signifies that it is over and you can now turn off, such as, cleaning your desk up.
Support network: We tend to socially withdraw when we feel stressed which can leave us feeling isolated. Speaking with and meeting up with friends and family can help you feel more positive and reduce your vulnerability to stress. You can offload to them, receive support and engage in enjoyable activities together.
Making new friendships: If you feel that you don't have anyone you can spend time with, join a club or attend classes. Volunteering has also been shown to increase resilience to stress. It's never too late to meet people.
Work relationships: Develop good relationships with your colleagues as it makes being at work significantly more enjoyable thus helping shield you from some stress.
Avoid difficult colleagues: Avoid engaging with difficult colleagues if it's not necessary as you will only feel more frustrated and stressed.
Healthier habits to reduce workplace anxiety
Avoid alcohol, caffeine and nicotine
- Nicotine and caffeine are stimulants which means that they can subsequently increase your anxiety.
- Alcohol can make you feel low as it is a depressant.
- These substances can negatively affect your sleep thus leaving you feeling more stressed.
Get enough sleep
Stress and anxiety may be keeping you up at night which can make you more susceptible to stress. Having a good night's sleep will increase your concentration, help you regulate your emotions and cope with stress more effectively.
If you find that you are struggling to sleep at night, sleep hygiene is a useful technique to build-up a healthy sleep pattern:
- Avoid stimulating and stressful activities close to bedtime, such as, using your computer or phone. Instead, engage in quiet and relaxing activities, such as, listening to calming music, reading etc.
- Reduce caffeine intake, especially late in the day.
- Create a routine where you go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time every day.
- If you cannot fall asleep after 20 minutes get out of bed and do something relaxing until you feel sleepy.
- Try to avoid looking at the clock as this can increase your anxiety. Move the clock somewhere you can't see it if necessary.
- Avoid doing anything stressful in bed, such as, engaging in any work-related activities. Your aim is to link your bedroom to a place of relaxation.
- Don't look at screens an hour before going to bed as they can affect melatonin production making your body think it's not time to sleep.
- Avoid napping as this can prevent you from falling asleep later. If you do nap limit this to 20 minutes.
- Avoid eating or drinking too late.
- Engage in exercise during the day rather than late in the evening as this will keep you awake.
Make sure you are eating healthily as this:
- Improves mood
- Helps you think more clearly
- Increases your energy
Here are some tips:
- Avoid foods that increase and decrease blood sugar levels quickly, such as, sweets and cakes.
- Reduce your intake of sugar and refined carbohydrates as these can cause mood and energy levels to crash.
- Ensure you're eating fruit and vegetables. The fibre they contain is especially important if you are experiencing anxiety-related stomach problems.
- Low blood sugar can make you feel anxious, irritable, tired and depressed. So eat small, frequent meals and choose slow-realising energy foods to maintain even blood sugar levels, such as, pasta, wholegrain bread and rice.
- Drink 5-8 glasses of water a day to increase concentration.
- Eat healthy fats, such as, Omega-3 and -6 to help with brain functioning. They are found in, for example, oily fish, eggs, nuts and seeds.
- Avoid "trans fats" as these can negatively affect mood.
Our mental health and physical health are strongly linked; physical activity releases endorphins which naturally increase mood thus reducing stress. Try to do at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day - this can be throughout the day if it's easier than exercising 30 minutes in one go.
Big changes to your daily routine are usually not needed to achieve this, for example, you could get off at the bus stop before your usual bus stop when travelling to work.
You may already know what helps you relax, if not, there are many relaxation techniques out there to help you de-stress, such as, deep breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation. They help reverse the physical symptoms of stress and anxiety by decreasing: heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension and breathing rate.
Mindfulness is also very beneficial for helping reduce stress because a lot of our anxious thoughts consist of thinking about the past or worrying about the future. Mindfulness is a way of bringing your focus of attention back to the present - this is why it's also very valuable to practice when you are experiencing hypothetical worries.
Dealing with worries and negative thoughts
Engage in activities
When you notice that you are experiencing hypothetical worries, try practicing mindfulness or engaging in another activity so your attention is focused on what you are currently doing.
If your worries are practical, implement problem-solving to produce a solution. This is a 7 step process:
- Define the problem and be specific: Where are you currently? Where do you want to be? How will you know when you have got there?
- I have to work long hours because I have been given too much work
- I want to spend my time after work hours with friends and family
- I will know this situation has been resolved if I can leave the office at 5pm and see my friends and family
- Think of all the possible solutions without discounting anything:
- Leave my job
- Talk to my line manager
- Escalate the situation to Human Resources
- No matter how much I get done, I will leave when it's 5pm
- Get to work a few hours earlier
- Ask my colleagues if they can help
- Identify the advantages and disadvantages for all of the options, for both the short and long term. For example:
- Advantages of leaving my job: I won't have to work long hours anymore
- Disadvantages of leaving my job: I will have the stress of looking for another job. I like my colleagues and manager. I might have the same problem again at a different job
- Choose the best option after weighing up advantages or disadvantages.
- I'm going to speak to my line manager as there are fewer disadvantages
- Create a detailed plan of how you can implement the plan. Think about the steps are needed
- Email my line manager tomorrow as soon as I get to the office asking for a meeting
- Compile a list of the current issues and any solutions I have
- At the meeting explain the above
- Agree on a course of action
- Implement your plan
- Review the outcome. If it doesn't work go back to step 4 and pick another option
Challenge your thinking
If you notice that you are experiencing negative automatic thoughts, try challenging these by looking at the evidence for and against the thought. A good way to do this is by asking "If my friend said this to me about himself, what would I say?".
Weigh up the evidence and create a more balanced thought. This doesn't mean the new thought has to be really positive - it must be formulated using the evidence.
For example, you have been informed that your report had a small mistake in it after it has already been printed in a journal. Your original thought may have been "I'm terrible at this job." After weighing up the evidence you may have formed the new thought: "Mistakes happen all the time and mine was small. I generally receive positive feedback from my boss; I am competent at this job."
Communicate and get support
Talk to your manager
A survey Mind conducted found that three in five people would feel more motivated at work if their employer tried to support their staff's mental wellbeing. So if you feel concerned about speaking with a manager be aware that they're likely to want to help you.
Other benefits employers receive from supporting staff include:
- Increasing staff performance
- Reducing absence levels
- Increasing staff happiness
- Increasing loyalty
- Increasing the likelihood of more people applying to work there
- Legal obligations
You and your manager can then come up with a plan together to tackle the stress, for example:
- You may be allowed to work more flexibly
- They may have been unaware of how much work you have. Now your manager knows you're overextended you can agree on a more realistic workload
- You can go through a clear job description of your role and highlight which of your current tasks are not part of this job description
- Regular feedback and reviews can be arranged
- If there are interpersonal issues you may be allowed to transfer to another department
Take advantage of the Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
Many employers offer an EAP to help employees with issues that may be affecting their performance and physical and mental health - this includes personal issues as well as work-related problems. Usually there will be access to a counselling or an advice service.
Speak to your GP
If you think you would benefit from professional support, speak to your GP and they can go through options with you.