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Signs of work stress and what you can do about it

25 Jan 2019

Signs of work stress

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Is your work stress spilling into something serious?

One of the most frustrating parts of anxiety and stress is that they can strike anytime – especially in the workplace. While nerves may get the better of many of us before a presentation or when negotiating a pay raise, some of us are faced with ongoing anxiety about work, even facing burnout.

Dealing immediately with this level of anxiousness is important.

What work stress feels like?

“Getting up and going into work becomes the hardest thing you do,” says Dr. Liesje Donkin, a Registered Clinical Psychologist who holds dual qualifications in clinical and health psychology. “You may feel run down all the time, sapped of energy and become irritable and impatient with people around you.”

She adds that people suffering from work stress can feel overburdened and find it hard to concentrate and make decisions. “Even though you should be slowing down, you may end up in a space where your mind is always going, it is hard to switch off and you have trouble sleeping.”

At its extreme, work stress can translate into frequent, intense anxiousness (that dreaded feeling when your heart doesn’t stop pounding) or complete burnout. Since stress affects the prefrontal cortex (the part of your brain responsible for executive function), you might find yourself making silly mistakes, forgetting things and even having outbursts of emotions. Physically, it can also manifest itself in the form of frequent sickness, heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.

“You’ll find people suffering from stress or burnout might take more sick days, come in late for work or are lagging in performance, or they might be functioning worse than they normally do,” says Dr. Donkin.

How is stress different from clinical depression?

“Many of the symptoms of stress are similar to clinical depression, yet they are different conditions,” says Dr. Donkin. “Clinical depression is more long-lasting and pervasive than work related stress or burnout. It lasts well beyond the workday and eats into your weekends, impacting all areas of your life. You constantly feel low and may have a very poor self-worth.”

Clinical depression may also manifest itself in the form of suicidal thoughts.

“Reaching out for help may become harder because people with depression may feel that others deserve the treatment more than them, because they might not feel worthy of treatment or that they are not “bad enough”, or they simply don’t know where to get help,” she says.

Don’t hold back. Seek help at the first sign of anxiety or stress setting in

“The pressure to succeed and fear that people knowing that you are struggling may impact your career and can be crippling,” says Dr. Donkin. “It holds many people back from getting the help they need and deserve.”

“People, especially men, often try to toughen up and “get on with it”. They don’t want friends, family and workmates thinking any less of them and this really places them at risk.

“Many times, people question if they are overreacting and don’t reach out because they fear people will judge them for asking for help. And this is often not the case – friends and whanau are often really supportive and may have had their own experiences so they can relate to the struggle that person is feeling. Often others will share their own experiences which can really help with feeling supported,” adds Dr. Donkin.

Misconceptions around insurance costs going up if you have depression or even the cost of visiting a GP can also come in the way of getting help.

“If you feel any of the above symptoms, at whatever level, visit your healthcare practitioner,” urges Dr. Donkin. “You are unlikely to be hospitalised (another common misconception when it comes to seeking help for depression or stress) and your condition is treatable. The sooner you get help the better.”

In New Zealand, your employer must make as sure as reasonably possible that health and safety risks in the workplace are identified and managed properly. This includes workplace stress and fatigue.

“If you’re stressed out, talk to your manager, a trusted colleague or someone in your HR department,” says Dr. Donkin. “If you fear the impact on your work if you reach to these people, talk to someone in your Employee Assistance Programme (EAP). Most New Zealand organisations have this in place.”

Easy tips to regain control over your mind

Seeking medical help, counselling or support from someone to help you get through is important. Equally important is self-care. You need to find a way to separate yourself from work so you can recharge and find balance again. Dr. Donkin suggests some easy tips to help yourself. Disconnect. Remove yourself electronically from work if you want to truly leave work. This means no emails after you sign out for the day. Make family and your hobbies a priority when you reach home. Keeping the phone (and even television) out of the bedroom is encouraged for a restful night.

Take frequent and scheduled breaks. Have lunch away from your desk. Getting away will only help increase your productivity.

Listen to your body. The headache could be a result of dehydration, the stomachache could be because you skipped lunch or the neck pain may signal poor posture. Pay attention to these signals and address them.

Schedule relaxation into your day. Go for a run or a walk; it’s a great mood booster. You could even meditate to relax.

Get smart about managing your workday. Prioritise your priorities by identifying tasks that will have maximum impact. Involve your manager in this task if you need to. In modern, open office environments, interruptions are frequent. While you don’t have control over the interruptions, you can control your response to them by either accepting it or cutting it off.

Where can you get help?

Do you need help? You can free call or text 1737 anytime for support from a trained counsellor.

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757

Lifeline: 0800 543 354

Healthline: 0800 611 116

Samaritans: 0800 726 666

Youthline: 0800 376 633

Important things to know

Information correct as at January 2019.