Spot the signs of stress in the workplace

The stress we feel whether in the workplace or our private lives, affects the decisions we make, our ability to focus on tasks, energy levels and social relationships; and this directly impacts our performance at work.

Some of the most common stressors are demands or responsibilities we feel unable to fulfil, and the feeling of being out of control which leads to feelings of overwhelm.

Whilst stress in the short term can be positive; prolonged stress, that is not addressed, impacts our performance at work and affects our physical and mental health.

The longer stress goes unchecked the risk of acute illness and disease increases.

In this blog we will outline steps to identify and support your teams, and your business, with stress management.

Become Aware of the Signs

To be able to manage stress you first need to identify it in the workplace and recognise how it is affecting your employees. Individually and as a whole team.

Often we don’t recognise the symptoms of stress as they can develop over a period of time, we are by nurture programmed to ignore the signs and ‘get on with things’.  We often see this with the delivery of our services where we find many employees don’t realise the symptoms they are experiencing are a result of stress.

This avoidance approach, over a number of months and years has led to a significant number (79%) of workers  in the UK claiming they are experiencing symptoms of burnout.1.

Emotional and Behavioural Signs of Stress

The stress matrix outlines some of the emotions and behaviours that are common indicators of stress. Have you experienced these yourself, or witnessed them in colleagues?

Stress Guide YOLO Wellbeing

The biggest and most obvious indicator that someone is experiencing a stressful situation is a change in their normal behaviour.

However, changes can be more subtle and less noticeable. We are unique individuals and therefore we manage stress differently depending on different factors such as our bodies ability to respond and the resources and tools we have available to manage and recover, but e will discuss these in more detail in a future blog.

Have you observed people in your team displaying multiple behaviours and moods highlighted in this stress matrix?

Physical Signs of Stress

When we experience stress physiological changes take place in our body. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS)  releases bio chemicals including cortisol, the ‘fight or flight’ hormone. In moments of stress this prepares our body to respond to the threat.

When we experience prolonged periods of stress our SNS dominates the autonomic nervous system2 and increased levels of cortisol remain in the body, supressing our immune system; heart rate is elevated, breathing is less regulated, muscles tense and our digestive system is disrupted.

When our SNS is dominant over time our ‘normal’ functions begin to deteriorate and we are presented with physical symptoms that should alert us to make changes to address the stress.

These can include:

Poor sleep, insomnia
Palpitations, rapid heartbeat
Shortness of breath, panic attacks
Aches and pains in the muscles and joints
Headaches or migraines
High blood pressure
Diarrhoea or constipation
Changes to appetite
Feeling restless, unable to settle

The physical symptoms listed above are not exclusive to stress, but if multiple are felt simultaneously it maybe an indicator that someone is experiencing high levels of stress and we recommend they speak to their GP, health coach or occupational health advisor.

Managing Stress for happier, healthier, and more productive employees

It is very difficult to remove stressors altogether in the workplace but by communicating with your employees to better understand their stressors; and build in measures to reduce and manage the triggers will have a positive impact.

Educate your teams about stress and regularly enquire about how they are feeling.

A company we worked with recently has a clever way to check in with staff. Before the start of each meeting they  ask employees to say one word that describes how they are feeling in the moment. Any word. Some examples include heavy, spaghetti, joyous, hippopotamus, fast.

This technique requires employees to take a few moments to become aware of how they are feeling, rather than providing an automatic response like ‘I’m ok.’ Their answers provide a guide for line managers to pick up on, without staff feeling exposed.

Champion healthy habits, a consistent focus on health is more likely to help teams adopt selfcare habits, but it is important to engage everyone. Usually, the people most in need are the ones who put up most resistance.

We have found through our work that many people have predisposed opinions about health and wellbeing, and this is a key barrier to engagement.

We suggest using different language. For example, wellbeing themes might be – Sleep, Hydration, Energy and Kindness.

Within each of these themes you can include a activities for exercise, nutrition, mindfulness, yoga, and massage, but the barriers are lowered.

Time out; a recent study3, published August 2022, found that taking short breaks at work reduces stress and boosts productivity, by preventing the impairing effects of accumulated strain.

When we create distance or distraction from stress, it allows the body time to recover.

We switch from high alert, our Sympathetic Nervous System, to our Parasympathetic Nervous System which creates balance in the body. Our breathing settles, muscles relax, heart rate and brain waves slow, and digestive hormones return to normal.

The study found that regular microbreaks following tasks can help manage wellbeing, this could be the time taken for a refreshment break, a walk around the office, or stretching out tight muscles after a period of inactivity. For tasks that take higher cognitive effort or to have an impact on performance breaks should be longer, lasting 10minutes or more.

Encouraging your teams to take short, regular breaks between tasks and a longer break for lunch will help prevent stress from building up, keeping your teams focused and energised.

If you have enjoyed this article and would like to know more about the services we provide, and how we can help you reduce stress in the workplace please contact us or Call: 01772283139 we would love to hear from you.

Further information and resources: 1Ceridian’s annual 2022 Pulse of talent report surveyed 1,156 UK members of staff in organisations with at least 100 employees.

2 The autonomic nervous system is a component of the peripheral nervous system that regulates involuntary physiologic processes including heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, digestion, and arousal. The Sympathetic Nervous System, known for the ‘fight or flight’ fear or stress response is balanced by the Parasympathetic Nervous System. When one nervous system is dominant it suppresses the function of the other.

3 “Give me a break!” A systematic review and meta-analysis on the efficacy of micro-breaks for increasing well-being and performance, published August 31st, 2022


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