While it’s completely normal to feel stressed, chronic or excessive stress can be a significant problem. It's important to recognise these signs or feelings and how to overcome them. It's helpful to learn how to manage stress caused by work. If you often experience feelings of stress, you might be at risk of developing a mental health problem like depression or anxiety.
What is stress?
Have you ever found yourself in a situation where your to-do list seems endless, deadlines are fast approaching and you find yourself saying ‘Eek! I feel stressed!’? But what is stress really, and how does it affect us?
Stress is primarily a physical response. When stressed, the body thinks it is under attack and switches to ‘fight or flight’ mode, releasing a complex mix of hormones and chemicals such as adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine to prepare the body for physical action.
Recognising the signs of stress
Stress affects different people in different ways. Below is a list of some of the common signs. Some of these things will not apply to you. You may have other signs of stress that we have not listed.
What are the main causes of stress?
Almost anything that affects your daily life, work or relationships can cause stress. Even seemingly small issues can cause stress if they go on for a long time. Some people are more affected by stress than others. It can depend on factors such as your personality, upbringing, your work and home life.
Situations or events that seem positive can cause stress, such as having a baby or getting married. If you feel stressed in these situations you may struggle to understand why. You may not feel that you can talk to anyone about your feelings or struggle with guilt. But feeling stressed in these situations is very common.
Below are some examples of things than can cause stress.
Burnout refers to an emotional, mental and physical state of exhaustion, caused by excessive and prolonged periods of stress.
In an NHS people article, burnout is described as a feeling of ‘not enough’, be that not enough energy, time, enthusiasm or ability. Common in health and social care occupations, it can result in a poorer physical state, mental health problems, reduced job satisfaction, absenteeism and professional errors.
Whilst burnout is a type of stress with overlaps in symptoms, the main difference is that stress is associated with a feeling of ’too much’, whereas burnout relates to a feeling of ’not enough’.
Signs and symptoms of burnout:
physical - feeling tired and drained, lowered immunity, change in appetite
emotional - sense of failure and self-doubt, decreased satsifcation and sense of accomplishment, loss of motivation
behavioural - isolating from others, procrastination, withdrawing from responsibilities.
Caring for patients during the pandemic has taken a significant toll on health and social care staff, impacting on their wellbeing and contributing to feelings of stress and burn out.
- The NHS Reset campaign outlines how the pressures of the Covid-19 pandemic have inevitably exacerbated the prevalence of burn out in our NHS people due to the intensity of workload, pressures and circumstances.
- In a recent survey, NHS Providers found that 92 per cent of staff agreed with the statement ‘I am concerned about staff wellbeing, stress and burnout following the pandemic’, reinforcing the need to focus on staff wellbeing surrounding burn out when restoring NHS services.
You can read further details about burnout prevention and treatment on the HelpGuide website.
Use the list below to see how many signs you notice in yourself
- Energy - You feel like you have less energy than before. No matter what you do, you don't find things get better.
- Sleep - Struggling to fall asleep, or stay asleep. Feeling like you never feel refreshed when you wake up.
- Eating - Your appetite has diminished, you are losing weight. Or you are eating to feel better, putting on weight.
- Dress - You can't be bothered to dress properly and don't care to look at yourself in the mirror.
- Irritation - You find yourself getting angered easily. You can be snappy and frustrated, more than usual.
- Down - You feel sad, with a strange hollow feeling. You might be tearful at times without knowing why.
- Anxious - You are more nervous about doing things than usual. You find yourself avoiding anything slightly stressful.
- Negative - You find yourself having negative and critical thoughts about yourself. You are also not as hopeful as before.
- Talking - You don't feel like talking to others, and at times avoid people at work or at home.
If you notice some of these in yourself, please take the time to have a conversation with someone.
Now use the list below to see how many signs you notice in others
- Energy - They are not managing workload as before. Perhaps sighing frequenetly, appearing to be overwhelmed.
- Sleep - They look like they have just woken up, yawning frequently. They look exhausted even in the morning.
- Eating - They have lost or put on weight. This is coupled with another item on the list.
- Dress - They are looking far more casual than usual. They wear the same clothes several days in a row.
- Irritation - They appear to be getting frustrated easily, complaining more than usual and argumentative with patients and colleagues.
- Down - They look sad; are more tearful than usual and avoid discussions.
- Anxious - Your colleague seems to be avoiding things. They don't take on new challenges and even avoid answering phone calls.
- Negative - They are derogatory about things, dismissing ideas and changes; they were not like this before.
- Talking - They don't talk to you as much. They give you short answers. They just don't seem themselves.
If you notice these in a colleague, please take time and ask them how they're doing.
There isn’t a set process for where you should start, or what you should do, everyone is different. You may need to try different things until you find what works for you.you may wish to try some of the suggestions below:
- Create a stress diary: You could write down when you feel stressed, include what happens just before or after you feel stressed. It could also help you to identify things which can make you unwell. These things are known as ‘triggers.’ Identifying your triggers can help you to have more control over your stress levels.
- Plan your time: If you plan your time this can make you feel more in control of things. Some examples are write lists of what you need to do, prioritise the most important tasks, share tasks with others if you can, don't put things off, and set yourself steps and goals for complicated tasks.
- Try practicing mindfulness: This practice is about focusing on the here and now. It might help you to find calmness and clarity to respond to stressful situations. See our pages on mindfulness and join a free class today to learn more.
Make lifestyle changes
- Look after your physical health: Exercise and eating well can relieve stress. There are lots of ways to exercise, you could try cycling, walking, running or going to the gym. Eating a healthy balanced diet is good for your mental and physical health.Our page on nutrition and physical exercise have more details.
- Get enough sleep: If you’re dealing with stress you may struggle to sleep well. If you don’t get enough sleep this can cause problems such as poor concentration and low mood. Long term sleep issues can lead to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. Visit our managing sleep page for some tips.
- Manage your money: Money can cause many different issues such as poverty, debt and relationship problems. Making a budget sheet could help. This will help you work out what you can afford to pay. Visit our financial wellbeing page.
Get practical advice: You may be able to take steps to change the cause of your stress. There are lots of places you can get practical advice on different issues. An advice service may be a good place to start. They may be able to support you to solve an issue.
If you feel stressed by a certain problem at work, you might not be alone in this. Anyone can experience some of these common stressful situations in the workplace. The important thing is understanding how to manage them.
- Ask your manager for help. Discuss your workload with your manager. Try setting realistic targets and talk about how you can solve the issues you're having.
- Try to balance your time. You might be doing too much at once. If you don't give each task your full attention, it can take longer. Try to claim your time back if you ever need to work extra hours to get something done.
- Reward yourself for achievements. Rather than only focusing on work that needs to be done next, reward yourself for tasks you’ve completed. Your reward could be taking a break to read, do a puzzle, chat with co-workers or spend time outside.
- Be realistic. You don't have to be perfect all the time. You might find that you're being more critical of your own work than you need to be. Work within your limitations and try to be kind to yourself.
Resources to help you
- Our Keeping Well Academy pages have some useful information on 'how to have a wellbeing conversation with your team/colleagues.
- Guidance on prevention and management of stress at work - guidance to support colleagues experiencing stress.
- Stress and impact in the workplace - a webinar from the Health, Safety and Wellbeing Partnership Group which looks at work-related stress.
- Supporting on NHS people experiencing stress - information to help support people experiencing stress.
- Talking toolkit aims to reduce work stress - a toolkit specifically for NHS providers.
- Mental health in the workplace - tools and resources for you to help improve mental health in the workplace.
- Health and wellbeing conversations - a resource which aims to help managers have confident and effective conversations to support their staff.
Stress - an NHS self help guide: In this self-help guidebook it provides information on: What stress is, the signs of stress, causes of stress, how we can manage stress in our body, how we can manage our stressful thoughts, how we can manage our stressed behaviour, what to do if stress is work related. An easy read version is also available.
Stress and Worry - CNWL Occupational Health Service: This booklet aims to help you understand and manage stress and worry better, so that you have the tools to help yourself.
10 stress busters: 10 stress busters from the NHS.
From distress to de-stress: Stress Management Society has a section on stress at work, ways to help you personally with stress, and practical advice.
Webinar: Address your stress: Watch this webinar about low mood and burnout.
Self assessment tools
If you are unsure about needing further support, you might want to complete the self-assessment questionnaires on low mood to find out more about your symptoms.