2021 has seen huge changes in people’s work patterns and habits, with many people adjusting to blended working, returning to face-to-face working and working in very different circumstances that pre-Pandemic. Whilst change is a part of life – it can also be a trigger for anxiety and a cause of work-related stress. This blog looks at the ways work can impact our sense of wellbeing, and how work-related stress and anxiety can steal our serenity. We will also consider some practical self-help strategies that can support your psychological health if you feel impacted by work-related stress and anxiety.
The Impact of Work-Related Stress and Anxiety
Work is a key part of so many of our lives. Whether that’s in the form of paid employment, voluntary work or laboring at home to keep on top of chores and the tasks of life. On average, a third of our adult lives are spent at work if we’re working full-time. And, part-time employment does not necessarily mean part-time work, as anyone who juggling non-paid work, including caring for children and other family members, alongside paid employment knows. Even if we are not currently employed, the toll of looking for work can take up significant amounts of focus. Therefore, if work leaves us feeling stressed and anxious, then a big chunk of our life is impacted. Feelings of tension, stress and anxiety can spill into other areas of our lives as we take the anxiety with us outside of our workplace. Work-related stress and anxiety affect our personal relationships, leisure pursuits and rest, spreading and contaminating our non-work life. The utopian vision of the 19th Century reformer, Robert Owen, who campaigned for “eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest” seems pure fantasy when you find yourself lying awake, anxiously ruminating about work.
The Satisfaction of a Job Well Done
Work, in whatever form it takes for us, can provide both income and industry. Paid employment not only helps pay the bills, but also provides a potential sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Research shows that being under occupied can be detrimental to wellbeing, and this helps to explain why retirement or redundancy, or even being not-so busy at work can also feel stressful. It helps to make sense of the anxiety that can come from self-employment in a changing economy and ever shifting market. Not only do people fear for their livelihood, but there’s also a worry about what an empty order book might feel like. No orders = no income + lack of accomplishment. That’s certainly an anxiety provoking equation.
So, what do we mean by work related stress and anxiety? Stress is the term we use to describe our reaction to feeling threatened or under pressure. In the short term, stress focuses the mind and the body to meet demands – to get the report to your boss ahead of the deadline, or to process a sudden influx or orders. However, when sustained over time, stress is detrimental to physical and mental health. We tire, mentally and physically when we are under duress for too long. If we assess that the demands outstrip our ability to cope, feelings of hopelessness and threat emerge.
In a similar way, work-related anxiety is the feeling of dread, fear or apprehension about some aspect of our work. It may be experienced as physical symptoms of tense muscles and difficulty breathing. It may be felt as a panicky sensation in our stomachs. It can also take the form of troubling thoughts and feelings that cause real distress. Whilst some level of anxiety can alert us to action, – for example, by prompting us to take a look at our situation and environment and make changes as needed – too much work-related anxiety can be paralyzing. Anxiety causes our body to release adrenaline and cortisol and our hearts beat faster so that blood can quickly reach the parts of our body needed to run or fight the threat. This can lead to feeling shaky and breathless as a result, and may culminate in a panic-attack.
Causes of Work-Related Stress and Anxiety
So, let’s consider some of the common workplace threats and pressures that can trigger work-related stress and anxiety. Threats in the workplace can take the form of the passive-aggressive email that leaves us feeling under threat. It may come in the guise of a colleague who is ever critical and has zero tolerance for imperfection. Overheard rumors of lay-offs and redundancies can be a significant workplace threat, as can news reports about downturns in the economy. Needing to adapt quickly – perhaps with inadequate training – to new work patterns and remote and digital ways of working can feel unsettling. Being asked to work in areas and ways outside of our comfort zones can feel threatening. For anyone on a zero-hour contact or where pay comes in the form of commissions, there can be anxiety and stress associated with the uncertainty.
Increasing Awareness and Regulation Strategies
There are steps employees and employers can take to prevent and manage workplace stress and anxiety. Awareness is a powerful tool here – being able to name and describe different stressors and challenges allows for an objective view of the situation which, in turn, invites an audit of the skills and resources available in response. Such logical and objective thinking can be difficult when we feel overwhelmed by difficulties at work. Having some strategies that help with regulation of emotions and sensations is helpful. These allow your nervous system to calm so that you are able to respond in a considered way. We will cover a range of regulation techniques in later blogs. Two of the many useful regulation and calming strategies are Mindfulness and Slow Breathing techniques, and research has demonstrated that both Mindfulness and Slow Breathing Work can reduce experience of work-related anxiety (Zaccaro et al., 2018; Janssen et al., 2018).
Resources for Mindfulness and Slow Breathing Work
For busy workers who want to find ways to learn more about Mindfulness, there are some excellent Apps out there that can support Mindfulness practice. Headspace provides easy to access Mindfulness exercises. For people interested in finding out more about the theory as well as the practice of Mindfulness, Sam Harris’ Waking Up App may be of interest.
And Slow Breathing Work can take many forms. We’ve covered some of these in a previous blog. Other resources that may be of interest include Tom Granger’s Draw Breath book and the NHS Every Mind Matters video.
Calming, regulation strategies, then, are helpful in helping with gaining a sense of perspective upon the issues that are impacting work-related stress and anxiety. Having a clear sense of what the issues are and how they impact you allows for supportive conversations with others. It may be that speaking with a line-manger can help. You may find speaking with a friend helps. And, for many, speaking with a counsellor to explore issues of work-related stress and anxiety is a helpful outlook that can result in increased self-awareness and lasting change.
Eklund, M. & Argentzell, E. (2016) Perception of occupational balance by people with mental illness: A new methodology in Scandinavian journal of occupational therapy, 23:4, 304-313.
Jasssen, M., Heerkens, Y., Kuijer, W., van der Heijden, B., & Engels, J. (2018). Effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction on employees’ mental health: A systematic review. PloS one, 13(1), e0191332.
Zaccaro, A., Piarulli, A., Laurino, M., Garbella, E., Menicucci, D., Neri, B., & Gemignani, A. (2018). How breath-control can change your life: A systematic review on psycho-physiological correlates of slow breathing. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 12, 353