Managing stress at work

06 October 2022

The impact of mental ill health (predominantly stress) on the workplace is staggering. It is estimated that nearly 15% of working-age people experience mental health problems in their workplace, causing some 13% of all sickness absence and costing the UK economy as much as £118bn a year.

Whether you're an employer managing a team member who has stress or an employee who is experiencing stress or anxiety, understanding and knowing what to do or how to help is not easy.

This is where three informative 'vlogs' (or video blogs) for WPA by chartered health psychologist, Dr Julie Denning, can help. Dr Denning, a cognitive behavioural therapist for Working to Wellbeing, has outlined a series of 'resilience boosters', or tools and techniques that can be used to help better manage stress and anxiety.

Managing stress at work

In this vlog, Dr Julie Denning, a Chartered Health Psychologist and CBT therapist, discusses tools and techniques that can be used to help better manage stress and anxiety.

Think how you experience stress

The starting point is to recognise that stress can manifest itself in different ways. You therefore need to think carefully and honestly about how you personally experience stress. Are there, for instance, particular situations or scenarios that act as stressors or stress triggers for you?

"When you feel really stressed do you notice that you have loads of thoughts going through your mind?" Dr Denning points out, by example. "They might be future-focused thoughts, they might be past-related thoughts, they might be thoughts that are just unhelpful because you find yourself going round in a bit of a vortex."

Or it could be that your stress response is primarily physical. So, perhaps a raised heartbeat, sweaty palms, shallower breathing, shakiness, tension in your neck, arms and shoulders, and so on.

Or perhaps you channel your stress and anxiety into negative emotions or behaviours, maybe anger, irritability, agitation, or denial? Or lethargy, or tension headaches? Or perhaps eating or drinking too much, or smoking? Or even self-harming in some other way?

The important point here is to recognise there is no one-size-fits-all approach to managing stress. How you think about and manage your stress may therefore need to be by focussing on different things. You may also need to experiment with different exercises, techniques or solutions to find what works best for you.

It may be worth speaking to someone you trust for advice, perhaps a mental health first aider or an occupational health specialist. If your workplace offers access to an employee assistance programme, this may be able to offer valuable confidential support and help. A GP or practice nurse will be well placed to signpost you to exercises, tools and resources.

There are also many great online resources you can check out yourself, such as the NHS's 'ten stress busters' or the Mental Health Foundation's guide 'How to manage and reduce stress'.

For the purposes of her vlog, Dr Denning focuses on two important 'stress busting' techniques: creating 'head space' in your working day, and the power of physical exercise.

Creating head space

If your response to stress is primarily physiological - in other words things racing around your head; overwhelming mental 'noise' from all directions; anxiety, fear and apprehension - then one answer is to try to create, in effect, mental fire breaks.

"Make sure that you have got some time or admin punctuations during your day," explains Dr Denning.

Creating this mental head space could mean, for example, scheduling in 15 minutes either side of a really difficult or challenging meeting to allow you to decompress and draw breath. "Really think about how you're diarising your day, and whether you are blocking out time for yourself," she adds.

Think, too, about when you're likely to be most mentally resilient during the day. Are you, for example, more a morning person or more productive in the afternoon?

"Think about when is best to plan in the most cognitively challenging things, the things you find the most difficult; plan those for the time of day when you're most alert. That will give yourself the best chance of completing them," advises Dr Denning. It is well recognised that being more active (or simply less sedentary) at work is good for both our mental and physical health. "Exercise is medicine. Get up and move about and move your bodies," explains Dr Denning.

Try therefore to punctuate your day by popping out for a walk, even just 10 minutes round the block. If your office has multiple floors, go to the furthest one to go to the bathroom. Or use the furthest-away kitchen. Really get into the habit of using the stairs.

If you're working from home, artificially create a 'commute' to generate both a physical and mental break between work and home life. "Find quick wins that you can engage in to keep moving your body," advises Dr Denning.

Understanding the links between physical and mental health

Make sure to take a lunch break, and step away from your desk when you do so. Even if you're mostly at your desk, just try to stand and move around from time to time. Apps such as Active 10 or Couch to 5K can help to motivate you to find time in your day to engage in exercise.

"Even if you feel you can't get out or have too much going on, it will help if you can pause and stop. Go for a walk. You will feel much more refreshed and you'll be more alert and productive in the afternoon," recommends Dr Denning.

Try stretching and moving exercises at your desk. Even just gently raising your arms upwards and outwards will create stretch across the shoulder blades and help to relieve tension.

Think, too, about having 'snacks' of exercises rather than assuming, say, you have to go to the gym or do an hour-long exercise class. "Going for a quick, brisk walk for 10 minutes can be just as energising for us," Dr Denning explains.

Don't forget you're a social animal

Finally, it may not technically be a stress busting 'exercise' but one of the best ways to overcome stress and anxiety about work is, simply, to get away from and (crucially) not be thinking about work.

Your social friend and family networks, whether work colleagues or outside of work, are therefore a critical part of effectively managing stress. These networks will be instrumental in recharging you; rejuvenating, restoring, and rebuilding your resilience to take on tomorrow.

So, make time to get properly away from work, from the emails, meetings, spreadsheets or deadlines; from whatever is worrying you or causing anxiety.

As Dr Denning explains: "We're social beings. We like to connect with each other. It can really help. That adage of a problem shared is a problem halved is really very true. Social support can be a massive buffer in terms of mental ill health and low mood for example."

Within this, be self-compassionate. Recognise you're not going to manage every situation perfectly every time. Even with the best will in the world, there may be times when you feel down or low, anxious or stressed. Use the tools and techniques detailed here to help, but don't beat yourself up about not feeling mentally 100%.

"Look after yourself, look after your needs, be kind to yourself," Dr Denning emphasises. "If you plan, use your diary, get out and exercise, look after your emotional needs, you may well find that your overall stress levels will decrease and make your quality of life just that little bit easier," she adds in conclusion.

About Dr Julie Denning and the author

Dr Julie Denning is the Managing Director of Working to Wellbeing and Chair, Vocational Rehabilitation Association.

Nic Paton is one of the country's foremost journalists on workplace health, safety and wellbeing, and is editor of Occupational Health & Wellbeing magazine. He also regularly writes on the health and employee benefits and health insurance markets.