Common causes of workplace stress – and how to deal with them

We spend the majority of our days either at work or thinking about it.

So when our job becomes stressful, it’s pretty hard to escape – and these worries and anxieties can even filter out into other aspects of our lives. 

Stress affects one in five of the working population, and recent reports have found it’s one of most common causes for long-term sick leave in Britain.

While stress affects everyone differently, there are some key universal sources of it in the workplace – from difficult colleagues to unsustainable workloads.

Experts have shared some of most common reasons and how to tackle them head-on.

Failure in communication

Business and wellbeing trainer Ros Jones says that poor communication is one of the biggest contributors to workplace stress. 

She tells Metro.co.uk: ‘Lack of clear instructions, inadequate training or ambivalence can lead to people not delivering what was expected. This in turn causes frustration, managers believing their team aren’t up to the job and people getting demoralised.’

Different communication styles can also cause problems.

‘For example, those who are assertive and abrupt can be perceived as aggressive,’ adds Ros.

‘On the other hand, if a member of the team is a careful perfectionist, they may experience stress if they are rushed or where others in the team do not have similar high standards.

‘Not communicating clearly in an appropriate style to ensure that everyone understands (and is aware of expectations) can lead to workplace stress.’

Heavy workload

The more we have on, the more challenging day-to-day life can be.

Ros adds: ‘Consistently heavy workloads and long working hours – especially where there is little feedback, gratitude for a job well done or other acknowledgement – is another common cause of workplace stress.’

Of course, there are busier periods throught the year for everyone, but a consistently heavy workload is not sustainable over time – and can lead to mental and physical burnout. 

‘In a workplace where there is poor leadership and low levels of employee engagement, there will commonly be a high turnover rate which is what often leads to some employees taking on heavier workloads to cover for insufficient staff – thus exacerbating the stressful working environment,’ adds Ros.

Organisational change

While a change in an organisation itself is not necessarily a cause of workplace stress, the way that it’s managed (or not managed) can be.

‘Change is inevitable for business development and growth whether it’s moving office, moving to remote working, introducing new systems or changes in job roles. Workplace stress is common where there is poor communication about the change and the impact on individuals,’ continues Ros.

‘It can lead to anxiety, people imagining worse case scenarios or spreading rumours about what might be happening.’

A poor work environment

Our work environment has a strong impact on our mood.

Insufficient space when working from home or inappropriate equipment can contribute to a more stressful working day.

Ros says: ‘Some people find it stressful working completely on their own for long periods and suffer anxiety and uncertainty because they’re unaware of what’s going on in the wider organisation – or they’re unable to concentrate with other family members around them.’

Lack of delegation

Another common cause of workplace stress is a failure to delegate, says executive coach Susy Roberts.

She explains: ‘Delegation isn’t simply a case of sharing your workload out. You can’t dump the contents of your in-tray on the desks of your colleagues and expect them to get on with it – that’s abdication. 

‘You need to have teams and structures in place, so everyone knows what’s expected of them, and you know who the best person is for the job.’

Expert tips for tackling workplace stress:

Every workplace is different, but these common factors cause stress and anxiety in all kinds of jobs and across various industries.

‘In some cases there are also relationship factors, such as difficult co-workers, difficult customers, violence, threats or bullying, discrimination and lack of managerial support,’ says Julia Dabrowski, a psychologist at Companion.

She adds: ‘Some of these things will require external help. For example, if you’re dealing with threats or discrimination in the workplace, it’s not something you can necessarily change with a positive mental attitude.

‘But many of the factors that cause us stress are things that we can do something about.’

What to do if you’re dealing with threats or discrimination at work:

  • Document the events.
  • Talking with your employer or someone senior at work.
  •  Look at your workplace’s policy on discrimination and harassment.

Here are some things to take into account…

Identify the triggers

Dr Julia says: ‘Try noticing the situations that typically trigger your anxiety.

‘What do you notice going on around you? What expectations are you faced with? Are these internal expectations that you’re placing on yourself or external? Consider what may be going through your mind in these moments, what anxious thoughts are you having?’

Journaling can be a great way of taking note of these day-to-day experiences, to recognise patterns of feelings or behaviours. 

Identify and seek out the resources you need

Once you have an understanding of what is triggering the stress, it’s crucial to identify what resources you need to meet these needs or expectations.

It could be that you need more time for deadlines or training in specific areas. 

‘If you think this problem is solvable, identify ways of seeking out the resources needed. You may need to speak to your manager if you feel consistently under-resourced,’ adds Dr Julia.

Chat to a manager

If you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, it can be a good idea to chat to your manager, to see if anything can be done to help.

They also might be able to recognise if this is a common feeling within the team and take action if so.

Practice anxiety and stress management techniques

Various stress and anxiety management techniques can help when things beyond your control get a bit much in the office.

Relaxation exercises, deep breathing and mindfulness are just a few things to try – and various mental health apps offer these resources.  

Continue to engage with areas of your life outside of work

‘When we feel stressed, it can feel instinctive to spend more time on work, and pull away from other activities, hobbies and relationships,’ says Dr Julia.

‘The more time we spend working, the more we close ourselves off to other activities and opportunities, and consequently the more focused we become on work.

‘As a result, when something goes wrong at work, we feel a more intense level of stress. Stress and anxiety reduce our objectivity. Working ever longer hours, we have less time available to access other things to distract ourselves or offer a sense of perspective and relief.’

It’s there a good idea to keep these external things up when you’re feeling a bit stressed at work, as they can help you to keep a sense of perspective and be more objective about the worries you’re facing.

Dr Julia adds: ‘Next time you feel inclined to cancel social plans due to feeling tired from work, try taking the opposite action and engage with this activity.

‘You may notice that after the initial effort, it provides you with much needed support, stimulation or distraction, and an opportunity for you to regain some perspective.’

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