Stress at work appears to be one of those issues that never quite goes away. A Health & Safety Executive (HSE) survey states that in 2008/09 up to 415,000 people believed they were experiencing workplace stress at a level that was making them ill. With this in mind, it is likely that stress may be an issue for you or your teams at some point. From a profitability point of view, the figures also suggest that stress costs UK businesses up to £700 million per year. So let’s think positive about this negative topic.

What is stress? The HSE’s website states that stress “…arises where work demands of various types and combinations exceed the person’s capacity and capability to cope.” It is important to note that this definition avoids blame. It does not say that the “work demands” are unfair or that the person is inadequate. Of course, both those situations are possible, but the essence of the definition is that there is a mismatch between the work and the worker.

Although symptoms are always specific to the individual, the following may indicate a stressed condition:

  1. feeling unable to take decisions
  2. reduced concentration
  3. problems with sleeping
  4. increased alcohol or caffeine intake
  5. chest palpitations
  6. over time, a lack of self-esteem

So, first of all, assess yourself. Do any of those feel familiar? If so, then it’s worth examining your situation with the following six questions:

  1. Are my work patterns and environment healthy?
  2. Do I have what I need to do the job?
  3. Do I know when I’m doing a good job?
  4. Do I feel my job is important?
  5. Am I recognised as an individual?
  6. Am I learning and developing?

If you can’t answer “yes” to any of them then that gives you a clue as to where some stress might be coming from. A good manager or executive will also ask themselves these questions about their teams and – where necessary – raise the subject with individuals. Most large organisations these days will have HR policies around stress and work-life balance which give a platform for such discussion.

The obvious question is: what to do about it? Options fall into two categories: quick fixes for when you (or another) are feeling stressed ‘in the moment’ and longer term solutions for ongoing situations.

‘In the moment’ – take a short walk (physical activity changes the focus and removes you temporarily from the stressful environment); find something to laugh at (release those endorphins); drink some water (if our body is dehydrated it is operating below its best) or herbal tea (less caffeine, remember!); or if circumstances allow, take a quick nap (20 minutes’ sleep can significantly reduce stress levels.)

Longer term – self-awareness (learn what your stress indicators are and then pay attention to them); discuss workload with a manager (it may be an issue of quantity or it may just need re-structuring); talk to a GP (particularly if physical symptoms are experienced); learn to say “no” assertively (it is easy to fall into the trap of taking on too much at work); and ultimately, a change of job or role may be indicated.

Most of us experience workplace stress at some point in our lives and careers. Perhaps we should see it as a positive sign, letting us know that we need to look after ourselves a little better. The important thing is not to ignore it but to take notice and take action.