Most of us spend at least two thirds of our time at work. It’s what we do, but our bodies have not caught up to this new normal. The fight or flight stress response that evolved to battle bears, marauders and natural disasters is the same one that can be triggered by checking your emails.
Now, new research by Accenture has found that nine out of ten people at work in the UK are affected by mental health challenges; either their own, or that of colleagues or friends. This is much higher than the usually quoted ‘one in four’ and suggests a crisis is at hand. And more new research by Mynurva has revealed that 29% of professional men have suffered from mental ill health. Even more startling, 42% have never sought professional help, far higher than the 32% of women in work. And almost half of men (46%) never told their managers, with 59% fearing they’d lose a shot at promotion if they did.
Mynurva offers live video counselling to stressed out, time-poor people, but Dr Zain Sikafi, CEO and co-founder did point out to RISING that not all stress is unhealthy: ‘Eustress refers to the type of good stress we feel when faced with an exciting situation. However, work-related stress can also have a negative impact on your mental wellbeing, and lead to serious problems if not properly addressed – and the sad truth is that such issues are often left untreated,’ he told us.
It can even be hard to tell when day to day stress accumulates to the point where it starts to impact on our health. So, we asked Dr Sikafi to identify the top ten early warning signs that work stress is taking a negative toll on you – and what to do about it…
1. Constantly Feeling Overwhelmed
If your To Do list is never anywhere near ticking off and you feel work is getting on top of you, then you’re a candidate for high stress levels. ‘Symptoms include an inability to concentrate properly, exhaustion and a sense of not being in control,’ says Mynurva's Dr Sikafi.
How To Fight Back: Get strategic and take a step back to see the bigger picture: ‘If you feel like you are struggling to cope with your workload, changing your working pattern or making an active effort to take regular breaks can help you to focus and identity the factors that are making you feel overwhelmed.’
2. Feeling Irritable
Ever lost it at work? It happens, but making it a habit isn’t a good look. ‘If you find yourself feeling irritable or short-tempered when carrying out particular tasks, speaking with colleagues or engaging with clients, there is a chance this might be linked to a broader issue of anxiety,’ says Dr Sikafi. ‘Common behavioural signs include sudden mood swings or emotionally-charged responses to work-related issues, which undermine your overall professionalism.’
How To Fight Back: First, take a walk outside to calm down. ‘Then, try to find the source of your irritation by considering what might have acted as a trigger. After all, acknowledging your triggers is the first step to controlling your responses.’
‘Work-related stress can weaken our immune systems over the long-term’
3. You’re Lacking Motivation
Ever felt like work tasks you once enjoyed are now just a drag? Or that you just don’t have the drive and energy to deliver top-notch work? ‘A drop in motivation is another key symptom of a bigger health issue. In reality, your attitude and outlook on life can have a huge effect on your performance at work, and this can be negatively impacted by feelings of stress and anxiety,’ says Dr Sikafi.
How To Fight Back: The thing to recognise here is that we thrive on new challenges, so find some at work, but also beyond that bubble. ‘It is important to try and embrace new challenges while also finding things outside of work you enjoy doing.’
4. High Blood Pressure
There’s a physical fallout of high stress levels, as well as a mental one. ‘High blood pressure can often be linked to work-related stress, arising from negative interactions with managers, to working to tight deadlines,’ says Dr Sikafi.
How To Fight Back: Fight fire with fire and switch up your physical lifestyle to counter this threat. ‘An effective way of addressing high blood pressure is by adopting healthy eating habits and regular exercise,’ recommends Dr Sikafi. ‘Not only does exercise put you in a better state of mind, it also gives you a chance to focus on something outside of work.’
‘With a taxing work life you may remain in a continually stressed state, making it difficult to rest and recover’
5. Problems Sleeping
The problem with elevated stress levels is that they make your downtime less recuperative, creating an even more stressed out mindset, and driving a vicious cycle. ‘Problems range from disjointed sleeping patterns to insomnia, and this can be brought on by feelings of stress, anxiety and even depression stemming from your work environment. If your body’s stress response is triggered by a taxing work life, it may remain in a continually stressed state – making it difficult to rest and recover.’
How To Fight Back: Dr Sikafi recommends using good sleep hygiene by turning off notifications and avoiding looking at computer screens late at night – alcohol won’t help either. And read RISING’s guide to why you need more sleep.
6. Prolonged Or Frequent Colds
The cold season hits every office, but some seem to suffer more… ‘Work-related stress can weaken our immune systems over the long-term and this makes us much more susceptible to colds and flus. While stress alone cannot make us catch a cold, it inhibits our ability to respond to invaders and leaves our body more vulnerable to infection,’ says Dr Sikafi.
How To Fight Back: It’s down to lifestyle again: ‘Maintaining a balanced diet that includes the regular intake of vitamins and nutrients is important to improving your immunity system – as is regular exercise and ensuring you get enough sleep.’
7. Poor Digestion
Another side effect of the fight or flight response of stress is that it diverts blood from your digestive system to more ‘mission critical’ areas of the body. So, spending most of your day stressed out can lead to poor digestion, a loss of appetite or even a tendency to skip meals. ‘A loss of appetite may be linked to broader feelings of anxiety, while stress can affect movement and contractions of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, worsen inflammation, and even make you more susceptible to infection,’ warns Dr Sikafi.
How To Fight Back: Sticking to a regular pattern of eating, by always having something at lunchtime, for instance, will get your body used to a routine and make stomach troubles less likely. You may also benefit from eating less sugar and other inflammatory foods.
‘Having someone to lean on and talk to when you’re stressed can go a long way’
8. Poor Relationships At Work
Not having time to socialise, or have face-to-face meetings at work might seem like a minor issue, but it can contribute to a feeling of isolation. ‘A lack of support from colleagues at work may contribute to a sense of loneliness, says Dr Sikaif. ‘When dealing with difficulties at work, poor relationships with colleagues might be both a source and consequence of stress.’
How To Fight Back: You need to take the time to have real, human interactions both inside and outside of work to reduce feelings of isolation. ‘Having someone to lean on and talk to when you’re stressed can go a long way.’
9. Constant Headaches
‘A hectic work life marred by tight deadlines and long hours are often the source of headaches and migraines. In fact, tension headaches, also known as “stress headaches”, are quite common and are known to result from stress and anxiety,’ says Dr Sikafi.
How To Fight Back: Release the pressure by taking action to manage your work day.
‘Try not to overwork, set manageable deadlines, and take regular breaks – especially if you’re working in front of a screen.’
10. Muscle Tension
Sitting at a desk all day is stressful in more than one sense. ‘Stress can cause ongoing muscle tension, which increases the likelihood of suffering from a physical injury. Muscle tension is almost a reflex to stress, as the body’s way of guarding against injury and pain,’ says Dr Sifaki.
How To Fight Back: Tension is a physical symptom, so you can combat it directly, with both regular physical movement, and sports massage. ‘Exercise can prove invaluable to preventing muscle problems and relieving tension. Physical activity also stimulates endorphins, which naturally reduce feelings of stress.’
And If It Doesn’t Work…
Self help is vital, but there comes a point where stress builds to a level that requires professional help. And there’s no shame in asking for it, says Dr Sikafi. ‘If you notice any of these signs, it’s important not to brush them aside. Work-related stress can take a toll on your daily life and inhibit your performance at work – that’s why it is always advisable to speak with a healthcare professional such as your GP, a counsellor or therapist.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch this animation from Ted Talk’s Elizabeth Cox, which explains the surprising link between stress and memory…
Mynurva offers live video counselling which can be utilised from the comfort of your own home and offer access to professional, confidential support after working hours and even on the weekends.
Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.
Follow the author @mattfitnessray