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A therapist’s guide to coping better with work-related stress

19 Apr 2021

From less time socialising to feelings of unpredictability, there are many reasons why more of us are feeling stressed at work. Livi Psychologist Dag Härdfeldt shares his tips for managing workplace stress

For many of us, the Covid-19 pandemic has caused a dramatic shift in the way we work. Unpredictable workloads, less social interaction and, for some of us, the demands of running a home alongside our jobs has caused our stress levels to rise.

In 2019, the World Health Organization highlighted burnout caused by chronic workplace stress as an occupational phenomenon. A recent report by YouGov and Microsoft found that 30% of UK employees are working longer hours and 53% feel they must be available all the time.

Why are we so stressed at work?

‘One of the most common triggers for stress is an unhealthy psychosocial work environment,’ says Livi Psychologist Dag Härdfeldt. That’s the interpersonal and social interactions that influence our behaviour and development at work.

‘In many work situations, we encounter unclear expectations, shifting requirements, a blurred work-life balance and a lack of respect for free time,’ adds Härdfeldt. Concern about redundancy and the unpredictability of the future can also fuel our feelings of stress and overwhelm.

How can I better manage my workplace stress?

To help you cope better and manage feelings of work-related stress, Härdfeldt has these 5 tips for coping with the biggest stress triggers.

1. Stress trigger: Blurred work/life balance

Suggestion: Establish clear boundaries

Besides the more obvious advice like limiting your access to emails or work calls, Härdfeldt recommends making changes at home to help you establish clearer boundaries between work and time off.

‘Everyone’s situation and living space will be different, but try to isolate your work zone when you’re not on the clock,’ says Härdfeldt. That means steering clear of using your laptop in bed or taking work calls from the sofa when you can.

‘Our brains are conditioned to respond to our physical environment and the activity that takes place within them,’ says Härdfeldt. ‘It’s because of this that we often recommend to people with sleep disorders that the bedroom should only be used for resting or sex.’

2. Stress trigger: Unrealistic time management

Suggestion: Break down your work into main and sub-goals

One of the key triggers of stress is poor time management. Härdfeldt explains that this is often due to the uncertainty of deadlines, how long different aspects of your job might take and how far you think you should have progressed.

‘Try breaking down your tasks into main goals and sub-goals,’ Härdfeldt suggests. The main goal is the end result – for example, a presentation. The sub-goals are the small goals you need to achieve to get there.

‘The key difference between a main goal and a sub-goal is that it’s harder to determine when you’ve reached your main goal, or it can feel like you’re never properly finished. You can always keep improving or practising a presentation, for instance,’ explains Härdfeldt. ‘With sub-goals, you can create them in such a way that they can be divided into complete and not complete.’

The idea behind this is to help reduce the amount of decisions your brain needs to process. By dividing the whole task into manageable chunks, it’s much easier for your body’s stress system to cope.

3. Stress trigger: Changing or overwhelming workloads

Suggestion: Learn to say no (even if it’s uncomfortable)

Sometimes saying no to things is necessary. But evidence has shown that saying no is more difficult for people who skew towards the ‘agreeableness’ end of the personality scale.

‘Agreeableness is related to an increased sense of empathy, kindness and compassion,’ Härdfeldt explains. ‘More agreeable people tend to say yes to reduce the chance of conflict.’

The first step to learning how to say no is to sit with the emotions that come up when you do it. Then, it’s about learning how to accept these emotions in order to build up your tolerance.

‘If you want to become better at it, practise just saying no. You don’t owe every person an explanation,’ says Härdfeldt. Of course, when talking to someone like your manager you may want to explain further, but keep it direct and clear: ‘At the moment I’m working on X, so no, I can’t do Y right now. I can get to it on Thursday.’

4. Stress trigger: Fewer social interactions

Suggestion: Don’t forget to check in with your colleagues

Working remotely has affected how we socialise with our colleagues. Instead of impromptu coffees and quick catch-ups in the kitchen, we’re operating in a more functional way – working autonomously or scheduling focused video meetings. It means we have less time for those ‘water-cooler moments’.

‘One of the most impactful things peers can do is attempt to understand their colleagues’ work situations,’ says Härdfeldt. ‘It needn’t be a grand gesture, but something as small as asking someone from a different department what their workload is like will show your support.’

Instead of getting straight into emails when you switch on your laptop, take a minute to check in with a colleague. You might find it’s a simple destresser for both of you.

5. Stress trigger: Unpredictability of your work environment

Suggestion: Ask your manager for support

Remember that your boss is there to support you, so schedule a regular one-to-one with them and use that time to raise any concerns you’re having.

‘It’s part of your manager’s responsibility to ensure that your psychosocial work environment isn’t having a detrimental effect on your mental health,’ advises Härdfeldt. ‘If you’re a manager yourself, show an interest in your employee’s specific work situation and ask if they have everything they need to perform their job properly.’

When to get professional help with work-related stress

If you’re constantly feeling stressed or overwhelmed at work, it might be time to seek professional help.

‘My advice is to talk to a doctor about your stress levels before you experience burnout. The sooner you put preventive measures in place, the better the prognosis is,’ explains Härdfeldt.

‘If you feel your stress is getting worse, don’t try to push through it. Sometimes a period of sick leave is the best option, even if that might be difficult to accept. Severe burnout could alter your working capability in the long run.’

If you’re concerned about feelings of stress or overwhelm, book a meeting with a doctor to help identify the causes and the best support you can access.

This article has been medically approved by Dag Härdfeldt, Livi psychologist.

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