How to cope with stress at work

ByHanover Team
Posting date: 14 February 2023

Pause. Find your breath.

No matter what’s going on in your life right now, just take a long, slow, deep breath in. Hold it for a moment, then slowly exhale.

Allow any tension you hold to melt away as you gradually relax more and more deeply with each breath.

Notice what’s present here and now, in your body and in your thoughts. Notice your emotions.

Slow down and relax. Take another long slow, deep breath in. Hold it, then exhale.

Now, let's talk about stress, so we can better understand how to de-stress…

Workplace stress: the statistics

The statistics around workplace stress in the UK are staggering. A study by Statistica found that work-related stress is the most common cause of stress, with 79% of people saying they frequently suffer from it. 

According to a joint report from the Mental Health Foundation and YouGov, 74% of people have felt stressed to the point they can’t cope. And an astounding 13.7 million working days are lost each year in the UK due to work-related stress, anxiety and depression at a cost of £28.3 billion, a report from NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) shows.

But what is stress, and why do so many of us suffer from it? As a sufferer of stress myself - and as someone who’s found a solution that really works for me - let’s take a look.

What is stress?

Stress is what you perceive as stressful so it’s different for everyone, but at its core it’s a physical reaction to psychological factors and emotions. It mobilises your entire body in a ‘fight or flight’ response, and releases hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. 

Symptoms include increased heart rate and blood pressure, muscle tension and feelings of anxiety or depression. 

Stress is a natural response to challenging situations and is a part of everyday life. However, when stress becomes chronic or excessive, it can lead to physical and mental health problems.

Common signs you’re stressed at work

The workplace is a common source of stress for many people, with job demands, tight deadlines, sales targets that seem impossible to achieve and conflicts with colleagues being some of the main culprits.

Signs you might be stressed at work include:

  • Lack of motivation
  • Overly emotional reactions to situations you wouldn’t normally react that way in
  • Irritability, both with your colleagues and in your personal life
  • Reduced confidence at work
  • Finding it hard to sleep
  • Physical symptoms like tiredness, headaches and anxiety that can lead to more severe illnesses, such as depression, cardiovascular disease and cancer

What’s important is that you identify the source of your stress and stressors, recognise your personal stress symptoms and develop coping strategies and skills. After all, there are very few low-stress jobs so switching roles may not cure your stress.

I found my solution in yoga and meditation. Studies have shown that practising yoga and meditation can help to reduce the physical and psychological symptoms of stress, and it certainly worked for me. I outline some simple breathing exercises you can do anywhere later in this article.

And it’s not just me - a US study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that employees who participated in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program reported significant reductions in stress and improvements in overall wellbeing.

But first, what actually causes workplace stress?

8 common workplace stressors

These are some common workplace stressors - but like stress itself, what makes you feel stressed is different for everyone.

1.    Excessive workload and high expectations

2.    Poor management, whether that’s your direct line manager or the leadership team in general

3.    Lack of recognition, especially when you consistently do a good job

4.    Low salary and/or a lack of impactful benefits

5.    No personal development plans or room for growth in the company

6.    Lack of time to do your job or having unrealistic demands placed on you

7.    Organisational change or the threat of redundancy

8.    Poor workplace relationships, even going as far as harassment or bullying

How to deal with workplace stressors

Following our list of common workplace stressors above, here are some practical ways to deal with three of the biggest ones:

1.   If an excessive workload is causing you stress, focus on prioritising your tasks, communicating with your   manager, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t forget that you aren’t the cause of your workload so it’s important not to beat yourself up about it.

2.   Going through organisational change? Firstly, it’s important to understand the whys and wherefores behind the change, both on a wider company level and then specifically how your role might be affected. For example, if you find you have a new manager, take some time with them to understand that situation and help them understand what your skill set is and what you bring to the business. It’s crucial to keep an open mind in times like these, and perhaps try to think of it as a new opportunity rather than a threat to your career.

3.   Are you feeling demotivated because there’s a lack of recognition for your work? - Firstly, try and take an objective look at the quality of your work. Might there be something you can improve? Or perhaps your work itself is great, but you need to find a way to communicate that with others. After all, maybe they’re not aware of the value you bring. Don’t be afraid to ask your manager for feedback on your performance, or share positive outcomes and best practices with your colleagues.

How breathing exercises can help reduce stress

There are a number of practical ways to deal with stress in the workplace. As a Yoga and Meditation Teacher with international certification from India, my best tip, as I mentioned above, is conscious breathing and yoga practice.

Breathing exercises are a quick and easy way to overcome the immediate effects of stress, and they’re good for the heart, lungs and brain. Yoga positively impacts your entire body and I believe it’s key to staying healthy and youthful.

But as much as physical yoga practice helps to alleviate stress, there aren’t many opportunities to do it in the office, unless you have very open-minded colleagues.

These three breathing exercises, however, have each helped me combat many stressful situations, and I hope they provide some relief from your symptoms of stress, too.

1.   Abdominal breathing - this exercise sends the breath to your stomach and expands it like a balloon. Close your eyes, place your right hand on your stomach and your left hand on your chest. Breathe in and out very slowly, concentrating on your breath and feeling the movement of your stomach and chest with your hands. Breathe like this for a few minutes and you’ll observe how your heart rate slows down.

2.   The 4-7-8 technique - especially useful if you’re having a panic attack. Count to 4 as you inhale, hold your breath to the count of 7, and exhale to the count of 8.

3.   Alternate nostril breathing is a Pranayama (yoga breathing technique) in which you alternate breathing through one nostril while holding the other shut.

I can’t emphasise enough how important breathing exercises are. They physically release anti-stress hormones that relax you and slow your heart rate, and they’re the only physical thing you can do to reduce stress quickly. Plus, you can do all this at work. 

Practising every day will help you use breathing techniques to get feelings of stress under control more quickly. Just a few minutes a day of conscious breathing and/or meditation is a good start. If you add yoga exercises to your routine, I can almost guarantee that you’ll feel better.

12 practical tips for coping with stress

Finally, these 12 quick tips are practical ways of avoiding stress at work in the first place:

1.    Understand what triggers your stress and put measures in place to ensure the trigger can’t go off

2.    Get into a pre-work routine that helps you arrive feeling calm and ready to face the day. For example, if mornings stress you out and you struggle to be on time, try choosing your clothes and making your lunch the day before

3.    Make sure you take breaks and/or leave the office at lunchtime - a change of scenery can work wonders, even if you’re not feeling particularly stressed

4.    Have a list of priorities and work through them logically - try not to get sidetracked

5.    Don’t gossip or get take part in unhealthy (and probably unnecessary) office politics or negative energy

6.    Set boundaries with your colleagues and manager and stick to them

7.    Know what you need to do to destress and relax

8.    Communicate with your manager - communication is often the key to everything. After all, if they don’t know you’re feeling stressed, they can’t help you or offer any advice or feedback

9.    Make sure you have a comfortable physical environment - this really does help mentally, too

10.  Focus on your wellbeing and staying healthy - exercise, eat well, avoid too much alcohol and get as much sleep as you can. And, if I haven’t ‘stressed’ this enough, try breathing techniques, meditation and yoga

11.  Use your support system - whether that’s family, friends or colleagues, especially if you’re going through a challenging time. Don’t suffer by yourself

12.  Take advantage of some of the many free mental wellbeing audio guides or download the free Headspace app, which has thousands of guided meditations for coping with anxiety, getting better sleep, dealing with depression or trauma and coping with stress.

It’s important to do all you can to alleviate stress - chronic stress can be a literal killer that plays a role in many illnesses, from heart disease and diabetes to cancer, and can hamper your recovery process. If you suspect you're dealing with chronic stress, it's important to seek help from a medical professional and/or a therapist. They can help you identify the sources of stress in your life and develop a stress management plan.

And finally…

Take a deep inhalation through the nose. Hold your breath, open your mouth and sigh out.

Having read this article, you now understand that stress is what you perceive to be stressful, and what you allow to affect you. If you become stressed, return to conscious breathing; remember it’s the quickest tool that will help you navigate through your feelings.

Equipped with all the strategies I’ve outlined above, you’re ready to face the world.

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