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The price of bottling up stress in the workplace – and how to break the cycle

Today’s external environment presents huge challenges for businesses. From navigating economic turbulence to retaining the best talent, all SME workers may be feeling more pressure than usual, but how does keeping stress to yourself impact your health, ability to work and business?   

Even though we’re living through difficult times, we must remember that we’re all human. Sharing any hardships we’re going through – work-related or not – can hugely impact on your wellbeing and performance at work. 

Bupa Head of Mental Wellbeing, Naomi Humber, gives her insights on the best ways we can all steadily break the cycle of stress by learning, setting boundaries and sharing.

The balancing act 

We all need a bit of stress in our lives to power motivation and productivity, but if you feel like your stress levels never seem to reduce, it can harm your body’s ability to function well and can cause changes in your emotions and behaviour. 

As we deal with the current climate, stress will be felt at all levels, from learners to leaders. SME owners are responsible for protecting the health and wellbeing of all employees – including their own. How business owners handle their own stress can set an example for the whole business. 

We’ve all got our individual tolerance levels that can affect how well we’re able to handle stress – our age, abilities, and experience can further influence this. You might not realise how much you’re taking on and how much it affects you.

Whatever your level within your company, if you’re feeling stressed, your body and behaviour may exhibit tell-tale signs that stress is taking its toll. 

Emotional and mental symptoms of stress

  • Losing confidence in your working ability
  • Losing motivation or not feeling committed to your job 
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Finding decision-making more difficult 
  • Anxious feelings 
  • Feeling irritable or short-tempered
  • Feeling more emotional 
  • Feeling low in mood 
  • Mood swings
  • Difficulty switching off after work 

Physical symptoms of stress

  • Digestive issues like diarrhoea, constipation, indigestion, feeling sick 
  • Feeling lethargic 
  • Sore and achy muscles 
  • Chest tightness or chest pain 
  • Headaches 
  • Weight loss or gain

Behavioural signs of stress

  • Appetite changes – eating more or less than usual 
  • Oversleeping or being unable to sleep as long as you would usually
  • Finding socialising difficult; isolating yourself from friends and family 
  • Turning to harmful coping mechanisms like alcohol, smoking or illegal drugs 

The impact of stress on the body and business

Whether you’re stressed about something affecting you at home or work, you’ll likely see it impacts work relationships and your ability to work well. For example, if you head up a team and feel stressed, how you deal with it affects how your employees feel about sharing their own stresses with the team and how confident they are addressing them. 

Nobody is invincible – even if you think you’re handling stress well, regularly taking on more than you can handle can have a long-term impact on your behaviour, emotions and physical health. If you’re unable to share your stress in a healthy way, it can impact you in the long term. Long-term stress can also put increase your risk of developing mental health problems like depression and anxiety. 

Along with affecting wellbeing and ability to work well, mental health issues are the leading cause of long-term sicknesses in the workplace. Costing businesses up to £26 million a year, it’s possible to reduce the impact of long-term sickness with appropriate policies and plans to combat stress at the source.

Another facet of stress that can affect the way we work is presenteeism.  This is sickness presence and showing up for work without being productive, generally because ill health prevents it. It can be just as costly to businesses as long-term sicknesses.  

Continuing to work when you’re not feeling your best leaves you vulnerable to burnout. Burnout affects an estimated ten million UK workers a year and leads to more business loss through absences. 

Being aware of the impact stress can have on you and working for a company that understands this and provides adequate measures to support you is the best way to protect your wellbeing and ability to work well. Companies that implement these protective measures also put themselves in a good position to retain company talent at all levels, too.  

7 tips to combat stress at work

Whether you’re a business leader or have joined a business at entry level, admitting that your job is making you stressed may feel scary. Whatever your level, it’s important to remember that stress is normal, something we all experience and can all challenge together. 

The following tips will help you keep tabs on your stress and guide you on what to do if it’s affecting your ability to live and work well. 

1. Learn about the stress-body connection

There’s a strong link between physical and mental health. The more you know about their connection and how best to take care of yourself, the easier it will be to incorporate steps to help reduce stress in all aspects of your life.  

2. Weekly goals set long-term boundaries

No one likes a huge to-do list – the thought alone can be overwhelming! But, if you have a lot on, it can break down your goals into manageable chunks – start by writing down, realistically and step by step, what you want to achieve for the week ahead, and nothing more. 

As you achieve each goal, cross them off your list. By the week’s end, seeing what you’ve gained will help to reflect on your progress. Share this list with your manager, if applicable, to monitor how much you’re taking on at one time. 

3. Be realistic about your limits 

Think about how often you’re asked to take on tasks. If you rarely say no, you could be taking on more stress or work than you can do effectively. Working on your assertiveness and learning to say no can help you to manage your schedule, alert others when you’re feeling under pressure and help management to understand what’s possible with current staff.  

4. Research resilience

The amount of stress you’re able to handle at once isn’t fixed throughout your life – you can build your stress threshold through resilience work and tweaking your lifestyle. 

Looking at your mindset by evaluating how you perceive stressful situations and how your behaviour is influenced can help you understand what drives your tolerance levels, enabling you to train yourself to control your reaction better.

5. Take care of yourself

When you make your weekly to-do list, set aside time to recharge and do things you enjoy. Taking time for yourself, away from work, helps to shift your focus, unwind and boost your mood. 

It’s also important to set yourself up for good physical health by eating healthily, sleeping well and exercising regularly. Though these principles are basic, it’s essential to make them non-negotiables where you can, as they’ll help put you in the best position to deal with whatever life has to offer. 

6. Be open 

Don’t be afraid to share helpful stress management tips and techniques with your colleagues, especially if you notice someone who looks to be having through a hard time. Transparency like this can encourage others to share their own stresses and reduce any shame or stigma around seeking help for stress. 

7. Reach out if you’re struggling

Having regular one-to-one meetings with your manager or direct reports can be a great outlet to keep up to date with current workloads and anything that could negatively impact stress levels. Try to book these in on a fortnightly basis as a minimum, with mandatory attendance, to encourage an open working culture. 

Don’t forget to familiarise yourself with accessible outlets you can approach if you need to offload, along with work schemes for your team that can provide support. Things like Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP), small business health insuranceoccupational health, Samaritans and Mind can make a big difference if you’re struggling with stress. 

By Naomi Humber, Head of Mental Wellbeing at Bupa UK

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