Coping with Work Stress

Coping with Work Stress

Given our perception that our bosses affect our mental health as much as our partners/spouses (69 percent(1.)), it is unsurprising that the far-reaching impact of work stress on our wellbeing is a growing issue.

According to various government and peak body reports, forty percent of people are often or always ‘stressed’ about work and about one in five employees in Australia are taking time off work due to feeling ‘stressed, anxious, depressed or mentally unhealthy(2.).

This article aims to summarise our current understanding of work stress and how it may best be managed by the individual (organisational management is not considered here).

What is work stress?

Psychologically speaking, a stressor is an event or environment that is perceived as challenging and/or threatening to an individual’s safety/well-being, with stress describing the resultant feeling of mental of emotional discomfort/distress. Ipso facto, stressors unique to our working lives are determinants of our work stress.

There cannot be a stressful crisis next week. My schedule is already full.

Henry Kissinger

Distinguishing four variations of stress(3.), researchers advocate the need to balance ‘too much’ (hyperstress) and ‘too little’ (hypostress) to create as much ‘good’ (eustress) and as little ‘bad’ (distress) stress as possible’.

In all domains of life including work, experiencing a small amount of stress is normal, and may even be beneficial (eustress)*, as heightened (physiological) arousal can overcome lethargy(4.) and improve task performance by ‘boosting’ our motivation and executive functions (planning, attentional control, working memory, self-regulation, organisational skills, decision-making, and emotion regulation).

*of relevance here are criticisms(5.) of “managerial practices that seek to increase or maintain, rather than minimise, levels of stress in the workplace as a means to enhance employee performance”.

Excessive (acute) or repeated (chronic) stress exposure however, evokes an automatic, unconscious (physiological) survival response that not only selectively (depending on the complexity of the work*) impairs us (disabling not only our stress response but our sensation of stressors(6.)), but damages us, increasing our risk of aggravating or developing a multitude of biopsychosocial disorders (see signs and symptoms below).

*Notably the 1908 Yerkes-Dodson ‘law’ implies that the degree of impairment is less for simple or well-learned tasks than complex, unfamiliar, or difficult tasks, with a downturn of performance only evident in the latter type.

If you get tired, learn to rest, not to quit.


Highly comorbid with anxiety and depressive disorders(7.), chronic workplace stress that is not successfully managed may manifest the three dimensions of burnout:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  • reduced performance or professional efficacy

Of additional importance are several often-overlooked aspects of work stress:

The subtle difference between ‘stress’ and ‘pressure’

Whilst the former refers to situations where demand outstrips available resources, the latter involves situations where expected outcome is perceived as an additional or even dominant stressor. In other words, it’s the feeling that something is at stake on a personal level.

Work stress is cumulative and self-reenforcing

Resources of mental resilience (personal skills, competencies, attitudes, insight, patience, self-reliance) are not finite but rather have the capacity to either develop, accumulate, and become more effective or to become depleted or insufficient(8.).

Thus, mental resilience should be viewed as a dynamic process enabling successful cognitive and emotional adaptation to chronic stressors. The interactions between endogenous factors (molecular, genetic, general health, personality, brain function) and exogenous factors (social support, family support, nature of work-related stressors) determine an individual’s response to psychosocial or occupational stressors, whether via adaptive coping or via dysfunction in cognitive, emotional, or physical domains.

Additionally, spillover of maladaptive stress responses may lead to more frequent occurrences of incivility, ostracism(9.), and bullying(10.). The effect is further complicated by perceived power differentials (pressure) and ‘in the moment’ stress predisposition, where an individual’s resources are simply insufficient to meet a demand.

Recapping the neurobiology of work stress

In response to stressful stimuli, a set of highly interrelated adaptive processes are activated, allowing the body to respond to the challenge. The two most notable stress response systems are the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal gland (HPA) axis and the sympathetic-adrenal medullary (SAM) system (see diagram below).

Stimulating the HPA axis and the SAM system leads to the release of vital hormones (such as cortisol and catecholamines), that are responsible for maintaining the fundamental stability of the most important physiological systems.

By working to create conditions that will help support those systems responsible for homeostasis (i.e. those physiological parameters necessary for life), cortisol and catecholamines are primary mediators of a process that has come to be known as ‘allostasis’(6.).

However, chronic activation of these allostatic changes may lead to the gradual dysregulation of many physiological systems that sets the stage for eventual ‘wear and tear’. Put simply, continued attempts by the body to maintain stability in the face of changing circumstances over the long term has a biological cost (called ‘allostatic load’).

In layman’s terms, when the working environment cultivates stressful situations (e.g., strict deadlines, toxic supervisors/coworkers etc.), the ‘bottom-up’ brain network (ventral nervous system; primarily the amygdala and the hypothalamus) perceives these situations as threats that need to be dealt with by fighting or fleeing.

Prolonged activation of the bottom-up network, however, leads to a dysregulation of the ‘top-down’ brain network (dorsal nervous system, primarily the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus); thus, the individual is no longer able to evaluate and manage the environmental stimuli in a more rational manner.

Meanwhile, extended stressful periods ultimately result in an under-activated top-down network that is unable to effectively assess the incoming environmental stimuli and hence, inhibit the over-activation of the bottom-up network.

This process leads to a limited ability in appraising the (in)significance of the environmental stimuli; making the individual more vulnerable to the stressful situations they encounter in both their work and personal lives, and thus more susceptible to work stress-related disorders including burnout and anxiety/panic attacks(11.).

High Stress Jobs

Workers exposed to an elevated of risk of first or second-hand (i.e. from ‘hearing about’ to ‘witnessing’) trauma exposure- for example, caregivers and ‘first responders’-, may manifest the signs of Compassion Fatigue, as secondary traumatic stress (the negative emotional, cognitive, and behavioural consequences that result from working with traumatised clients(12.)) adds to their work stress load.

Similarly, high exposure to another stressor, emotional dissonance (the discrepancy between required and felt emotions), as experienced in the service sector (where employees are expected to display emotions according to the organisation’s explicit or implicit emotional display rules) has been linked(13.) with ‘personal fragmentation of self,’ emotional exhaustion, job dissatisfaction, and ‘personal and work-related maladjustment, such as poor self-esteem, depression, cynicism, and alienation from work.

Roles thus identified include those involved in education, public administration, law, childcare, health care, social work, hospitality, media, and advocacy.

The symptoms of work stress

Physical symptoms can include:

  • fatigue or exhaustion
  • sleeping difficulties, such as trouble going to sleep or staying asleep
  • muscle tension and/or headaches
  • gastrointestinal upsets, such as bloating, diarrhoea or constipation
  • skin (dermatological) disorders
  • high blood pressure, heart palpitations, sweating
  • changes in appetite
  • getting sick often, weakened immune system

Psychological symptoms can include:

  • feeling sad, down, hopeless, pessimistic
  • worrying more than usual and feeling ‘on edge’
  • feeling anxious and/or afraid
  • feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope
  • difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • mood swings, paranoia, overthinking
  • detachment, dissociation

Behavioural symptoms can include:

  • An increase in sick days or absenteeism
  • a drop in motivation or work performance
  • relationship problems or avoiding contact with others
  • being impatient, irritable, over-reactive, or aggressive
  • using smoking, alcohol, drug use or gambling to cope
  • a drop in work performance
  • isolation, detachment

The signs of work stress

Signs may be said to occur somewhat downstream from symptoms; these are the things that indicate that adaptive/maladaptive work stressor responses are having an (observable) negative impact on wellbeing.

Presenteeism or ‘working while sick’ is the act or culture of employees continuing to work as a performative measure, despite having reduced productivity levels or negative consequences. Reduced productivity during presenteeism is often due to illness, injury, exhaustion, or other conditions.

I’m far from perfect. I’m still learning. I overworked myself, and I paid the price. I consider the breakdown a breakthrough. I needed to hit rock bottom. I needed to understand the cost of pushing so hard; fighting so hard against the system.

Mariah Carey

Signs of workplace stress include:

  • Declining work performance: lack of concentration, indecision and an inability to complete tasks are all signs that work-related stress is eroding performance.
  • Workplace flinching: both affective workplace rumination (a continuous negative perception related to work) and workplace anxiety (a feeling of nervousness and fear of completing a work task) contribute to flinching behaviour(14.), an avoidant sudden, involuntary movement (alarm phase) in response to a stressor. nb. flinching may also be feigned (e.g. as a negotiation tactic).
  • Difficulty maintaining punctuality: planning, timekeeping, prioritisation, and focused attention are executive brain functions vulnerable to work stressors and a likely outcome of chronic stress.
  • Increased time off: look out for colleagues who suddenly start booking more time off than usual. Taking regular, short-term absences for an ongoing problem may be reflective of underlying stress.
  • Working longer hours: often unseen in ourselves, look out for other workers who, trying to cope with high job demands, are starting early, working late, and working through breaks.
  • Showing tiredness at work: it’s not unusual for people who are stressed to have difficulty sleeping at night. If a colleague regularly appears exhausted, it could be a tell-tale stress signal.
  • “Off’ or uncharacteristic behaviour: it is common for stressed individuals to act out of character. For instance, they might start turning up late, acting aggressively or being unusually quiet.
  • Over-reactivity and quick-temperedness: irritability and stress often go hand-in-hand. Snappiness, bluntness and being overly-aggressive are symptoms to look out for, particularly if these behaviour patterns are out of character.
  • Hypersensitivity: if a colleague is stressed due to work, they may be more sensitive than usual, particularly when it comes to conversations surrounding work. For example, they may find comments or jokes about their performance more upsetting than they normally would.
  • Low energy: stress can take both a mental and physical toll. If you notice a colleague suddenly seems slow and lethargic, this could be a sign of work-related stress affecting their physical wellbeing.
  • Withdrawal from work socialising: if work is the cause of someone’s stress, then they may begin to withdraw from anything to do with it, including out-of-office events like work socials.

Identify your workplace stressors

Commonly reported work stressors (Safework Australia uses the term psychosocial workplace hazards) include:

High job demands

Low job demands

No work is worse than overwork; the mind preys on itself, the most unwholesome of food.

Charles Lamb, 1829

Low job demands means sustained low levels of physical, mental or emotional effort are needed to do the job e.g. long idle or waiting periods, highly monotonous or repetitive tasks.

Low job control

This means workers have little control or say over the work. This includes over how or when the job is done. Examples include:

  • having little say over break times or when to switch tasks (e.g. work is machine or computer paced)
  • needing permission for routine or low risk tasks (e.g. ordering standard monthly supplies)
  • strict processes that can’t be changed to fit the situation
  • workers level of autonomy doesn’t match their role or abilities.

Poor support

Poor support means not getting enough support from supervisors or other workers, or not having the resources needed to do the job well. Examples include:

  • not having the things needed to do the work well, safely or on time (e.g. limited tools or faulty IT systems)
  • not getting necessary information (e.g. information is unclear or not passed on in time)
  • not enough supervisor support (e.g. supervisors aren’t available to help, provide unclear guidance, take a long time to make decisions or are unempathetic)
  • not being able to easily get help (e.g. workers can’t leave their stations or are physically separated from others)
  • a workplace culture that discourages support (e.g. highly competitive or critical workplaces)
  • inadequate co-worker support (e.g. workers are too busy to help each other).

Traumatic events or material

Witnessing, investigating or being exposed to traumatic events or materials is a psychosocial hazard.

Something is more likely to be traumatic when it is unexpected, seems uncontrollable or is caused by intentional cruelty. Traumatic events or materials become a hazard when they are severe (e.g. very traumatic), prolonged (e.g. long term) or frequent (e.g. happens often). Examples include:

  • witnessing or investigating a fatality, serious injury, abuse, neglect or other serious incident (e.g. working in child protection)
  • being afraid or exposed to extreme risks (e.g. being in a car accident)
  • exposure to natural disasters (e.g. emergency service workers responding to a bushfire)
  • supporting victims of painful and traumatic events (e.g. providing counselling)
  • listening to or seeing traumatic materials (e.g. reading victim testimonies or an online moderator seeing evidence of a crime)
  • exposure to things that bring up traumatic memories.

Inadequate reward and recognition

Inadequate reward and recognition means there is an imbalance between the effort workers put in and the recognition or reward they get. Reward and recognition can be formal or informal and includes fair pay. Examples include:

  • recognition and rewards that are unfair or biased (e.g. workers are rewarded for others work)
  • not enough feedback or recognition (e.g. workers don’t receive feedback on their work or guidance on how to improve)
  • unfair negative feedback (e.g. criticism on things that are not within a workers control or that they haven’t been taught how to do)
  • limited development opportunities
  • not recognising workers’ skills (e.g. micro managing simple tasks).

Poor physical environment

A poor physical environment means workers are exposed to unpleasant, poor quality or hazardous working environments or conditions. Examples include:

  • performing hazardous tasks (e.g. work at heights)
  • working in hazardous conditions (e.g. near unsafe machinery or hazardous chemicals)
  • doing demanding work while wearing uncomfortable PPE or other equipment
  • conditions that affect concentration (e.g. high noise levels, uncomfortable temperatures or poor lighting)
  • unpleasant conditions such as poorly maintained amenities, unpleasant smells or loud music
  • work-related accommodation that causes fatigue (e.g. conditions are noisy, uncomfortable or stop workers getting enough sleep).
  • violence and aggression
  • workplace violence and aggression is when a person is abused, threatened or assaulted at the workplace or while they’re working.

Remote or isolated work

Remote or isolated work means work that is isolated from the assistance of others because of the location, time or nature of the work. It often involves long travel times, poor access to resources, or limited communications. Examples include:

  • working alone (e.g. cleaning an office after hours)
  • work where it is hard to get help in an emergency
  • workplaces that take a long time to enter and exit (e.g. prisons or tower cranes) or a long time to get to (e.g. commuting to remote areas)
  • having limited access to resources (e.g. infrequent deliveries and long delays for new supplies)
  • reduced access to support networks or missing out on family commitments (e.g. working fly-in fly-out), or
  • unreliable or limited communications and technology (e.g. workplaces with no phone reception or where IT systems often go offline).

Work stress: prevention and recovery tips

The process of reducing work stress introduces a paradox. Research shows that when our bodies and minds need to recover and reset the most (i.e., when we’re most depleted), we’re the least likely- and able- to do something about it.

For example, when work is demanding and we’re feeling overwhelmed, we quickly slide into a negative cycle of working longer hours and taking fewer breaks. During those stressful times, we also tend to eat less healthily, even though adequate nutrition and hydration are important to replenishing energy levels. Further depleted, we have less energy and motivation to take time out to relax or engage in exercise, leading to low recovery and in turn further exhaustion the next day.

Notwithstanding this, the literature is replete with evidence-based interventions at the Individual level that focus on building the individual’s resources, improving and maintaining workers’ wellbeing by engaging in recovery activities, having positive coping styles and strategies (e.g. stress management training), and developing their resilience which include:

  • Track your stressors: bearing in mind the difference between ‘good’ stress and ‘bad’ stress, journaling (keeping a consistent record of stressors) can help you find patterns- including your ‘triggers’ (learned associations) and maladaptive responses to them (e.g. self-medication with alcohol and drugs).
  • Address physical stressors: stand more if you sit a lot, and vice versa. Move around. Take your allotted breaks and try to change your environment, either by going someplace else (even just sitting in your car) or by reading to get your mind in a different place. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Do basic head, neck, arm, and leg stretches to get the blood flowing. Additionally, limit social media exposure (emotional stressor) and do what you can to create a quiet, comfortable, and soothing workspace (even small things like office noise can be distracting and cause feelings of low-grade stress).
  • Detach psychologically from work: regardless of your preferred recovery activity (reading, running, video games, cooking, etc.), it’s important that you mentally disconnect or “switch off” your thoughts of work (or the particular stressor at hand). Workday stress accumulates throughout the day, meaning that we ruminate about work well into the evening.
    • Dedicate a fixed (and if needed, short) time each day when you can fully devote attention to a non-work-related activity. Even starting with a few minutes will reap benefits for recovery. Practicing mindfulness as a supplementary activity helps with this — over time, you’re training your brain (and its tendency to ruminate) to focus on the present moment.
    • Distract yourself from pre/post work thoughts e.g. listen to music going to and from work: this offers many benefits and can be an effective way to relieve stress before, during, and after work. Playing an uplifting song while you make breakfast can help you start the day off feeling better prepared to interact with the people in your life. Likewise, combating the stress of a long day with your favourite music on the drive home can help you wind down and feel less stressed when you get there.
    • Disrupt your routine by taking micro-breaks during the work day: get a quick boost by turning off your smartphone and focusing on nonwork activities for a while. Research shows that micro-breaks — short breaks of approximately 10 minutes — taken during the workday are surprisingly effective for recovering from daily work stress and various job demands. For example, short moments of meditation or relaxing, taking time to eat a nutritious snack, enjoyable social interactions, or activities that require some degree of cognitive attention (such as reading) are strategies that can improve motivation and concentration, shape your mood, and sustain your energy during the day. Also, taking longer breaks in combination with more frequent short breaks can provide more energy, motivation, and concentration than infrequent short breaks. Interestingly, micro-breaks taken earlier in the workday contribute to greater recovery.
  • Address conflict without adding to it: conflicts are going to happen at any job, whether it’s between coworkers or managers- it’s inevitable. What you do with that conflict, though, determines if it’ll be a stress point or not. Resolve conflicts and problems positively, and avoid blame and reactive escalation.
  • Develop healthy responses: exercising, making time for your favourite hobbies and activities, reducing toxins (caffeine, nicotine, alcohol etc) and getting enough sleep are crucial to effectively managing stress.
  • Create a pre-work ritual: with a planned start to the work day (e.g. stretching/exercise, good nutrition, self-reflection etc) and a positive attitude, you might find that the stress of your job rolls off your back more easily.
  • Establish boundaries. In today’s digital world, it’s easy to feel pressure to be available 24 hours a day. Establish some work-life boundaries for yourself around your time at work and try to share the workload where possible.
  • Take time to recharge. Take time off to relax so you return to work feeling reinvigorated and ready to perform at your best. When you cannot take time off, get a quick boost by turning off your smartphone and focusing on nonwork activities for a while.
  • Choose ‘chunking’ rather than multitasking: multitasking was once heralded as a fantastic way to maximise one’s time and get more done in a day. However, people eventually began to realise that if they had a phone to their ear and were making calculations at the same time, their speed and accuracy (not to mention sanity) often suffered.
  • Learn how to relax. Meditation, deep breathing exercises, and mindfulness can help melt away stress.
  • Try to find humour in the situation: stress isn’t funny, but some situations that cause stress can be seen as humorous if you make the effort. Research findings(15.) suggest that humour and play may shift people from their habitual actions and stances by prompting generative modes of sense-breaking, whereby orthodox/official meanings are made fragile and possibly transformed, sense-giving, whereby people, through persuasive or evocative language, guide other actors’ perspectives, and sense-taking, whereby people accept and use discourses to which they are receptive. Additionally, humour and play bring more oxygen into your body, activate your body, and soothe tension.
  • Do your best and reward yourself: being a high achiever might make you feel good about yourself and help you excel at work, but being a perfectionist can create problems for you (and those around you).
  • Engage in ‘effortful’ or ‘mastery’ experiences: mastery experiences require high levels of dedication, focus, and time — resources that usually deplete your energy during the workday. While it seems counterintuitive that further drawing on these resources during non-work periods will benefit your recovery, mastery experiences such as pursuing a hobby (learning a new language, learning to play the violin, volunteering, etc.) helps you generate new skills and replenishes depleted resources that can be applied back to your work, thereby approaching recovery from a different, productive, angle.
  • Form positive relationships as much as you can: be a good listener, sincere but generous in complimenting someone else’s work, help someone who needs it, be willing to teach or mentor someone with less experience than you, and avoid gossiping or speaking negatively about anyone else’s work.
  • Get some support: employee health has been linked to productivity at work, so your boss has an incentive to create a work environment that promotes employee well-being. Your employer may have stress management resources available, including Employee Assistance Programs designed to address issues of worker mental health. Additionally, accepting help from trusted friends and family members can improve your ability to manage stress.

If you still feel overwhelmed by work stress, you may want to talk to a psychologist who can help you better manage stress and change unhealthy behaviour. Feel free to visit our Workplace Counselling and Psychology page, or contact us for more information.

Editor’s note: The text and images comprising this article are for educational purposes only, are not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Brisbane Counselling Centre. Please click here for full disclaimer.


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