3 Things that Contribute to Workplace Stress
Work-related stress and poor working conditions can lead to mental health difficulties
Therapist Paul Weeden shares his insight into the most common workplace issues and what you can do to support yourself
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Balance in life is key! By that, I mean having enough interest in our work so that it's meaningful, while not being so immersed that we feel over-saturated or overwhelmed, as well filling your personal life with relevant interesting and inspiring hobbies that add value and purpose to our lives. Activities that help us grow and become more confident, while making sure we make time to relax as well.
Below I've included some examples and some of the issues my clients have brought to me in counselling, CBT and coaching around workplace stress, and improving mental health.
1) Checking work email outside of work hours
A good example of something that contributes to workplace stress is checking work email or answering work calls outside of work hours.
Because it stops us from fully relaxing and letting go for the day.
We can become so used to living this way that we can become desensitised to its effect, so much so that we are not even aware of its impact on our mental health and workplace stress, and how it contributes to anxiety and depression.
2) Socialising around work colleagues
Another perhaps subtler boundary issue is socialising with work colleagues.
Work drinks and nights out can be fun on special occasions and I'm certainly not suggesting that we never enjoy socialising with colleagues. After all, doesn't everyone enjoy seeing their boss do the annual table dance around Christmas time? But going out in Shoreditch with your boss and colleagues every Friday is possibly not the best way to let go and relax.
Because when we are with friends we don't have to think about what we are going to say next in the same way as you do with colleagues, seniors, and clients.
We can't fully relax or be completely ourselves or honest when engaging with colleagues. This has contributed to workplace stress and anxiety and depression with many clients that I treat for counselling and coaching at London Bridge and around the City of London.
3) Not enough engagement with meaningful personal interests and activities outside of work
Many of my clients around London Bridge frequently express feeling lost and disengaged outside of their work life. They tell me that they would like to play more sport or be more involved with their artistic interests. They often also frequently tell me that they just don't feel they have the time or energy for it.
This cycle of exhaustion, brought on by running on adrenaline, caffeine and alcohol, creates a much higher risk of anxiety and depression, as well as work-related stress. As well as not having enough energy or motivation to do more than eat, drink and sleep during your free time. For many people, this leads to having lower quality free time.
Many people are in denial about their work-related anxiety and depression. You weren't put here just to experience being a cog in a bigger system, just to get by and survive.
Here are some examples of the consequences and symptoms of unhealthy workplace stress and mental health. Do you see any that relate to you?
- poor sleep
- poor diet
- stomach problems
- not feeling able to relax
- difficulty concentrating
- feeling overwhelmed
- feeling irritable
- communication problems
- alcohol and substance misuse
- impaired judgement
If this cycle goes on too long and gets out of control, it can lead to panic attacks and at worst severe mental illnesses, including psychological breakdowns, and physiological symptoms including IBS, migraines, and disrupted sleep.
However, this can be quite easily avoided by sharing concerns and problems as they arise, and outsourcing skills where possible.
One of the themes that reoccurs around work-place stress is that people who are struggling with mental health challenges are often reluctant to share concerns and problems with their peers. They say that they fear being judged or criticised.
Reconsidering our judgements and assumptions around good mental health and learning to be more open about sharing feelings around vulnerability to workplace mental health issues with those we trust, can stop anxiety getting out of control.
Poor working conditions and mental health
Not enough breaks or time off – this can be for during a working day, week, month or annual leave. Sitting on the beach with your iPad checking in with work does not constitute a genuine break or quality time off.
We might find some more helpful solutions if we look to the entrepreneur communities – they have to be good at managing time and being efficient so that they get paid. And yet many do this and enjoy healthier more meaningful work-life balance. One of the key differences I see between these environments and the corporate culture in larger cities is that they take more frequent short breaks throughout the day. And, generally, they have a more genuine and trusting relationship with the people they work for because they attract people who want better working relationships, not just focused on profit but also on providing value to their communities.
Do you feel pressured into working longer and longer hours to meet targets? Though it's not always unreasonable to be asked if you wouldn't mind staying late or coming in early now and again, now more than ever, we're having our time intruded on, leaving us with far too little quality time with family or personal and private interests.
Some of the key skills we can develop through counselling, CBT and coaching are cultivating the right ingredients for calm, assertive confidence. One of the ways we can do this, in integrative counselling and somatic coaching for example, is by exploring the way you breathe, your posture and body language, as well as how you speak.
Criticism in the work-place affects our mental health
We all struggle to hold back a more honest emotional response when, in our view, someone we've entrusted with a shared goal messes up. It can be hard to moderate our language and disappointment or even hold back anger at times.
But please consider how emotionally damaging badly delivered feedback can be to someone who has tried their hardest, but who also lacks confidence, struggles with their self-esteem and who has given a task their best shot. I've worked with many clients who have been very damaged or at least severally disheartened by careless and poorly delivered criticism and blame.
Good, caring and well-delivered supervision can help us maintain high-quality productivity through encouragement and thoughtful strategic advice.
I find that where this is lacking employees are far more likely to feel they have something to hide and less likely to trust and be open with their colleagues and seniors. This often leads to poor outcomes, negative feelings, and lack of enjoyment around work, i.e. ultimately poorer mental health.
How do they spread and infect?
In my experience, the rat race treadmill allows for very little personal expression of spontaneity or uniqueness. This comes about through policies that are perhaps well-intended, but put restrictions on the types of language and tone employees can use at work, often even in private emails. The content and topics of conversations are limited, which makes some sense some of the time, but they are not as necessary as people might think.
Our cultural beliefs around what others might think of individual behaviours is a big one. Being seen to be willing to drop everything for a deadline is a huge one. Even when it's not necessary, staff are often expected to make radical changes to their weeks because a manager is panicking over something that is a false alarm. This could be motivated by not wanting to show weakness or vulnerability.
Why have workplace mental health problems become so common?
The corporate culture around London and other major cities seems to be imposing some very unhealthy work behaviours. Some of this seems to be built into the lifestyle and conditions many people are forced to live under at work in modern times. Thankfully many organisations are now recognising the importance of policies that protect employees from work-related stress. And many EAPs do now offer at least a few sessions of counselling and coaching or CBT as part of their employment contracts to help improve work-place mental health. Unfortunately, this is usually time-limited and often not enough sessions are offered to really make enough of a difference in the longer run, which leads to us seeking help privately.
How to resolve workplace stress
- Get to know yourself through a personal journey, in any and every way you can. I don't just mean exploring your childhood experience in therapy, though that may be a good place to start, but also by asking yourself: What does your heart crave now? What makes it sing with joy?
- Share with your friends and colleagues what you need to spend time doing outside of work.
- Collectively support each other in your interests.
- Help each other to raise awareness around good health and fitness.
- Get in touch with what you really value and what's meaningful to you. Is that in alignment with your work and career?
- Put a little bit of pressure on your seniors who need to be seen to have your best interests at heart. To acknowledge the importance of balance and flexibility at work, to have a healthy home and personal life.
- Speak out against those to refuse to acknowledge individual needs, many of these individuals will also be overworking themselves and over-relying on caffeine, sugar and other substances to keep going all day every day.
- Collectively speak up about your needs.
- Those of you in positions of leadership and with the strength and courage, form collectives and have more frequent self-care meetings and force changes in policy. I don't just mean a token mental health day once a year, but regular reviews of your team's mental health and fitness.
- Look around you and notice who is keeping quiet and in need of some personal attention. Offer to talk to them.
The harsh reality is this if you don't make these changes all you're doing is kicking a can towards spending your hard earned money on things that you didn't need to spend it on. As well as not getting the most from your private pension you're been looking forward to enjoying. And who benefits from that? Not you, only the pension company and medical industry.
Don't wait till it's too late, a more ethical workplace is essential, not a privilege.
Paul Weeden is a verified therapist in London Bridge and Littlehampton
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