Workplace Mental Health: Handling Stress

While recent years have seen a better overall attitude to mental health awareness, there are still many among us that do not like to talk about it. It is therefore up to us to look out for our colleagues and employees and make sure they are not secretly struggling.

Feeling stressed due to certain situations is common (and perfectly normal!) however, when this stress is prolonged, such as what many people are feeling now due to the coronavirus pandemic, it can have significant adverse effects on our overall health and wellbeing.

Our bodies aren’t very good at distinguishing between emotional stress and physical danger, therefore the stress response to worrying about work, being furloughed or our children’s health for example, can be just as overwhelming as if we were in significant physical danger. The problem is that the more this response is triggered, the easier it becomes triggered, so (in situations such as we find ourselves now) we can be subjected to constant state of heightened stress.

What is stress anyway?

The stress response is often called the ‘fight or flight’ response. It is the body’s natural reaction to danger and it’s way of protecting us from harm. It is all controlled by our sympathetic nervous system. In some situations, for example interviews, it can be a great asset. It keeps us focused and alert and motivated to achieve. In more life-threatening circumstances, it can give you the strength to defend yourself or the speed you need to run away from danger - hence ‘fight or flight’.

The response can cause a variety of unpleasant physical symptoms; harder breathing, increased heart rate, gastrointestinal disturbances, etc. all caused by the release of hormones including adrenaline and cortisol.

The problem arises when this response becomes prolonged, such as what is happening for a lot of people at the moment. High, prolonged levels of cortisol can cause a variety of damaging effects. It can suppress the immune system (something you really don’t want to happen during a pandemic!), increase blood pressure, increase blood sugars, cause tiredness, cause an inability to concentrate and depression, to name but a few.

There are a number of tell-tale signs to watch out for in yourself and your colleagues/employees, including:

  • Constant worrying – negativity and anxious or racing thoughts
  • Inability to concentrate and poor decision making
  • Irritability
  • Stomach disturbances
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Eating more or less than usual
  • Dizzy spells
  • Smoking or drinking more than usual

Once you have identified a problem, you are in a position to do something to help, even if this is helping yourself. Suggestions include:

  • Talking to someone about your ‘stressors’. Identifying what it is that causes you to have this response can sometimes be what you need to address the issue. Talking through it with someone else may help you to identify a solution that you have not considered.
  • Take up a hobby to distract yourself.
  • Do more exercise like walking, running, cycling or yoga. Exercise increases the levels of cortisol in your body as a physical stress response. This may sound counterintuitive but it actually helps as the more your fitness improves, the less cortisol is released due to physical and emotional stress.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet. Our diet can affect our mood and our ability to deal with stress. Try swapping highly processed, high sugar and high carbohydrate foods for more fresh fruit and vegetables.
  • Rest. Tiredness caused by a lack of sleep can compound the problem further as it decreases our ability to concentrate fully. Our thoughts become faster and our stressors can appear worse. Try to limit screen-time before bed, maybe download a relaxing app to help you sleep and have an earlier bedtime.

For further advice relating to stress management, have a look at our resources below:



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