Do you leave your job most days feeling emotionally and physically drained? While few people love going to work every day, the number of days you're happy to head to the office should definitely outnumber the ones you spend wishing the day was already over.
If you're spending more time dealing with emotional stress and physical illnesses, it might be time to take a look at the environment you're in. Because for some of us, our work day makes up the majority of our waking hours, which is what makes a stressful workspace all the more troubling.
Is work-related stress making you sick?
If you've spent time in at least a few different jobs in your lifetime then you're bound to have come across an environment that is less than desirable, which can wreak havoc on your overall health, productivity and happiness.
In fact, there's a good chance you currently work in a job that is doing just that. According to recent research by Mind and YouGov, more than half (56%) of workers find work very or fairly stressful.
Sure, stress is something we all deal with from time to time. But what happens when the toxicity of your work environment begins to impact your health negatively?
Dr Ellie Cannon, GP and author of the book Is Your Job Making You Ill?, says a stressful work environment can affect people in a huge number of ways, ranging from single symptoms to fully blown illnesses.
"Physical health problems can include headaches, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome and high blood pressure. It is also common for people to find their stressful work environment worsens chronic conditions they already have - for example, in someone suffering chronic pain or a skin condition such as psoriasis," she explains.
While stress itself is not a mental health problem, Emma Mamo, head of workplace well-being at Mind, says stress that is prolonged and unmanageable can lead to mental health problems like depression and anxiety.
If you're experiencing prolonged stress at work, you might be wondering what other physical and emotional signs you should watch out for.
What are the signs to look for?
The symptoms can be wide-ranging and variable, so really understanding the timing of symptoms is key, says Cannon. That's why she recommends keeping a symptom diary for at least four weeks, documenting your symptoms, the date and the situation you are in. A clear pattern of weekly symptoms would be seen if work were making you ill.
After the four weeks are up, go back and look for key signs that your job may be making you sick. Mamo says that even though unmanageable stress affects us all in different ways, there are some common signs to look out for, including:
- Feeling irritated.
- Drinking or smoking excessively.
- Finding it hard to sleep.
- Struggling to concentrate.
- Feeling really upset and emotional.
- Frequent crying spells.
- Upset stomach.
- Difficulty breathing.
- Blood pressure problems (if the stress is severe enough).
If your journal is pointing to several of these signs, it's time to take action. Cannon says to start talking about the issue with your family, your doctor and even your employer to see if there are realistic ways to ameliorate what you are going through. Sometimes just a change in role, working pattern or shifts, for example, can all help minimise stress.
What can you do about it?
For a variety of reasons, leaving a less-than-perfect situation is not always an option for people. Because of this, you may find yourself stuck in a negative and stressful work environment for much longer than you'd like, so finding ways to cope is critical.
In order to combat the negative aspects of your job, Cannon suggests building up your resilience and health in other ways so you have more capacity to cope with the stress at work. For example, focus on your sleep, exercise and life goals.
"Just because you may be used to going to bed late and coping with it, there may still be room for improvement in your sleep," she says. "Try going to bed earlier for a few nights and see how that makes you feel."
Exercise is another important tool that can help you manage stress. If you exercise consistently, consider working out before or after work. You may find that starting the morning with exercise helps clear your head before you go to work, while exercising after your work day is done, allows you to work out the physical and mental frustrations you may have experienced during the day. Regardless of when you choose to do it (although you should avoid exercising directly before bedtime), just make sure exercise is a part of your overall plan.
Having other interests outside of work to aim for and enjoy is another great way to maintain your mental well-being. Cannon says this gives you the chance to have goals and successes, and the chance to socialise and build up your support network; it also gives you a distraction from your stress and your troubles.
She suggests you make room in your work week for the people in your life who make you feel good, and spend quality time with them, which is a proven stress reliever. But don't just say you're going to do it: prioritise it and make sure you're connecting with people you trust every day.
"Research shows that having supportive relationships with colleagues at work helps to lessen the impact of a stressful working environment," Cannon explains.
How to reduce work stress
Being proactive in other areas of your life can also help minimise the negative effects your work-related stress is having on you. Mamo, along with Mind, recommends the following tips to help you do just that:
Identify your triggers
Working out what triggers stress or poor mental health for you can help you anticipate problems and think of ways to solve them.
Organise your time
Making some adjustments to the way you organise your time could help you feel more in control of any tasks you're facing, and more able to handle pressure. Mamo recommends identifying the best time of day for you to do important tasks. She also says to make a list of the things you have to do and arrange them in order of importance. And of course, try not to do too much at once.
Address some of the causes
Although there will probably be lots of things in your life that you can't do anything about, there might still be some practical ways you could resolve or improve some of the issues putting pressure on you, such as problems with relationships, debt and housing.
Accept the things you can't change
It's not easy, but accepting that there are some things happening to you that you probably can't do anything about will help you focus your time and energy more productively.
The bottom line is this: if your job is making you sick, you need to talk to your employer and/or doctor. They can help you come up with a plan to reduce the stressors at work, refer you to any professional help you may need, and hopefully, offer support while you take the necessary steps to care for your health.