Work Related Stress: Symptoms & Solutions

July 27, 2015
Clock Icon 6 min read

Having bad days or getting a little stressed at work every now and again is a normal part of working life. However, sometimes stress can become a prolonged problem that causes serious physical and mental health problems.


What is Workplace Stress?

Stress is the overwhelming feeling of being under so much pressure that you feel unable to cope. It can affect how you feel, think, behave and how your body works. Sometimes stress can creep up on an individual without them really noticing, however it’s often visible to others due to change of appearance, irritability, absence, lateness, disorganisation and changes in behaviour.

woman at a desk in an office

The following work related stress symptoms and possible solutions may help if you suspect a co-worker might be suffering from work related stress.


Symptom: Constant Worrying

Worrying is one of the most obvious symptoms of stress. As a friend or colleague, the most important thing is to ensure the constant worrying isn’t a reaction to another issue, such as domestic violence or substance misuse. If there are no serious underlying issues, the worries will be a specific few things that are getting them down, such as lack of time, too much work or not enough time with the kids.

Possible solution: Encourage them to consider the 80/20 rule: 80% of the stress is caused by 20% of the stressors. Find out what the 20% is, and you can work from there.


Symptom: Irritability, Impatience and Anger

The first thing to remember with irritability and anger is that it’s not personal. Your colleague is merely finding an outlet for their frustrations.

Possible solution: If your colleague gets angry, allow them some space, don’t judge them too harshly and forgive quickly. It’s likely they will feel guilty or embarrassed when they have calmed down, so holding bouts of frustration against them will only make it worse.

Safeguarding - identifying types of abuse


Symptom: Change of Appearance

The best thing to do is eat well and exercise more, but those two actions are usually the last thing people want to do when stressed. Stress takes its toll on the body and it doesn’t take long for excessive worrying and a lack of sleep to show on your face. If your usually smart colleague has a dull complexion or bags under their eyes, it could be a sign of stress. Other symptoms can include dry or itchy skin, mouth ulcers, cold sores and common colds. Stress can also take its toll on your self-worth, which can result in a lack of effort or care for personal presentation and hygiene – if people believe themselves unworthy, they can stop looking after their appearance and health.

Possible solution: Look out for this symptom and start a conversation about what is getting them down. Remember, a bad hair day is not the same as burning out!


Symptom: Social Withdrawal

Stress can often cause negative thinking and low self-esteem, which can in turn make sufferers feel that everyone is against them. This sort of feeling can snowball quickly, increasing feelings of loneliness, social isolation and worthlessness, in turn making stress worse.

Possible solution: Low level social withdrawal like this can be helped by simple, thoughtful gestures such as a post-it note with a positive message or a genuine compliment. You should also try to organise a low-key social activity and extend the invitation to your colleague. Large gatherings when stressed may not be helpful, but a group lunch or short walk might be all it takes for your colleague to feel included and valued.

Positive reinforcement and affirmation is good practice when working in any team – even if stress is not a factor – so showing gratitude and noticing the successes of co-workers breeds a positive working environment and will aid your colleague too.


Symptom: Boredom

Boredom is a symptom of stress in people who are usually active and engaged. Tasks become overwhelming so procrastination and boredom can kick in, whilst fuelling worry due to lack of progress. It’s often a cycle that can be broken with a little help from colleagues and managers.

Possible solution: Have your department meeting in a different room, take them out for their lunch hour, do a desk swap or encourage a shake-up of tasks. If work related stress is making your star colleague bored and unresponsive, it might be time for a holiday – find out when their next day off is and discuss downtime ideas (any activity involving exercise is also good for reducing stress!).

man using a screen in an office


Symptom: Loss of Sense of Humour

When people are stressed, everything feels overwhelming and difficult. It doesn’t matter how small or meaningless the problem seems, when the mind and body are suffering with stress, every issue feels like a serious barrier. Don’t be surprised if “cheer up” or “oh don’t worry about it” fall on deaf ears – stress feels very real and needs to be treated with a certain level of empathy.

Possible solution: Take time for your colleague, invite them to make a cup of tea with you and ask them what’s going on. Use a genuine, serious tone – jokes are great for taming most tense situations, but in this instance, give them your full attention. Active listening is an invaluable way of supporting your co-workers.


Symptom: Absence, Low Morale & Low Productivity

When things get too much, people can give up or hide away, resulting in absenteeism and low levels of productivity.

Possible solution: First things first, try to relieve their workload. Can you take on one of their tasks? Consider car sharing as it encourages attendance – they won’t want to let you down. Talk about their to-do list on the journey or write one together in the staff room. It’s all about encouragement with this one. If you’re running out of ideas, plants are good for wellbeing, so buy them a little green gift and that will at least brighten up their desk a little.


Symptom: Increased Alcohol Consumption

Stress often results in self-medication, which can come in many forms. Drugs, alcohol, tobacco, prescription medication, gambling and caffeine are often used in excess as a form of relief, but will only make things worse in the long run.

Possible solution: If you notice an increase in alcohol consumption, or any of the above symptoms, keep an eye on it and encourage different forms of relaxation. Anything active is best for stress; yoga, sport, biking, hiking, swimming, or even inviting your colleague for a booze-free meal. Buy them a bath bomb or go to the cinema; whatever, just make sure to remind them that they can have fun and relax without drinking or exercising risky behaviour.


image of a group of people at work around an office

Work related stress can take many forms – many more than listed here – but generally, it’s a visible and treatable problem that doesn’t last forever.

Always try to be aware of the problems faced by your colleagues to foster a positive, supportive working environment, and always seek professional help and advice if you’re worrying about the safety of a co-worker.


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