During the course of the Coronavirus pandemic workplaces and their employees have had to adapt in order to overcome various new and unseen challenges. Navigating an ever-changing landscape can be particularly stressful and the fact that the pandemic is having a dramatic effect on certain industries is also taking its toll on employee mental health. 

We’re still in the midst of the pandemic and so definitive statistics around stress and the workplace have not yet been gathered. However, it’s probably a fair assumption that many people have experienced an unprecedented level of uncertainty throughout 2020/21 and therefore it is highly likely that workplace stress levels have increased. Job uncertainty can play a big part in causing workplace stress. 

As lockdown restrictions begin to ease throughout the UK some employees will be heading back to their place of work for the first time in a long while. This in itself could be a stressful shift for many people. 

Pressure to perform at work can lead to stress, which can have an adverse effect, not just on physical health, but on mental health too. Here, we’ll take a look at how workplace stress can impact people and what you can do about it, especially if you’re thinking about returning to work soon. 

Workplace stress statistics

One aspect of work-related stress which is generally underestimated is the extent of the problem.

Mind and research experts YouGov conducted a study which investigated the issue in the UK. It found that 56 percent of respondents categorised their occupations as either ‘quite’ or ‘very’ stressful. 

A recent study by HSE has estimated that 17.9 million working days were lost in 2019/20 due to work related stress, anxiety or depression. 

So while improving workplace conditions for employers is important from a health perspective, it is also generally good business practice. 

Who does stress affect?

Stress can be difficult to measure, it can affect anyone and can range from moderate through to severely debilitating. 

Statistics show that some industries may be more stress-inducing than others. The HSE report indicates that workers from electricity, gas, steam and air conditioning supply; public administration and defence; human health and education have the highest prevalence of work-related stress. 

Stressful periods at work can of course have an impact on blood pressure, or even encourage unhealthy eating habits which has several knock-on health effects of its own.

The relationship between stress and health

Whilst a certain degree of stress can perhaps help us to perform well at certain tasks, once it becomes unmanageable that’s when mental and physical health problems can start to become apparent. 

This may result in symptoms such as:

  • feeling isolated
  • lethargy
  • restlessness 
  • irritability
  • feeling hopeless 
  • loss of self-esteem 
  • or declining interest in activities which we’d normally find enjoyable.

Workplace stress can directly affect your ability to carry out your day-to-day job. Knowing that you might be underperforming could also add to that feeling of stress. One of the best ways to start tackling feelings of stress is to address it. 

How can employers combat stress in the workplace?

Of course it's easy for us to extol the importance of acting on the signs early from an employee’s perspective, and addressing any issues related to workplace stress with their line manager or employer.

The truth is, however, that employees under pressure to perform will often feel less inclined to raise these issues; which means that employers have to at least meet them halfway, by creating an environment where employees feel comfortable talking about it.

It’s important for those who aren’t necessarily affected by stress themselves, to feel as though that measures have been put in place to enable them to raise the issue should it affect them further down the line. 

What do these measures involve?

  • flexibility
  • regular staff meetings 
  • And Wellness Action Plans. 

Making work accessible

It goes without saying that some employers are more accommodating than others when it comes to health.

However, research shows that a quarter of people in the UK will personally experience a mental health issue each year; so businesses need to have a system in place to make work accessible, particularly to those who have disclosed a mental health problem to them.

Small changes can have a big impact, especially when linked to your working life. 

  • more regular one-to-one meetings with managers

or a change of:

  • workspace
  • working hours
  • or breaks. 

Communication is often the key to building strong and reliable relationships. If employees feel that they can open up about their feelings and know that they will be listened to; then preventing, or swiftly addressing, workplace stress can be achievable. 

Remote working has really come into its own during the past year. Many companies have realised the benefits of flexible working. Unfortunately there will still be some employees who have not felt supported through the process or perhaps felt under too much pressure given the exceptional circumstances. 

What staff under stress can do

There are measures staff can take to reduce feelings of anxiety when their workload is getting on top of them, or are experiencing stress as a result of other issues at work.

Exercise can play a huge part in keeping stress levels low and relieving stress when it starts to build. There are numerous health benefits linked to exercise including the depletion of excess stress hormones, better cardiovascular function and the release of endorphins, our body’s natural stress relievers. 

  • Take an actual lunch break. That means not sitting with lunch at your desk, looking at your screen. Get away from your desk, go outside, or go for a short walk.
  • Try and stick to your regular working hours. Pushing yourself to complete a task by overrunning your regular working hours is not something you should get into the habit of doing. It’s a strong indicator that you’ve got too much work on your plate.
  • Accept that sometimes mistakes do happen. Speak to those impacted, rectify it and move on. 
  • Take your allocated holidays, even if you don’t intend to go on vacation. Time spent away from work still provides an opportunity for you to recharge mentally and physically.
  • Learn how to say no. If you can’t take on the extra commitments, don’t let yourself be pressured into increasing your workload.
  • Complete tasks one at a time. This should help you keep a clear head and focus on the task in hand.  
  • Take a moment when your day is over to reflect on the tasks you’ve completed, instead of focussing on what you haven’t done or still have to do.
  • Don’t take work home with you. That means not checking emails or replying to texts about work, until you’re officially on the clock again.

COVID-19 and returning to work

Lots of workers have had to temporarily move their roles away from the office and into their home. Now that the roadmap to stepping out of lockdown has been identified more people will be thinking about returning to their place of work. This in itself might feel stressful. 

Working from home has helped to keep people safe whilst getting the numbers of Coronavirus cases under control. Stepping back into the big wide world could seem daunting when you haven’t had to do so for over a year. 

As employers and employees alike try to navigate the roadmap out of the Coronavirus pandemic. It’s vitally important for companies to maintain an open dialogue with all levels of staff. 

It’s important to note that the pandemic has been hugely stressful and continues to be stressful. Therefore if you are noticing symptoms of stress or anxiety linked to your return to the workplace, this is entirely normal. Open up to your friends and family and let them know how you are feeling. 

What steps to take when returning to the workplace

  1. Talk to your employer. Communication is really important, if you are feeling anxious about your return to the office then speak to your line manager. Supportive managerial staff should help map out a reasonable return to work. 
  2. Be COVID-19 prepared. Make sure that you have enough face masks and hand sanitiser before you start having to make your commute to your place of work. 
  3. Rethink the commute. If your employer is expecting you to return to your place of work over the coming months then perhaps you could talk to them about your commute, if you think this could add stress to your working day. Perhaps you could look to catch the train or bus at a less busy time. 
  4. Don't forget breaks. Taking regular breaks as part of your working day is important. Ideally step away from your desk and computer screen and head outside for a short walk. 

Whether you’re looking for help or advice with stress, work-related or otherwise, or if you’re an employer looking for free resources and training solutions, you can find more information on the Mind website.

They also operate a support line on 0300 123 3393, which is available from 9am to 6pm, Monday to Friday.