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Are your work days so busy and stressful that you don’t feel like you have time to enjoy what you’re doing? Workplace stress in Australia is on the rise, with research by the Australian Psychological Society revealing a significant decline in workplace wellbeing over the last two years. Stress is impacting on the physical health of 75 per cent of workers and the mental health of 68 per cent of workers.
These figures are likely to be higher among people working in emotionally demanding jobs like teachers, aged-care employees and community workers, says life coach and owner of Total Balance, Kate James. “My experience is that work stress is worse among this group of professionals. It’s sometimes called carer’s fatigue, where you’re focused on taking care of other people and put your own needs second.”
Why it’s important to stress less
Not all workplace stress is bad, but chronic stress can lead to burnout and a raft of mental and physical health problems.
“Stress can be healthy in the short term because it can give us energy to focus and concentrate, so if you’ve got an important task that needs to be done in the short term the changes that happen in the body and the mind can be beneficial,” says clinical psychologist Dr Melissa Keogh.
“It’s long-term stress that is the worry on the body. Some of the more common symptoms are difficulty making decisions and concentrating, irritability and negative thoughts, sleeping problems, headaches and muscle tension.”
Prolonged exposure to stress at work can eventually lead to depression, anxiety and heart disease, according to the Victorian government’s Better Health Channel. For some people, too much stress over a long period of time can lead to burnout or breakdown —a complete state of mental, physical and emotional exhaustion. People who work in a ‘helping profession’ such as health care, counselling and teaching are more likely to experience job burnout, according to the Mayo Clinic.
So how can you tell if you’re on your way to a burnout and need to stress less? “For a lot of people insomnia is the first sign,” says James. “But people present stress in different ways. Some people get snappy and they find themselves responding to things in a fairly volatile way. Other people feel they’re crying a lot and they don’t want to be engaged with social activities like they used to be and have persistent negative thinking.” Other signs include increased conflict with co-workers, friends and family, feeling empty or lacking emotion, and being unable to focus on tasks.
Tackling workplace tension
If you’re concerned about job burnout or workplace tension, it’s important to take action to stress less—both at work and at home. Start the day with a relaxing ritual like doing some gentle stretches or drinking a cup of tea in bed. Throughout the day, eat regular, healthy meals and get out into the fresh air. “Exercise, even if you don’t think you’ve got time. It’s worth getting up that half an hour earlier to go for a walk because it really does boost your dopamine levels,” says James.
On the job, Dr Keogh recommends developing boundaries around your time to ease your stress; don’t be afraid to say no. And develop strategies to deal with conflict. If you’re experiencing an intensely stressful moment, she suggests taking a quick toilet break to practice deep breathing. “Put your hand on your belly and as you breathe in, push your stomach out—you want your belly to rise,” she says. “Hold for three counts, then exhale slowly. This will help the nervous system.”
James says during stressful moments reminding yourself why you’re doing your job and the reasons you set about working in your field can be helpful. “Try to maintain the sense that you’re living purposefully day to day,” she says.
After work, be sure to get a good night’s sleep to help your body recover from the day’s pressures. Having a warm bath, meditating or reducing screen time before bed may help you to drift off. And be sure to take regular holidays, which are essential for mental health and productivity and therefore will help you stress less. Research by Roy Morgan suggests more than one third of Australians haven’t taken a break in the last year. Are you one of them?
Quick stress-busting tips
- Start your workday with a relaxing morning routine.
- Be sure to eat well, exercise and get enough sleep each day.
- At work, adopt time management and conflict resolution strategies.
- Enjoy regular holidays to relax and recharge.