Frontline Intelligence - Corporate health: Managing stress in the workplace

by 31 May 2012

Working can provide our lives with purpose, satisfaction, structure and, of course, income. But according to Bupa Healthwatch research data, around 40% of Australians feel they are working long hours, and 44% say they come home from work feeling exhausted. If work is seen this way, then it could possibly be contributing to the stress in your life, even when it is also delivering those other positive aspects.

The good news is, with some thought, some effort, and even just a few simple changes to your work practices, you can help reduce the impact of work-related stress on your health and wellbeing.

Healthy body, healthy mind

What you do outside the office may help to improve your physical and mental health inside the office, too. Whether it’s going for a walk or jog every day or eating healthy meals, improving your physical wellbeing can help reduce work related stress.

Here are our top five tips on health and lifestyle changes that can help you lower your stress levels:

1. Get active. Research has shown that some exercise programs can help reduce anxiety. By improving your fitness, exercise may also help increase your tolerance of stressful situations. Even a brisk walk for 30 minutes a day most days of the week, as recommended in the National Physical Activity Guidelines, may help to combat stress while keeping you in good physical shape and condition.

2. Eat a healthy, balanced diet. Broadly speaking, a diet that includes plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish, lean meat and low-fat dairy products and is low in saturated and trans fats, salt and highly-processed foods, is one of your best tickets to good health. Antioxidant-rich foods, such as blueberries and Red Delicious apples, are also said to help reduce stress.

3. Get enough good quality sleep. Lack of sleep affects both our mental performance and our mood – Bupa Healthwatch research found that sleep-deprived people reported feeling more stressed, sad, angry, mentally exhausted and less optimistic about their lives as a whole. On average, most adults need around 7–8 hours of sleep each night, though this amount can vary according to age and individual needs.

4. Stop smoking, and limit the amount of caffeine you drink. Nicotine in cigarettes and caffeine in coffee, cola and energy drinks are stimulants that may increase your stress levels.

5. Be smart about how much alcohol you choose to drink. Alcohol may help you feel more relaxed at first, but long-term drinking to cope with stress can lead to a range of health and social problems. It’s also likely that drinking too much may negatively affect how well you can do your work, increasing the stress you’re under.

Recognising the warning signs

A certain level of pressure in the workplace is normal and can even be quite beneficial. But sometimes this pressure, over a sustained period, can become a problem.

1. What symptoms should I look out for? Work-related stress is experienced differently by each person. When it becomes more of a problem you may feel symptoms such as: headaches; neck, shoulder and back ache; disturbed sleep; fatigue; heart palpitations; changed appetite; stomach upsets; reduced ability to concentrate; anxiety; and low mood.

2. To what extent? Prolonged and severe stress can impair normal function. If you’ve been experiencing the above symptoms or feel stress has been affecting your ability to carry out everyday activities for two weeks or more, you may need further help.

3. Where can I go for help? In most instances you can get help from your manager, your HR department or your EAP (Employee Assistance Program) provider.

About the author

Dr Paul Bates is Chief Medical Officer, Peak Health Management, part of Bupa