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Work-related stress

We will all experience stress at some point in our lives, for a number of different reasons. In small doses, stress can be a motivator - but it can also be unpleasant. When stress builds, it can be overwhelming. Over time it can prevent a person from carrying out everyday tasks, affecting both mental and physical health.

The smallest thing may cause you stress and, when a variety of factors build up, that is when it can have a negative effect on your well-being. Work, school, family and relationships, money and moving house are all considered common stressful situations. In small doses, these stressors can be managed, but when the pressure builds, it can be incredibly difficult to cope.

We spend a lot of time at work; it supports society, gives structure and purpose to life, keeps the body and brain occupied and promotes a sense of satisfaction. When you enjoy your job, it can provide happiness and fulfilment. When work is causing you stress and unhappiness, however, it can take over your life.

On this page, we will explore work-related stress in more detail, including the causes and signs to spot. We will also look at ways to cope with work-related stress and how counselling can help.

What is work-related stress?

A little pressure at work can be motivating, it can help you perform better and teach you ways of overcoming obstacles that may occur. But when this pressure becomes excessive and the demands of your job are too much, it can lead to work-related stress. This is when certain demands in your job exceed your ability to cope.

Similarly, workplace bullying, harassment, unrealistic deadlines and feeling inadequate or undervalued can also negatively affect your ability to cope.

According to HSE, the Health and Safety Executive:

There were more than 595,000 reported cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in the UK in 2017/18. This equated to 15.4 million working days being lost as a result of these conditions.

It is thought that work-related stress is more prevalent in public service industries, such as education, health and social care, and public administration and defence. However, anyone can be affected by stress, in whatever career they hold. It doesn’t matter how old you are, your gender, or the industry you’re in - sometimes things can become difficult and this is when you need to ask for help.

Work-related stress

Coping with work-related stress

When you’re in the thick of stress, it can feel like you’re constantly paddling to keep your head above water. This is incredibly draining and can make you feel like you’re not coping with the demands of your job.

A 2018 study by the Mental Health Foundation found that 74% of adults felt so stressed at some point over the previous year that they felt overwhelmed and unable to cope. Read more on Happiful.

It doesn’t have to be this way, though. Work-related stress is not something to be ashamed of and there is a way out. There are a number of ways you can combat work-related stress, including taking time away from the situation, learning self-help relaxation techniques and changing your working environment.

Depending on the cause of your stress, you may need to speak to a colleague, manager or HR department. In the case of bullying or harassment, there are often procedures in place that will support you.

While there are no medical cures for stress, if your physical and mental health is affected, it is important you visit your doctor. They may refer you for counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) as treatment.

Counselling for work-related stress

If you think you are suffering from work-related stress, it is important you seek help. It’s easy to think the feeling will pass or that everyone feels that way, but pushing it aside and not dealing with it will only make you feel worse. When you spend so much time at work, it should generally make you feel good. You should be happy and feel proud of what you do.

Of course, everyone will have bad days, where they feel tired and unmotivated. But carrying these emotions around with you every day will only overwhelm you. Feeling stressed for a prolonged period of time can greatly affect your life, physically and mentally. In fact, work-related stress is thought to lead to the following mental health problems:

In the following NHS video, an expert explains what stress is, the physical and mental effects of being stressed, when it becomes a problem and when to seek help.

Work-related stress can also lead to sleep problems and feeling sad. It can impact your social life and you may pick up bad habits as a way of coping, such as drinking, smoking and over or undereating. It’s important you recognise these signs and know that it is OK to seek help.

Many of us believe we can handle whatever life throws at us, but it’s OK to need a helping hand sometimes. While we can often find support from friends and family, sometimes we need to talk to a professional, like a counsellor.

Counselling aims to get to the cause of your work-related stress. When you’re in the midst of the situation, it can be hard to think clearly. Talking to a professional in a private, non-judgemental setting, about the difficulties you’re experiencing can help you understand what may be causing the stress and the steps you can take to overcome it.

When you’ve kept your problems close to your chest, talking to a neutral party can often result in a sense of relief. After identifying what is causing the problem, you can work with the counsellor to acknowledge your own stress triggers and discuss coping methods.

Talking therapies

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a talking therapy that works to reduce anxiety and stress. It looks at the way you think about a situation, and how your thoughts and behaviours are affected. CBT aims to change the way you think and behave - helping you challenge any negative thoughts or feelings you have toward the particular issue. By breaking down the overwhelming problems into smaller, more manageable tasks, you can understand your triggers and know how to cope if you start to feel overwhelmed.

Career counselling

For individuals looking for confidential support and advice about areas of study and possible career moves or changes, career counselling (or work counselling) is available. It provides an opportunity to discuss and discover opportunities within your career plan, working with a qualified professional who understands the difficulties of navigating a career that is rewarding and makes you feel fulfilled.

To find out more, visit our career counselling fact-sheet. Or use our search tool to find a career counsellor near you today.

work-related stress

Signs of work-related stress

Everyone reacts differently and your personality, ability to cope and how you respond to pressure may affect the symptoms you experience. However, there are some common signs of work-related stress to look out for.

  • lack of confidence
  • lack of concentration and productivity
  • feeling negative
  • increased sensitivity
  • irritability or short-tempered
  • mood swings
  • sleeping more or less than usual
  • increased or low appetite
  • headaches
  • aches and pains
  • keeping to yourself or avoiding social situations

Of course, one of the easiest ways to know if you may be suffering from stress is to listen to your body. You may brush it off as a cold, headache, or tiredness, but feeling unwell is a common sign of stress. The thought of work shouldn’t make you feel anxious. If you’re feeling tearful or aggressive, have lost your passion, enthusiasm and dread going to work, then something needs to change.

Want to have a more active role in supporting mental health at work? Find out more about becoming a mental health first aider. Click the image below to download and print it for your workplace.

Self-care techniques

As difficult as it may seem, if you’re unhappy at work, it’s important you take care of yourself. Try to recognise what’s causing your stress at work, and deal with the situation. However, we understand it’s not always so easy, so we’ve listed some ways you can help yourself.

  • Ensure you maintain a balanced diet, drinking plenty of water.
  • Try to get outside on your lunch break, take a moment to yourself.
  • Work regular hours and take holiday days. Even if you feel overwhelmed with deadlines, it’s important you take breaks. Overworking won’t help.
  • Maintain a healthy social life. Don’t neglect your loved ones, as much as it may feel you’re on your own, they care about you and want you to be happy.
  • Stay active. Regular exercise can help reduce stress and help you feel good.
  • Consider complementary therapies which promote relaxation, such as massage and aromatherapy.

For more help and advice, visit our self-care section. Here you can find two handy, downloadable guides, including ‘Looking after yourself at work’.


What should I be looking for in a counsellor or psychotherapist?

There are currently no laws in place stipulating what training and qualifications a counsellor must have in order to treat work-related stress. However, there are several accredited courses, qualifications and workshops available to counsellors to improve their knowledge of a particular area. Also, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) have developed a set of guidelines for mental well-being at work and caring for employees.

Read the full NICE guidelines

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