Work-related stress is becoming increasingly common and problematic, not just for the employees who are suffering, but also for their employers, businesses and the UK economy.
Infact, research released last year (2023) shows that it can cost the economy as much as £28 billion each year, largely caused by the number of stress-related sick days being taken. AXA, who led the research as part of its annual Mind Health Study, surveyed 30,000 people aged 18 to 74 and concluded work-related stress to be a ‘significant problem’.
London-based GP Dr Kenny Livingstone is also aware of the levels of stress UK employees are experiencing, requiring time off work with it. He and his team of GPs issue sick notes or medical letters to patients via the private medical letters company, ZoomDoc and are noticing an increase in sick note requests caused by stress-related symptoms, such as burnout, anxiety and poor mental health.
‘We’ve seen an increase of 125% over the last six months in sick note requests,’ says Dr Kenny.
‘This goes hand in hand with AXA’s research showing that people simply aren’t getting the help and support they need in the workplace with symptoms, resulting in acute stress-related illness that can require weeks if not months off work,’ he says.
If your stress levels are rising as you’re reading this, we can help. From recognising signs to seeking the support you need, here’s what you need to get through a stressful time at work – now or in the future.
Stress at work: what causes it
The NHS describes stress as ‘the body’s reaction to feeling threatened or under pressure’. During this reaction it releases adrenaline, a hormone that helps us get through a difficult situation.
‘Some stress at work is to be expected,’ says Dr Kenny, ‘but severe stress or prolonged periods without any relief from it can start to affect us physically and mentally,’ he adds.
If stress carries on for too long or too severely it can lead to illness, mental health conditions and exhaustion, also known as ‘burnout’.
Symptoms of stress: what to look out for
Stress can present as a range of different symptoms including:
- Physical illness – including stomach ache, headaches, dizziness, digestive problems, rashes (hives).
- Behavioural changes – not wanting to socialise, eating or drinking more, doing things excessively (exercise).
- Mental health changes – feeling anxious, not being able to switch off or wind down, mood swings, feeling overwhelmed or depressed.
While some symptoms of stress are manageable, some can be so bad that they impact your ability to sleep, work or get out of bed in the morning. This feeling of ‘burn out’ is a sign your stress levels are at breaking point and you need help, support and to make lifestyle changes.
Getting help with stress at work
If stress is affecting your day to day life, making you ill, stopping you sleep, affecting your mood noticeably then these are all warning signs to do something about it..
Feeling unheard or unsupported can make matters worse at work so start by talking to someone, ideally a colleague or line manager.
They may be able to offer a solution to ease your workload, pressures or recommend some time off. Sometimes that can be enough to help you recharge.
UK charity, Mind also offers the following tip for getting help with workplace stress:
- Find out about services in your workplace, such as employee assistance programmes (EAPs) which offer free advice and counselling. Or support systems such as mentoring or buddy systems.
- Tell someone that you feel unsupported. If your manager doesn’t help, speak or write to your human resources department or trade union representative, if you have one.
- Turn to colleagues. Developing a support network at work and having connections with co-workers can help hugely.
Off work sick with stress? Read more about sick leave support here.
Managing stress: self-care tips to try
Small things can make a big difference when it comes to coping with stress. The NHS suggests trying some self-care techniques, such as:
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – according to NHS advice, this can help you deal with stress by working through problems in new ways and building resilience.
Think more positively – stress can quickly cloud our outlook and make things gloomier than they are. Health experts recommend positive thinking to help focus on the good things in life or at work, rather than just the bad. NHS advice suggest listing three things you’re thankful for, however small, each day.
Get active – According to NHS advice, ‘being active regularly can help you to burn off nervous energy, so it could be a way for you to deal with stress. Exercise might also help you manage or reduce stress.’
Stress at work: when to see a doctor
Always see a GP for any unusual or worsening symptoms affecting your day to day life, particularly if they’re preventing you from working.
Your GP may recommend therapy, medication or some time off to recover. You will need a sick note or doctor’s letter for longer than seven calendar days off work, including weekends or days you don’t normally work.
‘Interestingly you don’t need to see a doctor to get a sick note, which in itself can save you some stress,’ says Dr Kenny.
Instead you can order a same-day Work Sickness Certificate online for ease and speed.
For £45 ZoomDoc will provide a valid, authorised letter approved by a GMC-registered GP who’ll verify your symptoms and associated time off work.
Find any medical letter you may need, whether for stress-related sick leave, travel or insurance purposes.