Work-related stress

Written by Becky Banham
Becky Banham
Counselling Directory Content Team

Reviewed by Laurele Mitchell
Last updated 18th November 2022 | Next update due 17th November 2025

When you enjoy your job, it can provide happiness and fulfilment. But, when work is causing you stress and unhappiness, it can take over your life.

On this page, we'll explore work-related stress in more detail, including the causes and signs to spot, 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.

There were more than 822,000 reported cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety (new or long-standing) in 2020/21 in the UK.

- Health and Safety Executive (HSE)

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.

In this video, counsellor Jon Simons discusses work-related stress, including how it can affect our daily lives, the 'talking tool kit', and how a counsellor can help.

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.

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 several ways you can combat stress at work, 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, you should consult your doctor. They may refer you for further support, such as counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

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:

  • anxiety
  • low self-esteem
  • low self-confidence
  • depression
  • suicidal thoughts

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 a situation, it can be hard to think clearly. Talking to a professional in a private, non-judgmental 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.

Therapists who can help with work-related stress

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 a 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.

Employee assistance programme (EAP)

If you're looking for support but are unable to access private counselling, it's worth looking into whether your employer offers EAP services. An EAP is an employer-funded service which gives staff access to free counselling and well-being support.

And if you don't feel comfortable speaking to your employer, or would like some advice prior to the conversation, we suggest looking at ACAS. ACAS is an independent public body that is government-funded and can offer you support and impartial advice.

We have a number of therapists who also work in EAP. Visit our EAP hub and select the EAP or insurance provider to view a list of professionals who may be able to help you.

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. Put simply, the thought of work shouldn’t make you feel anxious. So if you’re feeling tearful or aggressive, have lost your passion and 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

Download our free guide to Mental Health First Aid to place in your workplace or at home. This guide takes you through the two core objectives of Mental Health First Aid: understanding and how to help.

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, and 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 like 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 holistic therapies to promote relaxation, e.g. massage and aromatherapy.

What should I be looking for in a therapist?

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.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has developed a set of guidelines for mental well-being at work and caring for employees: Read the guidelines.

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