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Coping with stress at work

Everyday an estimated 270,000 employees are absent from work because of it and yet only 13 % of companies have implemented schemes to combat it. Stress at work is still not taken seriously despite it becoming one of the biggest problems facing both employees and employers in the workplace today.

But what exactly is stress? The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) of the TUC sum it up as 'the reaction people have to excessive demands or pressures, arising when people try to cope with tasks, responsibilities or other types of pressure connected with their jobs, but find difficulty; strain or worry in doing so.' And if you think that's vague, the medical symptoms broaden it even more. Work related stress covers everything from minor ailments of headaches, irritable bowel syndrome and anxiety to more serious depression, insomnia, and in the case of mental health nurse, Richard Pocock, suicide.

So stress may be wide ranging but it's serious and it's not going away. We've probably all suffered from it at some point in our working lives, whether knowing it or not. In these hectic times, stress isn't limited to the office but it's an area where it's rife. In a recent questionnaire, Americans cited work as the most stressful arena of their lives and Britain can't be far behind.

STRESS!It almost goes without saying that those in jobs with high pressure, long hours, big responsibilities jobs are the most stressed. Of course the more energy devoted to your work and the less to relaxation the more stressed you will be. After all those breakfast meetings and nights at the office your mental and physical resources are at zero and any out of work 'relaxation' is done on reverse power (or with copious alcohol). You're so exhausted, no wonder you're stressed.

But stress isn't limited to the workaholics amongst us. Although these highly pressured jobs are obviously a source, having not enough work can be just as stressful. Overexertion may lead to fatigue and consequently anxiety, but doing nothing or the monotony of doing the same thing over and over again can quickly lead to depression, another symptom of stress.

The environment that you work in is crucial not only to the quality of work that you produce but also your stress levels. There's nothing worse than feeling unable to communicate with your colleagues or having nowhere to turn when you're unsure about something. When you feel you're on your own in the workplace, self doubt rears it's ugly head and there's the dreaded anxiety again.

These are only a few causes of stress at work that are recorded by the HSE (others include job or organisational change, lack of clear objectives from management and the constant keeping up with new developments, all familiar problems in the workplace today) but they express how hard it is to pin down the causes of stress at work into general categories, rather than individual experience.

Because the hardest thing to acknowledge is that these stress levels are up to you. Although often deriving from work, stress is a personal issue effecting people in wildly different ways, mentally and physically, both in and out of the workplace. This means that the way you deal with it has to be personalised to suit your individual symptoms and lifestyle.

Despite the need for bespoke treatment, just as there are general reasons for work related stress, there are guidelines that everyone can follow for a less stressful work life.

Firstly, look after yourself. All that work puts strain on your physical well being making you more prone to fatigue and the irritability and anxiety that go along with that. Eating well (lots of fruit and veg) and sleeping regular hours will mean you're able to not only combat your stress levels but also be at your best to meet that trickyclient.

You might be exhausted after a hard day at work but experts suggest exercise as a way of alleviating not only tiredness but stress by releasing those endorphins for a sense of physical and mental satisfaction. You don't have to become a gym rat, other forms of exercise such as yoga and Tai Chi are equally effective in the fight against stress with a little more emphasis on the relaxation side.

Other purely relaxation therapies are of course meditation, massage and the Alexander technique as well as the less mystical self help techniques of 'constructive self talk' (you can guess what that is) and 'visualisation', where you relax through visualising your own idea of tranquillity, whenever you feel stressed.

Relaxation is perhaps the antithesis of stress but, like it, people find it in different ways. One thing that the best of these techniques emphasise is the importance of breathing. Most people only use half their lung capacity and we tend to short breaths in times of stress. Unlike these more specific relaxation techniques, this is something that can be done at work (you can't really start meditating at your desk), to combat stress then and there. Next time there's four phone lines ringing at a time and you've got five minutes to get that report on your boss' desk, just close your eyes and think of a Caribbean island and don't forget to breath !

Ten tips to a less stressful work life

- Try to eat breakfast every day for extra energy
- Aim to exercise for at least 30 minutes four times a week
- Take a full lunch hour away from your desk
- When it all seems too much, laugh about it!
- If you're feeling run down, take a daily vitamin supplement
- Talk to your colleagues - a problem shared....
- Sleep at least six hours every night
- Make time for your life outside the office. It's not all work, work, work
- Cut down on coffee and replace it with water
- Try to relax in whichever way it suits you