Stress at work

Key points about stress at work

  • Stress is a natural reaction to any kind of excess demand or threat.
  • While having some challenge at work can be positive, work-related stress can be a risk to your mental and physical health.
  • Fortunately, there are things you can do to reduce your levels of stress at work.
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  • In general, stress at work is increasing. A high workload is often the reason, but it can occur for other reasons too, such as long hours, the threat of job loss or redundancy, workplace bullying, not enough social support, harassment, conflicts with other workers or bosses, and increasingly blurred boundaries between work and non-work hours.
  • Ongoing work-related stress may lead to mental health problems. A New Zealand study found that young people exposed to what they saw as high job demands (excessive workload, extreme time pressures) had twice the risk of depression or anxiety compared to those who felt they had low job demands.
  • Ongoing stress may also lead to other health conditions such as chronic headaches or heart disease. This can be because of changes in your body or poor lifestyle habits used to cope with stress, such as overeating, drinking alcohol or using drugs.
  • Your employer has obligations around your health and safety at work and may provide you with sick leave if you have work-related stress.
  • There are steps you can take at work and at home to help you manage your work-related stress.

As well as feeling you have too much work to do, issues that can create stress at work include:

  • expectations of long working hours and blurred boundaries about contact outside work hours
  • narrow and limited job content
  • too much or too little work
  • lack of recognition or positive feedback
  • uncertainty about what is expected or required in the job and the future of the organisation
  • harassment – bullying, violence, sexual, racial, disability or being different
  • accident hazards and dangers
  • poor management styles that do not include consultation or value diversity in the workplace
  • unresolved conflict in the workplace
  • poor support for workers experiencing personal or professional difficulties. 

Signs of stress at work include the following feelings or behaviours when you are at work or in relation to your work:

  • irritable, impatient or wound up
  • over-burdened
  • worried, anxious or nervous
  • like your thoughts are racing and you can't switch off
  • finding it hard to concentrate or make decisions
  • unable to enjoy yourself
  • tense and tired
  • restless or panicked. 

Over time, these symptoms can lead to mental health problems, such as depression or anxiety, or physical conditions such as such as chronic headaches or heart disease.

In New Zealand, your employer must make as sure as reasonably possible that health and safety risks in the workplace are identified and managed properly. This includes workplace stress and fatigue. 

They are obliged to monitor employees for potential workplace stress, such as keeping an eye on workload, job performance and the types of tasks being performed, as well as looking for any physical signs of stress. They may provide you with sick leave if you have work-related stress.

Your stress may not always be obvious to your employer, so it’s important that if you are stressed at work, you talk to your manager about it. Often there are support options available through your workplace, such as employee assistance programmes (which can include free counselling), or the options of delegating work, longer deadlines or more flexible working arrangements.

An employer may ask an employee who says they have workplace stress to see a doctor to be properly diagnosed and confirm the reason for the stress, but you are under no obligation to do this. However, you have a duty to report any workplace threat to your health and safety, which may include stress.

At work

  • Make sure you take your scheduled breaks during the day.
  • Use your leave – that’s what it’s there for, to give you time away from work to return refreshed and reinvigorated.
  • Exercise is a great stress-buster. Any form of physical activity helps, even if you just manage to take a walk outside your workplace at lunchtime.
  • Your food choices can have a huge impact on how you feel during the work day. When stressed, you can crave sugary snacks or comfort foods. But eating frequent healthy meals helps your energy and focus. 
  • Avoid using substances, such as smoking or vaping, or having caffeinated drinks when you're feeling stressed. This might seem calming in the moment, but these are stimulants and can lead to higher levels of anxiety.
  • Take a few slow, deep breaths – this can calm down your nervous system and lower your stress in the moment.
  • Reduce interruptions if you can and ‘chunk’ your time, eg, only answer emails during certain blocks of time.
  • In an increasingly digital world, it can be easy to feel the pressure to be available outside work hours. It’s important to establish clear work-life boundaries for yourself. Make sure this works for you and your workplace and if this creates stress talk to your manager.
  • If you have too much work, talk to your manager or pass on some of it if you can.
  • Develop good relationships with the people you work with – they can be a support to you.
  • Practice being mindful by taking a few minutes each day to focus on your breathing, allowing your thoughts and emotions to pass by without getting stuck in them. This will also help you to focus better on what you are doing.

Out of work time

  • Get regular exercise.
  • Get enough good-quality sleep. Develop healthy sleep habits by limiting caffeine intake and minimising stimulating activities at night, such as using devices and watching television.
  • Talk to someone you trust about how you are feeling. Sometimes the best stress reducer is simply sharing your thoughts with someone close to you.
  • Learn a mindfulness technique to help with not getting 'stuck' in thoughts and emotions.
  • Have fun – don’t make work your whole life. Work out what matters to you and take time to engage with this.
  • Don’t use alcohol, drugs or comfort eating to reduce stress – you will only add to the problem.
  • Talk to your doctor or get help from a professional if you can’t manage these self-help strategies.

WorkSafe NZ recommends the following actions:

  • Set achievable demands for your workers in relation to agreed hours of work.
  • Match worker’s skills and abilities to job demands.
  • Support workers to have a level of control over their pace of work.
  • Develop multi-disciplinary teams to share ideas and perspectives on ways to address situations.
  • Involve workers in decisions that may impact their health and safety, and have processes to enable workers to raise issues and concerns they might have.
  • Ensure managers and supervisors have the capability and knowledge to identify, understand and support workers who may be feeling stressed
  • Provide workers with access to independent counselling services
  • Have agreed on policies and procedures to prevent or resolve unacceptable behaviour.
  • Engage and consult with workers before implementing change processes, and ensure they genuinely have the ability to influence the decisions you make. 

Discover how to make wellbeing an essential part of how you work, lead and connect. This short quiz(external link) helps you and your team rate your workplace and decide where to start.

Video: What’s stopping us from talking about mental health at work

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(Like Minds, Like Mine, NZ, 2018)

Video: Stuff we know, skills we have

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(Like Minds, Like Mine, NZ, 2018)

Video: Creating culture

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(Like Minds, Like Mine, NZ, 2018)

Video: Those unintentional barriers

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(Like Minds, Like Mine, NZ, 2018)

Video: What are our triggers

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(Like Minds, Like Mine, NZ, 2018)

For more videos of the same series, visit Open Minds(external link) Like Minds, Like Mine.

In the videos below, managers and employees at non-office based workplaces are interviewed about their experiences of mental health at work. These videos are part of the Open Minds e-learning package.

Video: Open Minds Episode 1: Opening the conversation

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(Mental Health Foundation, NZ, 2021)

Video: Open Minds Episode 2: Under Pressure

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(Mental Health Foundation, NZ, 2021)

Video: Open Minds Episode 3: What about the judgement?

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(Mental Health Foundation, NZ, 2021)

Video: Open Minds Episode 4: The hard stuff

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(Mental Health Foundation, NZ, 2021)

Video: Open Minds Episode 5: Changing Culture

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(Mental Health Foundation, NZ, 2021)

General learn more resources

Free online courses

Information for employers


General resources

Listen to this podcast(external link) from the ALPHAcademy about creating an exceptional learning organisation? With Dr Ioan Rees

Cultivating a sense of ownership within a Learning Organisation is an important way to inspire people to be fully engaged. While this kind of environment encourages personal responsibility and can result in high-performance, ownership is most often focused on personal accountability and the expectation that staff will be intrinsically motivated.

In this episode, the team discuss organisational values, collaborative work and innovation to drive improvements in the workplace with Dr. Ioan Rees, CEO of Sycol.

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Reviewed by: Teresa Watson, clinical and corporate psychologist

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