What makes you stressed at work?

I have, at various times, been diagnosed with stress, anxiety and depression. I guess many people would think that anxiety is the most nonsensical of the three. Constantly catastrophizing about even the smallest things. But for me it’s the easiest mindset to get out of (yeah, okay, and slip back into) – CBT helps, as does mindfulness.

Stress (and depression) are different though.

Stress tends to come up a whack me between the shoulder blades, randomly and out of nowhere. It can be hard for me to tell that I’m becoming stressed out until I’m at the full-blown stress shutdown stage. It’s even harder to analyse why I’m stressed, while I’m stressed.

this is fine

A great boss might ask “what’s wrong?” and “what can the team do to help?”, but if your verbal acuity has been reduced to a simple GAAAAAAH! then you’re probably not going to be much help.

So what are some of the factors that make work so stressful sometimes?

We’re disconnected from what we do


Everyone searches for some kind of meaning in what they do. Sure, we might not be making amazing scientific discoveries, or solving the biggest math problem in the world (please God no), but we want to know that we’re not just shouting into the void. That what we do matters.

Okay, you’ve spoken to a journalist and introduced the idea of the new client to them. But what’s the purpose of that? What’s the immediate and long-term result? Why did our contribution matter?

Without knowing the overall goals and impact, our days become full of mindless tasks rather than purposeful action.


We might not want to fly up the career ladder like some Apprentice star in the making, but we all want to feel that we’re making some kind of progress.

If those around us – either in the office, in the industry, or in our group of friends – are storming ahead with their goals it can make people wonder what they’re doing wrong.


Sometimes we can cope with not being sure what to do or how to do it, we just go and find out or ask a more experienced person.

But if you’re constantly questioning your ability to do something while others seem to have no problem with the task, it can be difficult not to stay in a constant holding pattern of indecision.

We need adequate training and support, not my uncle’s version of teaching (“I shall lob this child into the deep end of the pool, that’ll get her swimming”).

We focus on being busy, rather than productive

Busyness isn’t a virtue

Does our workplace value being busy, or being productive? Are we judged on the work we do, or the time we spend doing it?

It’s pretty easy to fill up a day with busy work, but does it bring us close to our goals? Or, does it simply leave us less time to focus on the work that really matters?

Sometimes, businesses praise looking busy over being productive. This can be due to politics (“my department needs more budget, look at all these people working late into the evening!”) but if that’s the culture of your workplace, is that really how you want to live?

Our commitment to boring

It takes us longer to complete tasks we dread or simply find dull. Are these tasks necessary for us to do? Do they need to be delegated or deleted? Without identifying the tasks we always hate doing, we risk having an to-do list full of half-finished actions.

The brain loathes unfinished tasks, so those timesheets will fester in the back of your mind and annoy you until they’re done.

We’ve become disconnected from ourselves

Our values clash with our work

What are our values? Are we able to live them at work? If our manager asks us to do something that goes against our core values, how do we resolve that conflict?

We forget that lots of people are great at their own PR

We’re surrounded by social media exaggerations. Most people present the idealised version of themselves on social media, like some sort of digital, daily, This is Your Life celebration of our total awesomeness.

But we forget that other people do the same thing. We usually only see the good times, the successes. We don’t see posts like “in PJs for fourth day in a row, eating ice cream out the tub and binge watching Game of Thrones. Have forgotten what the sky looks like.”

We start to think that everyone is happier than us. This extends to work – we often only share our best selves and rarely expose our vulnerabilities.

We clash with the personalities around us

Maybe there’s a communications barrier that we find hard to overcome, or we simply have different personality types. Do we let it continue, and simply dread having to talk to the person, or do we look at what we have in common, and work out how we can work together?

We set ourselves impossible targets

I used to think I couldn’t be a perfectionist because I was, in no way, perfect enough to be one. Perfectionists must be good at being perfect, right?

Really, perfectionism is more like setting the bar impossibly high for yourself, and then ripping yourself to shreds when you (quite understandably) fail to meet your goals.

Perfectionism leads to procrastination, which results in more stress as deadlines loom and now you have even less time to do the work, which of course means it won’t be as good as it could have been…and the cycle continues.

We feel powerless

One of the main triggers of stress is that we feel powerless over our situation. We need to feel in control – which is an easy enough thing to say now, with a clear mind, but when you’re really stressed it can be hard to think clearly about what the real problem is and how you can solve it.

What can employers do to help?

  • Don’t stigmatise stress (or any mental health issue).
  • Don’t turn it into the stress Olympics (“I’m your manager, you think you’re stressed, try being me for a day!”)
  • Look at long-term solutions. Mental health days are important, but they’re really just a temporary release, they don’t stop the pressure rising again. Agencies need to look at the way they operate, and the way they communicate with employees, if they want to tackle the causes of stress.
  • Focus on clear communication. This is what’s happening; this is why it’s happening. Sometimes we only give half the reasoning for our actions. An email saying “please send me your timesheets for last month” can be read by someone who is prone to stress and catastrophizing as having an unspoken “because I’m wondering what exactly you do all day you lazy git”, while the manager actually means “because I need them for capacity planning and I can’t find them in my email”.

It can be difficult to know what to do when someone is suffering from stress, but understanding, offering support and creating a business that works to support its employee’s mental health can go a long way to helping.

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