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Is your job the cause of your stress?

Dr Tim Sharp

Identify whether your job is to blame for your stress

A man wearing business attire scratches his forehead as he sits in front of his laptop with headphones plugged in
A man wearing business attire scratches his forehead as he sits in front of his laptop with headphones plugged in

Whether you love what you do, dread Mondays or fall somewhere between the two – work stress can be a real and disruptive force in our lives.

Ongoing stress can cause physical illness including headaches, migraines, fertility problems, heart issues and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.

Surprisingly though, stress isn’t something we should always actively avoid, as Dr Tim Sharp, positive psychologist and founder of The Happiness Institute, explains.

“Stress isn’t always bad,” he says. “In fact, we really should think about ‘good stress’ and ‘bad stress’. The latter is pretty obvious, but the former is important because it can be motivating and inspiring. Good stress is arousing, energising and can prepare us to be more productive and achieve more.”

Too stressed at work?

If you’re dealing with new job stress or recurring unhealthy stress patterns, it’s important to take a step back and tune into the feelings and emotions you’re experiencing.

“Good stress turns into bad stress once we feel overwhelmed and the demands of the situation outweigh our perception of our ability to cope with those demands,” Tim explains.

“When this happens, we’ll experience signs of physical stress such as increased heart rate, muscle tension, emotional stress like anxiety and irritability, even tiredness and agitation, and cognitive stress, including worrying thoughts, difficulty concentrating and trouble making decisions.”

If that’s you, the next step is working out if the culprit is your job.

A woman sitting in front of a laptop at an office leans her head on her hand

Is office stress my problem?

“When we’re feeling stressed it can be helpful to try to determine the cause, because that way we might then be able to eliminate or modify and ultimately reduce our stress,” advises Tim.

“Reflecting on what’s going on and what’s going through your mind can be helpful. Clarifying whether or not the cause of stress is work or something else should be a useful exercise but consider all possible contributors.”

If it is your job, rest assured that it's not uncommon. According to a study by Beyond Blue, one in five Australians (21 per cent) report having taken time off work because they felt stressed, anxious, depressed or mentally unhealthy.

Should I quit my job if I’m under too much stress?

If you’ve found yourself muttering ‘my job is killing me’ more than once during your commute, you might be wondering whether it’s time to quit.

Before you hand in your notice, Tim recommends looking at ways you can improve your current situation first.

“More often than not, you probably have more control over what’s going on in your current position. So I’d recommend doing all you can to deal with and improve what you have, before considering any changes.”

When you feel you’ve tried all you can without much success, career change may be worth considering.

“Before making any big decisions, however, I’d encourage someone to weigh up all the pros and cons of where they are versus all the pros and cons of where they think they want to be, and to do this as fully and honestly and realistically as possible,” Tim says.

Before you hand in your notice, look at ways you can improve your current situation first

How to avoid workplace stress

1. Stop comparing and despairing

It’s understandable if you underestimate or downplay your stress levels, given other people around you might be experiencing more challenging situations. However, as Tim explains, comparing yourself to others isn’t good for you.

“Quite simply, it’s not helpful,” he says. “Your experience is your experience, and if your experience at the moment is one of stress then that’s valid and is as deserving as any other of attention.”

2. Counteract the ‘Sunday blues’

We all know the feeling – that trepidation on the evening before you head back to work for the week.

“It’s quite common to be anxious on a Sunday night,” says Tim. “The good news is you can do something about it. On a Sunday, not too late in the day, get ready for your work week ahead. Prepare and plan as best you can for what you need to do; focus on what you can control and try not to worry about what you can’t.

“And give yourself permission to enjoy your weekend time. We all need time off work and, in fact, we work better when we allow ourselves time off.”

3. Practise good living

Prioritising yourself is, ultimately, prioritising your performance, because the better you take care of yourself the better you can function.

Tim believes practising good living and self-care can significantly reduce job stress. “Take regular breaks, practise relaxation or meditation, set realistic expectations – for yourself and others, prioritise and plan, exercise or at least get up and move as often as you can, and reach out and ask for help when you need to.”

Where to go for help with job stress

While early intervention (like talking to your manager, taking time out or cutting back on the things that cause us stress) is best, sometimes stress takes us by surprise, or we aren’t sure what we can do about the causes of our stress. The good news is, there are plenty of resources out there to lend a hand:

1. myCompass

myCompass helps you learn new ways of dealing with your thoughts, feelings and behaviour to better manage stress.

2. Smiling Mind

nib foundation partner, Smiling Mind has an easy-to-use mindfulness app to help you de-stress and learn relaxation techniques.

3. Your GP

If you're concerned workplace stress is impacting your overall mental wellbeing, the best thing you can initially do is speak to your GP.

If you or someone you know needs urgent help, please call:

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636

Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.

*Available to eligible nib members who’ve held Hospital Cover for 12 months and served their relevant waiting periods.

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Dr Tim Sharp aka Dr Happy smiling at the camera while wearing a navy suit and glasses

Dr Tim Sharp

Dr Tim Sharp is Australia’s very own ‘Dr Happy’ who is at the forefront of the positive psychology movement with three degrees in psychology (including a PhD.). Dr Happy is a passionate professional with a wealth of experience both in the field and the media, and is the founder and CHO (Chief Happiness Officer) of The Happiness Institute, Australia’s first and best known organisation devoted to enhancing happiness. Tim really loves coffee; maybe a little too much...