Stress is a normal experience when we are faced with a challenge or uncertain situation. Many factors influence how each individual responds to stress. What is considered ‘stressful’ differs from person to person.

A common workplace challenge – like meeting a deadline – can lead to temporary signs of stress. These are physical changes that help us cope with the extra demands.  The signs of stress usually settle down when we meet the deadline.

If we can’t deal with a challenge or face many new or unexpected challenges, stress levels can stay high for too long.  This is when stress can affect your health and wellbeing.

COVID-19 has disrupted business owners and workers across the state, leading to higher stress levels and affecting mental health.

What are the signs of stress?

To maintain your health and wellbeing, know how to identify stress, take steps to reduce it and find support when you need it.

Physical symptoms of stress can include:

  • fatigue or exhaustion
  • sleeping difficulties, such as trouble going to sleep or staying asleep
  • muscle tension and/or headaches
  • gastrointestinal upsets, such as bloating, diarrhoea or constipation
  • skin (dermatological) disorders

Psychological symptoms can include:

  • feeling sad, down or hopeless
  • worrying more than usual and feeling ‘on edge’
  • feeling anxious and/or afraid
  • feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope
  • difficulty concentrating or making decisions

Behavioural symptoms can include:

  • a drop in motivation or work performance
  • relationship problems or avoiding contact with others
  • being impatient or irritable
  • using smoking, alcohol, drug use or gambling to cope

How to deal with work-related stress

We experience work-related stress when we do not feel that we have the resources or ability to manage the demands of our work or workplace environment.

Work-related stress is considered a major occupational health and safety hazard. It is challenging for employers to prevent and manage work-related stress.

Sole traders and small business owners have specific experiences that contribute to work-related stress. They include:

  • feelings of isolation
  • not having someone to talk to about business concerns
  • concern about your business’s future
  • financial concerns, such as debts or cash flow
  • juggling many jobs and competing priorities.

How to prevent and manage stress

Resources for business owners and sole traders

There are things you can do to create a mentally healthy workplace and prevent psychological or physical harm from stress. This includes identifying and managing work-related risks to you and your employees' stress levels.  Some of these risks include:

  • high job demand and workload
  • lack of support and training
  • lack of control
  • major change to the business – for example, structural change or loss of staff

Staff feel safe in the workplace when we manage these factors. This creates an environment where workers can do their best work.

You can use the following resources to help manage work-related stress:

  • Partners in Wellbeing provides wellbeing support for business owners and employees. Partners in Wellbeing also provides access to business advisory and financial counselling services. Call 1300 375 330.
  • WorkSafe Victoria has a suite of resources to support business owners prevent mental injury among workers. Start with WorkWell Toolkit.
  • WorkSafe Victoria offers the OHS Essentials program for small business. This includes free advice from an independent expert in your industry. They support business owners to put processes in places to manage stress from both physical and mental health hazards.

Resources for workers

If you feel comfortable, speak to your employer or manager about the issues that cause you stress in the workplace.

You can also access these resources:

  • Mindarma provides small businesses with free access to a digital workplace wellbeing tool designed to enhance mental health and grow business and personal resilience.
  • Partners in Wellbeing provides wellbeing support for employees. Call 1300 375 330.
  • Beyond Blue provides support and information on reducing stress.
  • This Way Up provides an online Coping with Stress course developed by the Clinical Research Unit of Anxiety and Depression (St. Vincent's Hospital, Sydney, and University of New South Wales Faculty of Medicine). This Way Up has an excellent list of Coping tools: a series of short, practical workbooks designed to provide extra support in times of uncertainty and stress.
  • Check whether your association or industry body membership includes access to a mental health expert.

How to look after yourself when you’re stressed

There are simple, evidence-based steps you can take that help you when you experience stress.

We know that investing time in ourselves helps us manage stress. When we manage stress, we feel better and stay mentally and physically healthier. These wellbeing activities are a necessary part of our schedules rather than a luxury.

You can try the self-care plan from This Way Up. You can also include some of these tips for the next week:

  • exercising regularly, even for short periods a few times a week
  • finding time to do positive things for yourself that you enjoy
  • spending time with friends or family, particularly the people you find most supportive
  • eating well
  • having a good sleep routine
  • taking breaks during the workday that also involve some time away from technology
  • trying short but regular deep breathing and/or brief mindfulness exercises
  • looking at a variety of health and wellbeing tools and apps put together by ReachOut.com to help meet your personal needs
  • making a list to prioritise your tasks for the day
  • scheduling certain tasks for times of the day when you focus best
  • setting some boundaries around your time at work and sharing the workload where you can
  • being kind to yourself – you are doing your best in a difficult situation (we are often more critical of ourselves than anyone else)

When should you talk to your doctor about stress?

t is common to experience stress. But over time, untreated stress is a risk factor for anxiety disorders or depression. It can even contribute to physical illness.

You should see your doctor, community health centre or mental health professional to manage your stress levels as a priority, if:

  • for the majority of the last two weeks, you found it hard to relax, you felt stressed or overwhelmed, and/or felt panicky or anxious.
  • you’ve tried strategies to reduce stress that have worked before but do not seem to help now.

Your doctor can provide treatment or refer you to other services for mental health assessment and support. They can also help you make a mental health treatment plan and access sessions with a psychologist.