Signs that someone’s stressed at work – what can you do?

Mental health has been a big topic recently, thanks to World Mental Health Day and the accompanying column inches. It’s prompted a few people to ask me about managing someone who seems to be suffering stress at work, and a few brave souls have asked me about their own situations (brave not because they asked me – I was honoured to be taken into their confidence – brave because they spoke up, as many people don’t).

Before going further, what do I mean by ‘stress’? The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines stress as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them’. This is quite different to ‘positive pressure’ when we’re happily working at a pace, feeling motivated, getting a buzz from what we’re doing – and crucially, feeling in control of things.

How can you spot that one of your team is stressed at work? Some typical distress signals include:

  • Changes in behaviour – for example if someone who’s usually cheerful and outgoing seems to become withdrawn
  • Unhealthy behaviour – such as excessive eating or drinking
  • Tiredness – which may be due to disrupted sleep patterns
  • Lateness and/or absence for no obvious reason
  • Lack of resilience in the face of setbacks – for example, weeping when something minor goes wrong
  • Aggression and snapping at people
  • Inability to concentrate

For more on signs of stress, check out the HSE website.

What can you do if you’re concerned about a colleague?

  • Your first thought may be to talk to them, and if they’re someone you know well, that’s probably a good thing. Just be sure to listen more than you talk. If you’re unsure about starting a conversation, seek advice first.
  • Seek advice – start with your HR department. If you don’t know your employer’s policies and procedures about workplace stress, find out – fast.
  • Be aware that you may be part of the problem, for example if you’re their manager and have been piling on the work demands and not taking no for an answer. HSE outlines line managers’ responsibilities here.
  • Do your homework – there are heaps of resources, including Mind’s brilliant website, which has a ‘How to manage stress’ booklet you can download.
  • You can also watch and learn from Professor Sir Cary Cooper talking about stress at work, courtesy of NHS Choices.

You may also find this blog post useful – Help! My boss expects me to work late all the time.


Dawn is the author of ‘How to be Zoomly at work’, available on Amazon.

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