Managing stress and uncertainty during a work crisis

When you’re stressed at work it can affect everything in your life from your sleep and health, to your finances and relationships. It can even challenge your sense of identity.

It doesn’t matter whether the cause of your stress is an upcoming restructure, rumours of redundancies or an unmanageable workload, it can take a toll.

To make matters worse, it can be hard to know who to turn to. You want to protect your family. Your friends can’t really help. And your colleagues are often in the same situation as you.

But keeping it to yourself isn’t the answer. So here’s some expert advice about what to do when work is getting you down.

Make a personal well-being plan

If you can see work troubles brewing on the horizon, it helps to put together a plan, says Patrice O’Brien, general manager for workplace, partnerships and engagement at beyondblue.

A personal well-being plan is a simple list you can put together yourself, or with friends, family or colleagues, which can help you navigate tumultuous times.

Here’s Ms O’Brien’s advice around what to include and what to do with it:

  • Identify what your triggers are. Maybe big changes or announcements in your workplace can throw you around a bit. Just knowing what your triggers are can be a great help.
  • Make a list of signs you’re not coping. Often work stress can make sleep difficult, and it can be harder to concentrate. Maybe you withdraw socially when you’re feeling stressed about work. Write them down.
  • Identify things that will help. It might be catching up with friends or family, doing some gardening or taking the dog for a walk.
  • Share your plan with your supports. This could your family, friends or someone you trust at work.

Focus on things you can control

Your plan will be a good reminder that looking after the simple stuff — like eating well, getting a good night’s sleep and exercise — really will help.

“At times of great upheaval, we are more tempted to escape the stress through drugs or alcohol. But those things only make things worse,” Ms O’Brien says.

Similarly, when you’re at work, it can help to focus on the things that you can control — like the work you’re doing and your productivity — rather than the things outside your control.

If there are rumours flying around about redundancies or a restructure, remember that sometimes they are exactly that: rumours.

“You can run a real risk of getting stuck in the gossip and innuendo, and that can sometimes take you down rabbit holes that make things worse than they actually are,” Ms O’Brien says.

Instead, focus on constructive ways you can support yourself, even if it’s something as simple as getting outside during the day for a break and some fresh air.

If change is afoot in work, it’s important that we accept it, says Linda Dalton, a psychologist who works with organisations and in private practice.

Ruminating about how things could have been different is not going to help.

“At the end of the day, for good mental health, we need to accept things as they are,” Ms Dalton says.

“The sooner we can accept that change is happening, and we can focus on what we’re going to do about it, the better our mental health will be.”

If you’re worried about losing your job…

  • If there’s uncertainty around your job, have a plan about what you’ll do. Think about what skills could help you, either in your workplace or another one.
  • Look for other opportunities while you still have work and an income. Think about taking leave and making a project of seeking work or upskilling.
  • Sticking it out may be the best option, but it can be tough. Make sure to maintain your health and your support networks.
  • When it comes to finances, the earlier you can start preparing for tough times, the better. – Source: Linda Dalton

Reach out for support

Ms O’Brien says people shouldn’t be shy when it comes to asking for help in tricky work situations.

She relates it to seeking support if you were training for a marathon, for example, where you might seek a personal trainer or an app to help with your running plan.

“If you know there’s something big happening at work, to me, it’s not that dissimilar.”

At first, that support could come from a friend, family or even a mentor who you really trust, Ms O’Brien says.

But, if you notice that you’re showing signs of struggling, it might be time to reach out to an expert, she adds — just as you might if you injured yourself training for a marathon.

Here’s some suggestions for where to turn:

  • Your GP is a good first stop, Ms O’Brien says. They might be able to set you up with free or subsidised counselling or psychology sessions through Medicare.
  • Just like you might shop around for a physio, you might need to shop around for a psychologist or counsellor that works for you. The Australian Psychological Society has an online tool to help people find the right psychologist.
  • If you’re worried about money, or struggling with debt, financial counsellingcould help, says Ms Dalton. The service is free and confidential.
  • Career counsellors can provide information and support around job pathways and retraining opportunities, she adds.

Telling people at work that you’re struggling can be either helpful or horrible, depending on your workplace, Ms O’Brien says. beyond blue has developed a tool to help you weigh up the pros and cons.

Maintain your life outside work

When people are going through tough times at work, they often withdraw from other parts of their life, Ms O’Brien says.

Whether it’s sports, socialising or painting, it’s important that you keep carving out time and space for the activities you find pleasurable when you’re going through a rough patch, she adds.

“Try to create some small day-by-day goals around the things you are going to engage in,” she says.

“If there’s something that you really love doing, that you can have more of a focus on, that can help give you that sense of meaning in life when things aren’t working well at work.”

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