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Sitting is the new smoking – symptoms of stress in a work environment

Lego man under stress sitting at his work desk

Sitting is the new smoking, or that’s what we have been told. But what does that even mean?  And what does it have to do with the workplace?

Stress is your body’s natural reaction to the demands in life.  We all have, to some degree, an awareness of emotional stress. However, most of us don’t fully understand the other two types of stress:  physical stress and chemical stress. All three impact us in different ways and so it’s important to identify them and then learn ways to combat them to improve our health.

Emotional Stress

Emotional stress comes about when we perceive a situation in a negative light. The degree of your reaction, in turn, influences the level of stress you feel. For example, tight deadlines may make one person slightly nervous because they see it merely as a guideline.  Others may panic at the thought of a deadline, because they worry about all of the other deadlines they need to meet or think they can’t get it all done.  This is where our negative perceptions become stressors.  So, when life throws us curveballs, it is clear that determining how we react can make all the difference.

Negative-thinking habits cause us to be unhappy and feel stressed. Perhaps even more problematic is the fact that negative thought patterns can start to become hard-wired in your brain. This means that when a similar situation arises, you automatically have a negative reaction before you even fully think about it. Emotionally negative reactions cause your heartbeat to rise and your breath to get shallower, creating symptoms of ‘panic’ even when you are not panicking. Your body doesn’t recognise the difference between emotional stress and actual danger.

The solution to this may sound cliché, but… just breathe. When you find yourself beginning to ‘panic’, stop what you are doing, sit upright, take a regular breath in through your nose, and concentrate on breathing out through your mouth much slower than you took your breath in. Breathe in for a count of 3, and then breathe out for a count of 5. Repeat for a couple minutes. Science has proven that when you breathe this way, your body instantly slows you heart rate and lowers your blood pressure.

This is a simple exercise you can do right at your desk. Do it a couple of times during the day and you will absolutely notice a difference.

Physical Stress

Physical stress can be caused by a number of factors. High on that list is bad posture, badly designed workstations and desks, and poor movement techniques when doing physical tasks (like repetitive motions). Some of these can be fixed pretty easily, while others need a concentrated effort.

When we sit at a desk all day we tend to round our shoulders. Think of how a boxer stands – fists raises and shoulders rounded. It is no wonder that, in that hunched position, our body naturally triggers our flight-or-fight response. The problem is that we are only built to cope with the flood of adrenaline from flight-or-fight for, at most, 8 minutes.  Take a moment and really think about how long you spend sitting at a desk each day and what that must put your system through

One of the first things we suggest to combat this issue is setting up your desk as ergonomically as your office allows:

  • Keyboard and mouse placement: Position your keyboard and mouse in a way that keeps your elbows to your sides, and your arms at or below a 90-degree angle.
  • Screen distance: Your screen should be arms distance away. So if you sit back in your chair and extend your arms forward, the tips of your middle finger should touch your screen.
  • Screen height: To adjust screen height, try this trick. Close your eyes. When you open them, your eyes should land on the address bar. Adjust your screen accordingly
  • Your chair: There are many chairs to choose from, but some important things to look for. When you sit down, there should be a little space – about the size of your fist – between the edge of the chair and the back of your knees. Find a chair that offers good lumbar support. When you sit, your feet should be on the floor (not dangling) in front of you, and your thighs should be slightly below your hips.

Most importantly, MOVE! Lack of movement, due to sitting all day, results in elevated risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and other conditions. Get up and walk down the corridor to ask your colleague a question instead of emailing them. Take the stairs instead of using the elevator to do down one floor. It is not enough to exercise before and after work, you need to move during the day however you can.

Chemical Stress

Do you smoke, have poor nutrition, or drink 8 cups of coffee a day? Every time you get a headache, do you instantly take a pain killer? All of these things contribute to chemical stress in our bodies.

A prime example of this is stress eating.  When we get stressed, many of us ‘stress eat’.  Unfortunately, half a super-sized meal later, your body ends up not only stressed by the situation, but also by the sugars and fats you just ingested. This combination creates a build-up of chemical, physical, and emotional stress that has physical and potentially long-lasting effects on our body.

Try to drink more water and less caffeinated beverages. Choose vegetables and fruit over fries and chocolate. If you have to buy lunch, choose the healthier of the options you have – protein-filled salads over hamburgers. We aren’t saying you can’t eat the things you enjoy, but making better decisions every day will help decrease your chemical stress.

As to pharmaceuticals – we want to ask you this: Does the lack of a pain killer cause the headache?  I think we can agree that the answer to this is a resounding ‘No’!  So then the question really is this: Does the pain killer cure the headache or does it just treat the symptoms? When we actually take the time and effort, and learn to understand what triggers the pain we suffer from, we can be much more mindful of preventing it.

Consider the following

  • The Health and Safety Executive says around 9.9 million working days are lost each year to stress, depression or anxiety.
  • Occupations with some of the highest rates of work-related stress are education, health and social care, public administration and defence.
  • The NHSsays psychological problems, including stress, anxiety and depression, are behind one in five visits to a GP.
  • Stress can play a part in problems such as headaches, high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, skin conditions, asthma and arthritis.

Our bodies are designed to experience stress and react to it. Stress can be positive. It keeps us alert and ready to avoid danger. When stress becomes negative because we are facing continuous challenges without any relief or relaxation, we become overworked and stress starts to build.  As an exercise you can try the following Stress Quiz to see what areas are holding you back and where you can start to make changes.

Commit yourself to learning the skills and activities that can change your emotional and physical response to stress.  If you do, you will be better prepared when life becomes difficult and more stressful.

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