Stress in Irish workplaces: learning how to cope helps

Wellness programmes and life skills classes are some of the coping measures

ESRI study found job stress doubled from 8% in 2010 to 17% in 2015. Photograph: iStock

Almost every month, new studies reveal how Irish workers are suffering from high levels of stress, anxiety and depression. In May, researchers at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland found that medical students who have a high level of burnout have a significantly higher risk of depression. Worryingly, that study found that those at greater risk are less likely to seek help.

Another recent study found that half of employees in corporate Ireland are dissatisfied with their sleep and seven out of 10 say they feel tired and fatigued at work several times a month.

And a recent Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) study found that job stress in Ireland doubled from 8 per cent in 2010 to 17 per cent in 2015. Employees who experience high levels of emotional demands (such as dealing with angry clients), time pressure (tight deadlines) and bullying, harassment and violence were the ones who experienced the highest levels of job stress. Those working more than 40 hours a week were twice as likely to experience job stress as those working 36-40 hours.

A nutritionally balance diet and physical exercise can also improve mental health

“Job stress is becoming an important issue in the Irish workplace as the economy becomes increasingly service-based. Employers need to manage these risks to prevent the significant individual and organisational costs of stress-related illness,” says Dr Helen Russell, an author of the ESRI report.


Many experts suggest that workplace wellness programmes need to be further developed to help employees cope better with stress at work. Focusing on how a nutritionally balance diet and physical exercise can also improve mental health is one way of going about it.

Business coach Shane Cradock suggests that chief executives need to experience the benefits of workplace initiatives themselves for such wellness programmes to have real meaning. “It’s not enough to be seen to be doing the right thing, it’s only when business leaders experience the performance benefits themselves that they understand people work better if they are happier, more engaged and have meaningful work,” says Cradock.

First step

Getting people to talk about difficulties they have either with workload, deadlines or colleagues is often a first step. For example, some construction workers are now offered the opportunity to talk about stresses at work by using the code words, “safe-tea and biscuits”. One company, Keating Construction, holds “Safe-Tea and Biscuit” days on every building site once a month.

Dublin restaurateur Elaine Murphy is very aware of the stressful working environment in the hospitality industry where chefs can often work from 7am-11pm and front-of-house staff from 9am/10am-2am. “Double shifts like this are common. People do it to get an extra day off,” explains Murphy who runs five restaurants/gastro pubs in Dublin.

According to Murphy, the hospitality industry requires high levels of energy both in the kitchen and on the restaurant floor. “When staff finish late, it’s hard to get to sleep, so many of them wind down by drinking or clubbing. If you socialise until 6am, you’ll sleep through the daylight hours and only get up in time for a night shift at 4pm and this can easily spiral into an unhealthy lifestyle,” she says.

Stress, depression, anxiety, economic stress (linked to expensive and insecure rental accommodation) and addictions are all problems she has encountered with her staff, many of whom are working in the hospitality industry to support their creative pursuits as actors, writers, film-makers, photographers and artists. “If someone is drinking on site, it’s a red-flag issue and I’ve sat down with people [to help them] to access services. Also, a lot of non-nationals work in this industry and there are financial and language barriers accessing services,” she says.

Murphy arranges non-alcohol based activities for staff which include yoga sessions in the Woollen Mills, one of her restaurants, and five-a-side football, which she says is difficult to get people to commit to.

Like many employers, Murphy also pays a health insurance company to have an employee assist programme available to her staff. “It offers my staff free financial, citizenship and life coaching. And, most importantly, a 24-hour helpline which refers people for eight free counselling sessions,” she says.

Although she has said in the past that she doesn’t have a work/life balance herself, Murphy takes herself off to a Greek island for the month of September every year.

Life skills

The depression support group Aware runs life skills programmes for people who need help dealing with stress, anxiety and depression. Paying €5 a session, participants can attend six 90-minute group classes during which they come to understand their personal stress triggers and how to respond to them better.

Mark, a 45-year old construction worker, attended the life skills course in March/April. “I suffer from depression and things get on top of me very quickly. When something happens at work, I often blame myself for it even if it’s not my fault,” he explains.

After attending the six sessions of the course, Mark felt he had learned valuable tips to help manage his stress. “It made me look at things differently and to take a step back from situations. This stops the initial bad feeling from getting a grip. Even at home, I find that I would have been very snappy when things got to me but now, I’ll walk out of a situation, make a cup of tea and then go back and sort it out without raising my voice.”

Rebecca, who works in IT and suffers from anxiety, says that at the life skills course she learned to focus on the good stuff rather than the bad. “I learned ways to reduce the possibility of feeling anxious in a situation. I give myself time for breakfast and turn off my work emails at night. [In work] we’ve explained how people can solve basic IT problems themselves to reduce our workload. And, the IT team has set up a Whatsapp group to share solutions so it doesn’t fall on one person.”

Bonita Dennison is a facilitator on the Aware Life Skills programme. She says the biggest thing people learn on the course is that while they can’t control what is happening to them, they can control how they think, feel, react physically and behave.

“More and more young people are experiencing higher expectations in their jobs and people are carrying the history of the recession so they feel they have to hold on to their jobs,” says Dennison. She believes that while people lead busy lives, they are often isolated whether at work, in the gym or on their commutes. “There are much fewer random conversations. Everyone has their heads in their devices and often, people would rather email a colleague than speak to that person. So, we are missing out on the human connections that soothe us,” she says.

The Aware courses are psycho-educational groups as opposed to therapy groups. “We address unhelpful thinking styles that we can all slip into and we learn how to control our thoughts rather than them controlling us. Over the six weeks, I see a physical shift in people’s posture, they straighten up their bodies and look at the world again.”