Stress in the Workplace: what does it look like and what can we do about it?

Occupational stress is one of the leading complaints that is strongly correlated with poor mental and physical health outcomes. What’s more is that stress can impact our cognitive ability which can affect our performance in day-to-day duties.

Most people experience occupational stress from time to time, especially since the average person spends most of their life in work and, stress is a natural human experience.

Most of the time people are simply told to relax. But, what about when that doesn’t work, what happens when we can’t seem to ‘switch off’?

Why relaxatation isn’t always the answer

As humans we all have a built-in negativity bias and it’s what’s kept us alive all these years.

We have an automatic system in the brain that kicks in-between focusing on tasks.

The areas responsible for this mechanism is the default mode network and it causes us to ruminate on the bad events and aspects of ourselves and others and to override the good.

This is why when we’re actively engaged and focused on tasks we seem to forget our troubles and as soon as we stop, to either have a break or practice wellbeing activities, all our issues come flooding back.

We have two choices. Keep working and keep busying ourselves to exhaustion. Or, work on our emotional issues that are impacting our behaviours.

Stress and the brain

Areas of the brain within the default mode network are the posterior cingulate cortex and the ventral medial prefrontal cortex. Both are responsible for ruminating thoughts to the familiar sound of…

“what’s wrong with me?”

“what do they think of me?”

It also promotes thinking about what’s wrong with others.

Ruminating thoughts from our default mode network are normal or ‘neurotypical’ functioning which means a they are standard brain mechanism amongst healthy adults.

Although ruminating thoughts when we’re feeling stressed is normal functioning, it can be hard to deal with from time to time.

So, trying to relax or “switch off” may be almost impossible. This may be especially true if you have unresolved emotional issues.

Emotional dysregulation and the brain

When a person has unresolved emotional issues such as feelings of shame from a past or current life event, it can be difficult to shake off those ruminating thoughts from the default mode network in the brain.

In the workplace it can manifest as:

  • brain fog
  • forgetfulness
  • being spaced out (dissociation)
  • performance issues
  • change in health status and mood

This is because this area of the brain that is consumed with rumination is also responsible for:

  • emotional formation
  • processing information
  • learning and memory

So, it’s no wonder stress and emotional dysregulation can cause hazy thoughts and poor performance.

Note. Shame is not to be confused with guilt. In a nutshell, shame is a feeling that you are inherently wrong, bad or defective and may not be related to a specific event. Guilt is the feeling you feel when you actually did something that you perceived to be morally wrong. Please see my post on guilt vs shame for more information about the difference.

A word on physical pain

Another area of the brain that activates when a person is experiencing emotional dyregulation is the pain system, the anterior cingulate cortex and the anterior insula.

So, for some people unresolved emotional issues can actually be a physical sensation in the body, which can manifest into chronic pain.

Not only does emotional dysregulation impact the productivity of a person in day-to-day tasks, but it could also increase the likelihood of sickness leave from work due to chronic pain and health conditions.

Emotional dysregulation and the workplace

It’s estimated that 8.5 million adults have suffered a form of childhood abuse in the UK, and 2.3 million adults have experienced domestic abuse in the last year alone, both major factors in emotional dysregulation, particularly unhealthy levels of shame (Domestic Abuse in England and Wales Overview, 2021; National Association for People Abused in Childhood, 2021).

And with mental health being one of the top reasons that people call in sick, the likelihood of emotional dysregulation such as shame effecting the workplace is high (The Mental Health Foundation, 2021).

What to do about it

For a productive and healthy workforce, it is in an employer’s best interests to ensure staff have professional psychological support to reduce the risk of misinformation and improve the sucess rate of intervention.

Psychologists and have found that when working with a person who carries shame, emotional intelligence training can help the person to regulate the overactive negativity bias (rumination).

Mind-body exercises included in emotional intelligence training can help a person increase interoception, proprioception and exteroception.

Interoception basically means to create a deeper connection with the body and its functions. Try to simply notice, not change, your breathing or any other internal sensations of the body.

Proprioception is the ability to sense the body in space. Try to notice your movements and focus on the journey rather than the destination

Exteroception is the ability to sense the external world.Try using your five senses to explore the room that you’re in.

Finally, compassionate-focused exercises are important to regulate the negativity bias, which is sometimes known as the ‘inner critic’.

A final word

Evidence-based psychological intervention for stress management is a highly complex and challenging task, one that should not be taken lightly or by an untrained professional. If in doubt, speak with a professional.

Always speak with your GP or healthcare provider about any changes in mood, intrusive thoughts or onset of pain. For more support on chronic pain, please see the British Pain Society

See Mind for more information on mental health


Boersma, K., Håkanson, A., Salomonsson, E., & Johansson, I. (2015). Compassion focused therapy to counteract shame, self-criticism and isolation. A replicated single case experimental study for individuals with social anxiety. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 45(2), 89-98.

Domestic Abuse in England and Wales Overview – Office for National Statistics. (2021). Retrieved 9 March 2021, from

Hallman, D. M., Holtermann, A., Björklund, M., Gupta, N., & Rasmussen, C. D. N. (2019). Sick leave due to musculoskeletal pain: determinants of distinct trajectories over 1 year. International archives of occupational and environmental health, 92(8), 1099-1108.

Kozlowska, K., Walker, P., McLean, L., & Carrive, P. (2015). Fear and the defense cascade: clinical implications and management. Harvard review of psychiatry.

National Association for People Abused in Childhood – Key Facts and Figures (2021). Retrieved 9th March 2021, from

Oginska-Bulik, N. (2005). Emotional intelligence in the workplace: Exploring its effects on occupational stress and health outcomes in human service workers. International journal of occupational medicine and environmental health, 18(2), 167-175.

Tammi R A Kral, Ted Imhoff-Smith, Douglas C Dean, III, Dan Grupe, Nagesh Adluru, Elena Patsenko, Jeanette A Mumford, Robin Goldman, Melissa A Rosenkranz, Richard J Davidson, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction-related changes in posterior cingulate resting brain connectivity, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Volume 14, Issue 7, July 2019, Pages 777–787,

The Mental Health Foundation – Mental Health Statistics: Mental Health at Work (2021).

Retreieved 9th March 2021, from

Walker, P. (2013). Complex PTSD: From surviving to thriving. Azure Coyote.

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7 months ago

[…] Parts responsible for this are the default mode network of the posterior cingulate cortex and the ventral medial prefrontal cortex. See my post on the brain and the workplace. What could be causing brain fog and what to do about it. […]

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