Five stress symptoms to look out for that may be linked to hormones instead

Stress in the workplace is a common issue, with 79% of the workforce saying they frequently experience it and 13.7 million working days are lost to it each year in the UK, costing the economy £28.3 billion annually.

It can arise due to a variety of factors such as workload, deadlines, long working hours, poor working conditions, job insecurity and interpersonal conflicts, manifesting in many different physical symptoms. In order to tackle this, it’s important to understand that while it may seem logical to blame all these symptoms on stress, there are common symptoms experienced in the workplace which may be linked to hormones instead.

Stress is linked to hormones in several ways; when you experience stress, the body releases cortisol from the adrenal glands, increasing your heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar levels. This is very helpful in the short term, but prolonged stress can lead to chronically elevated cortisol levels which can manifest in a weakened immune system, decreased bone density, depression, and anxiety. It also dysregulates the body’s hypothalamic- pituitary- adrenal (HPA) axis, which negatively impacts sex hormone production, namely oestrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. When these hormones decline or become unbalanced, your body will let you know through various symptoms.

Let’s take a look at some common symptoms of stress and how these could be related to a hormone imbalance instead:

  1. Insomnia: this is a probably the number one symptom of stress which most of us have experienced, but if it occurs during the last week of the menstrual cycle, it could in fact be due to a hormone imbalance. During the luteal phase, progesterone levels are on the rise and in theory, should be balanced with oestrogen, however many women suffer from oestrogen dominance, meaning the two become out of sync. Progesterone is a calming, sedating hormone which is hugely beneficial to sleep, so if women don’t have this in balance with oestrogen, it can cause sleepless nights in the week leading up to their period.
  2. Mood swings: these can be a by-product of not getting adequate sleep or having too much on our plates, but hormones could also be to blame. Oestrogen dominance during the second half of the cycle can affect mood, as progesterone acts as a natural antidepressant so the lower levels of progesterone and higher levels of oestrogen can cause irritability, snapping, anxiety and mood swings. In men, a decline in testosterone levels could be the cause. Declining levels are typically seen in middle aged males, but even men in their thirties can suffer.
  3. Low energy levels: Before you think an employee is disengaged or being lazy, it may be worth noting that low levels of any of the sex hormones can result in fatigue, as can reduced thyroid hormones, thereby making it difficult for employees to give their best. This also negatively impacts the overall team morale.
  4. Weight gain: If not linked to increased snacking or food intake, this again could be due to a sex hormone imbalance or lowered thyroid levels, which can affect the metabolism. Unfortunately, weight gain in women is usually associated with higher levels of oestrogen, which comes with increased risks of certain cancers and other chronic diseases. Conversely, low levels of oestrogen, as seen during the menopause, can cause central obesity, which comes with its own risks, such as high blood sugar and heart disease.
  5. Lack of focus/brain fog: pumping out stress hormones means that the body puts brain power on the backburner, so this can be a very common symptom of stress. Declining levels of oestrogen or that all important balance between oestrogen and progesterone can also cause brain fog and a lack of focus, causing performance related issues. Many women in peri-menopause or menopause complain of brain fog, some even leaving their job because of it, so it’s a significant symptom which should be looked into.

Stress seems to be at the root of so many symptoms and it’s important to remember that it affects every function in our bodies, so ultimately, hormone imbalances can still be attributed to stress. Some lesser-known symptoms of stress can include skin conditions such as eczema or psoriasis, digestive issues such as diarrhoea or constipation and hair loss.

Excessive and prolonged stress in the workplace can have negative effects on employees’ mental and physical health, job satisfaction, productivity and overall wellbeing and can cause a snowball effect, with other employees becoming demotivated too. So, what can employers do to approach stress in the workplace?

  • Promote a healthy work-life balance. Encourage employees to prioritise their personal well-being and avoid overworking. That may look different for each employee e.g., flexible working or extra holiday
  • Create a supportive working environment. Encourage employees to seek support from their colleagues and management when they need it, fostering a supportive environment that promotes positive communication, collaboration and teamwork
  • Provide appropriate training and development to help employees develop skills they need to manage stress effectively. This could include time management skills or stress management techniques
  • Encourage physical activity. Exercise is the number one thing we can all do to improve our health, as engaging in physical activity is proven to help manage our stress and hormone levels. Providing access to a gym or group fitness classes is a great way to promote physical activity in the workplace
  • Recognise and reward employees for their hard work and contributions to the organisation. This can boost morale, providing a knock-on effect to other team members, and creating a more positive work environment
  • Provide healthy snacks in the office and encourage any team lunches/meals out to be healthy. Offices tend to be filled with sweet snacks which just feed hormone imbalances, encourage weight gain and add to us feeling unable to deal with stress
  • Provide a quiet room for employees to retreat to if they need time out, whether that be to meditate, sit undisturbed or to take a short nap

It’s important for employers to recognise the signs and symptoms of work-related stress or symptoms of hormone imbalances for both themselves or their employers, and take proactive steps to address it before it becomes a chronic issue. If high-stress levels are becoming overwhelming and disrupting your hormones, you may wish to speak with a knowledgeable and experienced hormone specialist who can prescribe personalised compounded medication to help you feel yourself again.