Workplace stress and what can help
Workplace stress is something that is more talked about these days. Whether work life is more stressful now than in the past is difficult to quantify, but certainly many people do feel stressed. So what is stress (whether in the workplace or anywhere)? A simple definition is not having the resources to cope with demand, i.e. too much to do and not enough time/staff/information etc. to do the task. Workplace stress can happen in any job.
When this happens we can feel threatened, that we may be seen as not doing a good job, that we can’t cope. This is where our fight/flight/freeze response kicks in. Quite commonly we notice our heart rate increases, breathing gets a bit quicker, hot, sweaty, shaky, uneasy feeling in the stomach and muscle tension. This is our natural reaction when we feel threatened and by noticing the physical responses seems to make the situation worse as this feels physically uncomfortable. Often added to this are various cognitive distortions, “I’m not good enough”, “colleagues will think I’m useless”, “why can’t I cope, everyone else does”, “I’ll be sacked”, which causes us to feel more stressed.
For some people catastrophising can play a part such as, “I’m going to lose my job, how will I tell family/friends, we’ll lose the house, my relationship will end”, all very gloomy but not uncommon. Quite often we live to our means, so as people progress up the promotion ladder they earn more money and their lifestyle changes accordingly and this all seems great. However, with the rise up the ladder this usually means taking on more responsibility and more requirement to perform relative to the job role. But also for those doing part time jobs to fit in around family life, those jobs may be vital to add to family finances, there is pressure to stay in work.
Now we all think we can cope, after all, why go for the promotion/job change in the first place and we ‘accept’ that there may be more pressure/responsibility. At first this seems OK and we tend to do what’s needed (“it’ll be ok when I get used to this job”) but sometimes we don’t, what happens then?
Well, we just ask to be reassigned to a ‘lesser’ role or leave and go for an easier job with less pay don’t we? Unlikely, we usually stay at the job and find some way of coping, but how do we do that? Working longer hours, taking work home, the digital age is great for keeping in touch, but also this means that people find it hard to use time boundaries, “oh I’ll just do a bit when I get home”, or “I can get some done at the weekend”. Great for getting work done, but what about the impact on home/social life? Also with hands free phones in cars, how many people ‘work’ whilst driving, how did we manage in the past without mobiles? Granted, you could hold a conversation while driving your horse and cart but only with someone close!
Working longer hours, people find it hard to mentally switch off, often thinking about work and this can lead to sleep disturbances and reduced energy. This in turn can lead to reduced work performance, losing confidence in making decisions, reduced motivation. It’s not uncommon to use alcohol as a way of ‘coping’ or ‘de-stressing’ after a hard day at work. That’s fine occasionally, but what if the job remains as stressful day after day… that glass or two then gets consumed each day and it doesn’t take long for that to become a habit, which then becomes part of the stress itself.
How else might workplace stress be spotted? The most obvious signs are a change in someone’s behaviour, such as being more unwell than usual maybe with headaches or physical issues – stomach problems, complaining more, being more quiet than usual, presenteeism (being at work but getting little done), not taking care about work, not taking care about self, becoming snappy/irritable, attendance changes. These are common signs that someone isn’t coping so well.
So what can be done? Firstly, if you do notice something changing in a colleague, take the time to ask them how they are. Maybe find a quiet time or away from others, how likely will someone want to reply honestly in a busy workplace? Rather than the usual “you OK?” that we commonly say, take more time with something like, “I notice you’re not your usual self at the moment, how are things with you?”, this shows more feeling and concern and open questions are more likely to get a better answer, which in turn may lead to the sort of conversation the person really wants.
For all of us, there is most likely to be some workplace stress, and it’s for each of us to decide how much is acceptable. There are the added complications of stress outside of work impacting on work to take into account too. Excess stress over time is known for causing dangerous health problems, high blood pressure and heart problems as well as seemingly unexplained aches and pains, plus the likelihood of developing anxiety, depression, all adding to the stress.
It’s important to not let stress build up. Recognise and acknowledge any changes that stress is causing as early as possible and decide what to do about them. Hopefully workplaces are more tolerant of stress and are open to making reasonable changes in some way, such as flexible working, organisational or operational changes. Even things like sunlight making computer screens unreadable can cause stress, so fitting blinds helps. Do you need to be working extra hours, can you be strict about time boundaries, can you do something in the day to de-stress (exercise at lunchtime or on the way home for instance)? Mindful employers should have policies where staff can talk to line managers /HR and regular supervision to highlight any concerns.
Ultimately, it is down to individuals to decide that if the job can’t change, then maybe a change of job is needed. As hard as that may be, how much of the impact of stress is worth putting up with? It isn’t a failure to change jobs (and maybe ‘downsizing’ lifestyle), it’s more about taking control and being content with life. Quite often we hear of people that have had enough of the ‘rat race’ and made changes for a simpler life and have felt so much better for it. Sometimes it is about having the courage to recognise that a particular job just isn’t working, the impact of the work stress isn’t worth the one remaining aspect about the job that’s keeping you there.
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