According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), in 2015/16, around 40% of all work related illness was attributed to work related stress.
In spite of these figures, there remains a stigma attached to talking about stress at work. In a culture where we keep our heads down and carry on, often times our colleagues and family don’t know the extent to which we are struggling. This can make us feel lonely, isolated, unsupported and invalidated.
What is stress?
The HSE define work related stress as “The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure of work or other types of demands placed on them”. It is important to note that a certain amount of pressure can be beneficial and facilitate motivation. However, a tipping point can happen when we become overloaded. Productivity, performance and more seriously, our health and wellbeing becomes negatively affected.
The psychological impact of stress commonly leads to anxiety and depression. This in turn can increase the risk of physical conditions such as headaches, backache, skin conditions, gastrointestinal problems and heart disease.
What are the symptoms?
Work related stress can manifest in a combination of ways. These are some of the most common symptoms:
- Irritability or outbursts of anger
- Insomnia and fatigue
- Low mood
- Low productivity accompanied by sense of low achievement
- Consuming too much caffeine or alcohol
- Smoking too much
- Being critical or defensive
- Becoming accident prone
Physical symptoms include:
- Headaches and backaches
- Weight gain or loss
- Shortness of breath
- Regular absence and increased frequency of sickness
What are the causes of work related stress?
There are a variety of work related stressors. The HSE identified six primary causes to be:
- Unmanageable workloads, unrealistic deadlines and expectations, over-demanding and inflexible work schedules
- Poor work relationships can include: Bullying and harassment; others not pulling their weight; others taking credit for personal achievement
- Lack of support from colleagues and managers
- Lack of control, involvement and influence in decision making and how work is carried out
- Not knowing how our work aligns with the objectives of the organisation and lack of information about what is going on in an organisation
- Change, uncertainty and insecurity
These causes can be categorised as issues relating to:
- Work-life balance (use of time)
- Relationships and communication
- Control (and perceived lack thereof)
- Job security and uncertainty (including financial insecurity)
What can I do to manage work related stress?
We tend to adopt coping mechanisms that normalise work related stress, and usually put it down to just being busy. It can be easy to tell ourselves we should be able to cope. Everyone else does. After all we have to. Right?
It’s very easy to slip in to denial. We want to avoid pain. Behavioural studies have shown that humans will prioritise avoiding pain over seeking pleasure. Much of the time, doing nothing feels like the safest option. It takes courage to deal with our problems and be committed to do what it takes. The things we find hardest to face, are invariably the most important.
When you recognise you are suffering, and can take ownership over how you feel, without blame, this authenticity forms part of the resiliency necessary to manage work related stress. As long as we continue to blame, we remain a victim and that insidiously keeps us feeling powerless. We could ask ourselves ‘What I am complicit in creating what I don’t want to happen?’
I sometimes suggest to my clients, take time to reflect, write down your thoughts and feelings. You may find it helpful to keep a journal. Perhaps note how you slept, what you ate, who you interacted with, what that was like, how it make you feel etc. It’s a good way of tracking how stress is affecting you and can help you make more sense of your experience and circumstances.
Eckhart Tolle tells us that in any given situation we can only do one of three things: Consciously accept the situation as it is, change it or remove yourself from it. When we know what the causes of stress are and how it’s affecting us, we can look at which one these three outcomes is most favourable.
Practical steps to reduce work related stress
The demands on our energy and time can be overwhelming and unsustainable. This is a recurring theme for many of my clients, and one that they find most difficult to manage. Here are just a few steps you may find helpful if your work-life is inequitable:
- Setting boundaries such as learning to say no and leaving work on time can help one feel more empowered, and perhaps more confident to change a situation
- Prioritising rest and sleep. Mindfulness meditation (or other types of meditation), exercise such as walking, swimming and yoga have all been associated with alleviating stress
- Taking a few minutes a day for journaling and reflection
- Establish healthy habits. Eating well and ensuring you get plenty of nutrition is essential.
Dealing with poor relationships is incredibly challenging and draining of our energy. Especially if you have a tendency toward introversion, and sensitive to the energies of other people. Empathy is important for human connection, but it is also a double-edged sword. Emotions are contagious and we are at times vulnerable to emotional provocation. Psychotherapist and author, Babette Rothschild in her book Help for the Helper (2006), uses the term ‘unconscious empathy’ to describe this mechanism of emotional infection. Since it happens unknowingly, we have little control over how others make us feel.
The HSE found that bullying and harassment was one of the primary causes of work related stress. In this situation, of being unfairly reprimanded or provoked at work, try to notice your posture, how it feels in your body, notice your breathing. Be aware of the other person’s body language. Notice if you are mirroring each other. If you can be present and aware of how you are holding yourself, you can take practical steps such as:
- Take some deep slow breaths
- Relax your hands and face muscles
- Straighten your back
- Learn to be more assertive – by this I mean, with authenticity and using your awareness to not be complicit. Assertiveness is not authority. It does not mean exerting dominance over someone.
For the perpetrators of bullying and harassment, they are also unconscious and quite possibly insensitive to how you are feeling. We cannot change other people. We can only make steps towards changing ourselves. In the case of poor work relationships and communication, I help my clients to be the one to build a positive relationship with their manager and colleagues, not the other way around.
Lack of control and influence on the way our work is organised, and uncertainty surrounding our job, demands that we learn to become less uncomfortable with change. Change is inevitable. Change still affects us whether or not we do anything. On a piece of paper, draw a line down the middle. Take time to think and write down one side, all the things you can control. Down the other side write all the things you can’t control. This can take you back to Tolle’s 3 options, and to consider whether you can accept and let go of things that are not in your control.
This is just a brief description of some of the steps you can take to manage and reduce work related stress. Much of what I have emphasised here refers to what I call ‘inner work’. As Stephen Covey teaches us in his bestselling book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, that change to any life situation, it must first happen from the inside out.
Seeing a counsellor can be a powerful option for those who want a regular intervention in their experience, a safe space for you to explore options, to express your discomfort. Many of my clients suggest our sessions can help alleviate some of the sense of struggle when others don’t know or understand what you’re going through.