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Occupational Stress - Key Contributing Factors

by Jamie Patterson(more info)

listed in stress, originally published in issue 200 - November 2012

As a nation, we are permanently switched on. Social media ensures we are immediately kept up to date with the latest news. A plethora of television stations guarantee we never miss a thing. We are constantly receptive and reactive.  In the workplace, employees are facing a similar information overload. Smart phones, tablets and laptops make the work day significantly easier and more efficient. Yet, these handy gadgets rarely leave our sides and inevitably blur the line between work and personal life.  The work/life ratio has never been so tricky to balance, and the British workforce is feeling the effects. Being constantly available surely has a detrimental effect on the typical corporate employee, but what exactly is occupational stress?

Stress

Work related stress takes many forms. The sense of generally feeling overwhelmed is recognized as one of the first signs. In the workplace, a cognitive sign of stress includes concentration difficulties. The inability to complete a task by moving from one assignment to another is one indicator that someone may be feeling under excessive pressure. Other cognitive signs of stress include difficulties in retaining and recalling information , indecision, and changes in thinking style.

Stress can affect us emotionally too. We may have a ‘shorter fuse’, therefore increasing risk of being more irritable with colleagues.  Anxiety and agitation are also commonplace emotional symptoms of occupation-related stress.

When we feel anxious at work, our behaviour changes. We procrastinate and take longer to complete tasks. People can become withdrawn and suffer quietly.

Stress affects how we feel physically too, with possible symptoms including increased heart-rate, headaches, gastro-intestinal disturbances, muscle tension, unexplained aches and pains and sleep disturbances.  Some cases of lower back pain have been attributed to the muscle tension generated via the stress response. Ongoing stress has also be associated with problematic functioning in cardiac, metabolic and immune systems.

Recognizing these symptoms is the first step to treating occupational stress. Unfortunately before receiving treatment, many reach for coping mechanisms to assist with these unpleasant feelings.

As work stress reaches an optimum, sufferers frequently look for distractions. These diversions appear to help employees handle difficult situations, when ultimately, they have a detrimental effect on health.  Common quick fixes come in the form of food, caffeine, alcohol and even drugs.  Comfort food can bring relief, but only in the short term.  Statistics show that 75% of overeating derives from feeling stressed or under pressure, resulting in unwanted weight gain.  Alternatively, those finding themselves in stressful scenarios can lose their appetite and suffer from weight loss.

For many, the sound of a boiling kettle brings solace. But when suffering from occupational stress, caffeine can in fact be counteractive. Caffeine is a nervous system stimulant and in moderation is not harmful, however, when consumed throughout the day (e.g. via tea and coffee), it can dehydrate and increase anxiety.

At times of stress, other potentially addictive substances can seem like a good idea to aid troublesome situations. However, any perceived benefits from cigarettes and alcohol are temporary and ultimately do not resolve the fundamental reasons behind the occupational stress.

More than ever, the work/life equilibrium is difficult to balance. Business deals come thick and fast and there is always more work to do in the office. Business never stops, and it would seem, neither does the corporate workforce. Technological advancements have aided the typical businessperson’s day, but may be a critical trigger for anxiety. As much as smart phones make life easier, employees feel pressured to react to out of office phone calls and check emails late into the evening. These gadgets have created great business opportunities but can become a worry if used to excess.

In a recent survey, 1000 employees in the City of London were quizzed over their smart phone usage. Unsurprisingly, almost 80% admitted to checking their emails while on holiday, with 39% feeling more stressed as a result of doing so. Meanwhile, less than a quarter of those surveyed admitted having absolutely no contact with the office. This segment is firmly in the minority. Interestingly, 44% of the survey respondents felt that being contactable 24/7 gave them job security, indicating that this occupational stress may be related to fear.

Occupational stress has a significant impact upon the British workforce culturally and commercially, with a sizeable cost to the nation’s economy. The Chartered Institute for Personnel Development (CIPD) recognizes that stress is the number one reason for long-term absence in the UK, accounting for a third of ill-health cases. Statistics from the Health and Safety Executive show that more than 10.5 million days are lost to stress each year in the UK, costing employers an incredible £1.24 billion.

Absenteeism isn’t the only problem caused by excess stress. ‘Presenteeism’ is a term that could be applied to those who keep working, despite feeling under pressure. These workers should be encouraged to take a break, or seek assistance from their colleagues who could help with their workload.

The Work Foundation study Why do employees come into work when ill? revealed some interesting statistics on presenteeism. The report indicated that the cost of presenteeism could match the time lost in yearly sickness absence. Even though an employee is physically present at work, they may be unable to fully perform their duties and are more likely to make errors. Presenteeism is tricky to monitor as it isn’t recorded by absence management systems.  

There can be situations where pressure can be described as healthy. Working to a deadline is one of those scenarios where some pressure can be a positive, motivational force, but when it is in excess, it can morph into stress. Unfortunately, there is no way to measure how much pressure will cause how much stress.  The ripple effects of chronic stress can be felt by the entire workforce. The brand can suffer as a result. Low morale, productivity issues, higher staff turnover and increased complaints from staff and clients can occur as a result. However, it should be noted that stress is a complex problem with other factors contributing to these feelings of pressure. Non-occupational worries such as relationship concerns, finance troubles and health problems can add to stress.

There is also a strong legal case for ensuring employees are protected from stress as much as possible. The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulation 1994 states that employers must assess the risk of stress-related ill health generated from work activities. Additionally, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 dictates employers must take measures to control that risk.

Combating stress lies in recognition. There is a definite stigma attached to admitting stress but this can be erased with an open corporate culture. Mental illness impacts heavily on how a person thinks; if they feel they cannot open up in the workplace, stress will continue to blight the corporate culture. Fears of rejection and embarrassment become magnified for stress sufferers. Company leaders have a pivotal role in ensuring their employees are content and productive. Occupational stressors are easily identifiable, therefore early intervention is required to ensure problems do not become worse for the employee who is suffering, and indeed, the employer. This is where an occupational health provider’s services and guidance can be a huge asset in the prevention of stress in the workplace. Stress cannot be ignored, but those suffering must remember that it can be treated.

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About Jamie Patterson

Jamie Patterson, Abermed’s resident Psychotherapist, has more than 13 years of experience of working in mental health and wellbeing service settings. He graduated from the University of Aberdeen in 1997 and began his career supporting people in community residential settings. He then worked to rehabilitate individuals back into employment after a period of ill-health. Jamie helped to set-up an acclaimed mental health project for socially disadvantaged young people at Aberdeen Foyer, recognized by the Mental Health Foundation as an example of good practice. Jamie returned to education in 2005 and achieved accreditation as a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist from the University of Dundee. He may be contacted via www.abermed.com

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