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Stress at Work – Myths, Signs, Causes, Effects and Tips to Beat

by Carole Spiers(more info)

listed in stress, originally published in issue 256 - August 2019

“Life should be exciting and pleasurable.  How many times have you said that to yourself?  Perhaps as you have waited in a traffic jam or opened all those bills and invoices for last month’s purchases! 

However, for life to be enjoyable we all need to be able to manage the challenges that we face.  Unfortunately, there will be times when we feel we cannot cope and it is then that we may experience stress. But experiencing signs of stress does not mean you are a weak individual who cannot cope – it just means you are human like everyone else!

It is often mistakenly thought that stress is good for people, when in fact long-term stress is invariably harmful.  A certain amount of pressure can indeed motivate and can therefore be useful, but stress is never so.  People perform well when pressure is effectively managed.

That which causes us to be stressed is the way that we think about the situation rather than the situation itself. Problems occur when the pressure we are under seems to be overwhelming or out of control.  We may perceive ourselves as not possessing the necessary skills to manage the pressure, and so we feel unable to cope.

Many people experience stress at some point in their lives.  Stress is like a light switch; your mind turns it on automatically but you need to learn how to turn it off.

 

stress at work

Courtesy Pixabay

 

The Many Myths and Misconceptions About Stress

‘There’s no such thing as stress’

There is, but the word ‘stress’ itself is often applied incorrectly. Many people will use it when they have a temporary work overload, whereas in fact stress only occurs when a person perceives, over a prolonged period, that they have insufficient personal resources to cope with a given situation.

If stress is a light switch that our body turns on automatically under specific circumstances, we need to learn how to turn the switch off. This is an ability that needs to be taught - as only through teaching can we learn how to manage our body’s natural response to perceived danger.

‘Stress is good for you’

Wrong. It’s often mistakenly thought that stress is good for people, when long-term stress is invariably harmful. Ill-health due to work-related stress, or conditions ascribed to it, is also one of the most common types of work-related ill-health.

A probable explanation for the myth that people perform well under stress is that in fact they perform well under pressure that is ‘controlled’ (i.e. effectively managed).

Controlled pressure is useful when our body and mind are finely tuned in a way that enables them to achieve optimum results and performance. A feeling of nervousness before giving a presentation, for example, will often result in increased mental acuity and responsiveness which will stimulate the audience. By comparison, arriving late, inadequately prepared or with a laptop or projector that fails to operate properly, would inevitably be stressful.

‘Stress is a mental illness’

Wrong. Stress is the natural reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demands placed upon them. Stress itself is not an illness, but it can lead to mental and physical ill-health such as depression, back pain and heart disease.

‘Stressors affect everybody equally’

Wrong. An employer or manager should appreciate that not all members of their team will react in the same way to any given problem, and that which one person perceives as merely pressure, another may perceive as stress.

Managers and supervisors need to be aware of the symptoms of stress and have the skills and expertise to defuse or mitigate any issues before they become potentially serious or disruptive. Being able to talk over difficult situations can often help those employees who are under excessive pressure, and managers should ideally provide the first line of support in encouraging staff to take steps to combat the problem. This could be through in-house referral, e.g. to Human Resources or Occupational Health; or to an external counselling service, e.g. an Employee Assistance Programme or other outside agencies.

‘Suffering from stress is a sign of weakness’

Wrong. Anyone can suffer from stress. It all depends on the circumstances we are in at the time.

Many people think that if they admit to experiencing stress, it’s a sign of failure, weakness or ineptitude. An individual working in an organisation where there are imminent redundancies for example, may well seek to cover up any sign of stress in the belief that they may be viewed as unable to cope with their job and might therefore be regarded as expendable.

Many employees are also wary of any mention of stress being noted on their work record in case it might prejudice their chances of promotion, and so avoid discussing the problem with colleagues. This is why it’s so important that the workplace culture embraces the notion that to be stressed occasionally is a normal human condition, and that to admit to it - initially to yourself - is the first step in modifying the situation or meeting the challenge.

‘There’s nothing an employer can do if an employee denies suffering from work-related stress’

Wrong. Employers are under a duty to protect their employees' health and safety, regardless of whether an employee is willing to run the risk of harm. If an employer believes that an employee is at risk of stress, concerns should therefore be raised in a way that makes it easy for the employee to be honest - for example through an informal discussion with an independent third party, or away from a particularly tough manager. If the employee continues to deny that they are stressed, the employer should make a note of all conversations on the subject (including dates) and ensure the situation is monitored.

‘All you need to do to stop work-related stress is go for counselling’

Wrong. Counselling may help individuals who are suffering from work-related stress but it is unlikely to tackle the source of the problem. Research has found that support at work, particularly from managers for their staff, has a protective effect. Frontline prevention by the organisation is far better than third party cure.

Some of the most common signs of stress are:

  • Mood swings
  • Anxiety and/or depression
  • Skin problems
  • Tiredness
  • Muscle tension
  • Poor concentration/ memory
  • Waking unrefreshed
  • Changes in eating patterns
  • Low self-esteem
  • Digestive problems

It is very important to take positive action when faced with stress as, if experienced over a prolonged period of time, it can seriously damage mental and physical health.

The following proven coping strategies can really start to help reduce the effects of any stress in your life:

 

stress at work

Courtesy Unsplash

 

  • Be self-aware of your own warning signs;
  • Review what is really causing your stress; 
  • At times of stress, we often fall into the trap of either not eating sufficiently,  over-eating, or even smoking;
  • Always try to eat a balanced diet;
  • Do not feel guilty about including a period of relaxation every day;
  • Learn to say ‘no!’;
  • Consider attending a stress management training course.  You do not have to be stressed to attend one of these.  It is far better to know what to do prior to experiencing stress than waiting until it happens!

The secret to managing stress is learning how to control your personal environment and the pressures within it, by strengthening all your energy resources and utilising your time efficiently.

 

stress at work

Courtesy Unsplash

Workplace Stress: its Causes and Effects

The causes of stress in the workplace are many and varied, but the following (taken from Tolley’s Managing Stress in the Workplace, published by LexisNexis) will give you an idea of where some of the most important potential sources may lie. None of these are insurmountable, and one of the keys to effective stress management is to maintain an awareness of where these ‘stressors’ may occur - and be ready to address them before they become real problems.

  • Inadequate or poor communication is one of the most common organizational stressors.
  • Home and work-based stresses can both feed off and reinforce each other;
  • There needs to be a correct correlation between the work demands made on an individual, his or her ability, and  the amount of control over working practices that are available to them;
  • Both work overload and work ‘underload’ can lead to stress;
  • Shift work and night work can be inherently stressful and may lead to an increased risk of accidents;
  • Home workers may feel isolated and require structured support;
  • ‘Hot desking’ and short-term contracts bring their own particular pressures;
  • Role conflict, ambiguity and changing roles all contribute greatly to stress;
  • Management style needs to achieve a balance between consultation, support and control.
  • Managers often need more training in communication and people skills;
  • Dealing with redundancy brings its own particular specialist training requirements.
  • Careful attention needs to be paid to the planning of physical workspace in order to ensure that staff are  comfortable and motivated and thus more likely to perform to their maximum potential;
  • The introduction of new technology, if not approached in a planned and gradual manner, can add to stress levels;
  • Organizations can mistakenly encourage a culture of ‘presenteeism’, in which employees feel the need to be seen to be working at all times;
  • A correct work-life balance is essential to good health and efficient performance.

Workplace stress is not something that, if left alone, will go away of its own accord. It can only be tackled through a process of consultation, identification, intervention and management, and not through short-term initiatives or one-off ‘quick fixes’. As a result, stress awareness and related training are of benefit to all employees - enabling them to cope with stress at work and in their personal lives.

The Effects of Stress

Stress is an extremely complex phenomenon that can affect individuals in many different ways and to differing degrees, and can therefore severely affect the performance of an organisation to the detriment of its staff and hence its end product or service:

  • The most detrimental effects of stress include high levels of absenteeism, poor job performance, low morale, low commitment, increased incidence of accidents, difficult industrial relations, poor relationships with customers and possible litigation;
  • The link between absence and stress is so well proven that non-attendance statistics are often used as an indicator of stress ‘hot spots’ within the organisation;
  • The effect of stress on work performance is damaging to the extent that individuals suffering from high levels of it may eventually find that their powers of creativity and rational thought have been weakened;
  • Where an individual is unable to perform their job to the required standard, this will eventually produce its own stress response;
  • Many stress-related problems can be exacerbated as a direct consequence of management not having the required expertise to deal with them;
  • Employee morale is vitally important to the success of any organization. Low morale and lack of recognition by the employer will often lead to the loss of valuable trained personnel;
  • Where relationship boundaries within the workplace are not clearly defined, this can lead to misunderstandings that cause undue pressure;
  • Conflict can be endemic within the workplace and if not addressed, will damage both the organization and the individuals involved;
  • In its most extreme form, workplace stress can result in bullying, violence or even suicide, either within or outside the workplace.

 

Covers Managing Stress + Show Stress Whos Boss

 

Top Five Tips to Beat Workplace Stress

  1. Conduct a risk assessment. Not only is this a legal requirement – unless you can assess the scale of the problem and where the potential sources of stress are within your organization, you can’t begin to tackle it;
  2. Gain commitment from the organization. There’s still a lot of stigma associated with stress and employees won’t discuss it if they fear they’ll be labelled as unable to cope;
  3. Establish plans and follow them through. However serious you are about tackling stress, people won’t believe you until they start to see genuine, tangible results;
  4. Assess what’s working and what isn’t. Stress is a complex subject, and not everything you do to try to tackle it will work first time;
  5. Establish a healthy workplace culture – one where people can talk openly about stress and mental health issues, feeling safe in the knowledge that actions will be taken to address these.

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About Carole Spiers

Carole Spiers FISMA FPSA MIHPE is the CEO of a leading UK stress management and wellbeing consultancy. She is a BBC Guest-broadcaster and author of Show Stress Who’s Boss!

Carole is an international Motivational Speaker and is regularly called upon by the national press and media for comment. She is Chair of the International Stress Management Association [UK], founder of Stress Awareness Day, Fellow and Past President of the Professional Speaking Association, London. Carole may be contacted on Tel: 020 8954 1593;  info@carolespiersgroup.co.uk;   www.carolespiersgroup.co.uk

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