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Coping With Stress at Work

For most of us, stress is an inescapable part of life. It’s everywhere in our modern society: home, schools, workplace. To some degree, the phrase “workplace stress management” is practically a buzz word, and a growing number of companies are focusing on alleviating the problem. But what is workplace stress?

Workplace Stress defined

“Stress is the reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them.” (Managing stress at work: Discussion document, United Kingdom Health and Safety Commission, London, 1999)

There are times when stress can be positive at work, when in results in greater productivity. However, it can also be negative and cut into productivity. Note that the definition doesn’t just say that stress is a reaction to pressure, but specifically to excessive pressure. Workplace stress is when the situation is too demanding. Such pressure becomes incredibly harmful when it is intense, continued, or repeated.

Who Is Affected by Workplace Stress?

Practically everyone is affected by workplace stress at some point. As companies try to increase output and limit time requirements, the issue has hit all kinds of workers. Evidence indicates that work that was once considered low stress is now approaching high-stress ratings.

Teens and older adults in the office often have more trouble coping with workplace stress – women sometimes have additional difficulty with stress compared to men. It’s also true that people who have high levels of stress at home will be more affected by workplace stress.

Family Stress Increases Workplace Stress

When the balance between work and family is uneven, workplace stress goes up. Two-income families and single parent families are incredibly affected. Time-sensitive work can make greater demands than a person can handle. When work schedules change, it impacts everyone including the children. Sometimes things turn into cascades of stress. Harsh or punishing treatment at work can add to family stress, which then contributes back to workplace stress.

Health Impacts of Stress

There are physiological reactions that happen when humans are under stress. This response system is best known as the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. Under stress, a person’s heart beats faster, the pace of their breathing intensifies, the body releases adrenaline and noradrenaline into the blood. Our entire bodies get ready to take some action. The trouble is, we cannot easily fight workplace stress. We might want to land a punch on the nose of the boss that makes unreasonable demands, but we cannot. We might debate quitting on the spot, but we need the income, so we are not able to carry through on our “fight-or-flight” response.

The problem is, we can’t fight or flee from workplace stress. Certainly, there are times when we might fantasize about hitting the boss who keeps piling on unreasonable demands, but we try to keep our cool. We might think about quitting on the spot, but we usually need the income, so we can’t just leave right away either.

The body gets frustrated at this situation, and that causes issues like chronic fatigue, depression, anxiety, migraine, insomnia, hypertension, heart disease, substance abuse, and a host of other problems.

To address the issue, some employers have created workplace stress management programs, with varying levels of success. In many cases, though, a program of self-help for workplace stress, could be more efficient.

Self-Help for Workplace Stress

What could yu do to enhance your coping right away? The following practical steps can help you get started.

1. Analyze your job. Do you have a clear job description that says what is expected? Are you sufficiently trained and qualified for the work? Do you have the tools you need? Does the job use your strengths and talents?

2. Analyze your workplace. Is it clean and safe? Is it attractive and easy to navigate? Are things organized and easy to find? Is it quiet enough? Is there a peaceful and calm space to take a break? Are your work hours reasonable?

3. Analyze your feelings. Do you feel that your job is meaningful? Do you feel like you get enough feedback from others about what’s going well, and what needs help? Do you feel as though people see you as an individual rather than a resource? Do you believe that you have the right to say “no” when the workload becomes too heavy?

After giving some thought to considerations like these, you will be in a better position to make some choices and take some action to address the workplace stressors that confront you. You can, for example, request a clear job description if you don’t have one. You can ask to discuss job expectations. You can ask for missing tools that would reduce stress.

You can, for example, seek a clear job description if you don’t have one. You can ask to discuss job expectations. You can request missing tools that would reduce stress.

You can often clean or rearrange a workplace. You can make ergonomic changes for physical safety. With creative thinking, you can develop better workflow, or relocate needed tools.

If your job seems meaningless, use your imagination. Look around for new ways of doing the job, of cutting costs or increasing production. A challenge can make a big difference in coping with workplace stress.

Finally, learn to say “no” to unnecessary demands. Were you asked to “help” a habitual-long-lunch co-worker by adding part of her work to your own? Agree to do it once, but explain respectfully why the practice is unfair to both of you. Are you expected to remain at work until the last person leaves, even though you arrive an hour before anyone else? Respectfully ask if you can leave once you’ve completed your tasks.

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