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Stress: the elephant in the office

People are capable of incredible feats of sporting excellence, outstanding bravery or creative brilliance. One in four people suffers from depression at some time in their life, 10% at any one time. All these states, at various levels, are triggered by the condition of stress.

Stress can be both good and bad. It can enhance performance and our lives, it can be the source of motivation to succeed, but it can also be the dark cloud that hinders morale, performance and relationships.

Stress activates the body’s fight-or-flight response; heart rate and blood pressure go up and hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol are released into the blood stream.

In the short term these can boost performance, focus, memory and creativity. More than a century ago, Harvard researchers, Robert Yerkes and John Dodson, calibrated the relationship between stress arousal and performance, finding that as stress goes up, so too do efficiency and performance. But, at a certain level of stress, its benefits disappear and performance declines.

The relationship between stress and performance is called the Yerkes-Dobson law.

Everyone reacts to stress in different ways; a certain level of stress may energise one person, but debilitate another. The trick is to identify your own stress-response pattern and find out how to manage stress to make it work for you.

There are some questions to ask and some observations to make to find out how you react when you are edging closer to the downward slope of the Yerkes-Dodson curve:

Monitor your attention levels. After a concentrated period of work or study, do you find yourself drifting off focus and searching for some displacement activity? Take note of your mood. Have you become less positive about a task or a project? Has your initial excitement turned to frustration? Assess your stamina. Are you running out steam or hitting a brick wall? Listen to your body. Is your heart racing, is your head throbbing, or are you sweating?

For a lucky few, stress is never a problem, for others, it can ruin their life, rendering them powerless, ineffective, feeling worthless and ultimately depressed, sometimes with suicidal thoughts.

If you have learned to recognize when your stress levels are too high, you can take steps to control it. Managing stress is a multi-million dollar industry. Sue Firth is a business psychologist and stress expert. We asked her for her tips to manage stress.

She says: “A source of stress is any situation, person or event that triggers the fight-or-flight response in the body. I would ask, can I adapt, can the situation be adapted and can I avoid it? For the best weapons against stress, remember; rest, recreation, relaxation, exercise and eat (little and often).”

Most companies today are trying to do more with fewer employees and the pervading atmosphere of corporate downsizing, constant communication and job insecurity, combine to create a fertile breeding grounding for the worst type of stress. Stress in the workplace is inevitable and not restricted to any particular type of profession.

Increases in stress take their toll on individuals and companies. Studies show around 60% of absenteeism is due to stress and many of them turn into short and long-term leave.

Last month, the British mental health charity, Mind, reported 19% of workers have taken stress-induced sick leave and 93% say they have lied to their boss about taking leave when they feel overwhelmed by stress. Mind says that the taboo around stress is such, that workers claim stomach upsets, housing problems or sick relatives, rather than admit to what is a perceived weakness.

The Mind survey was published on the 3rd November to coincide with Stress Awareness Day and reveals that actually most employees do not want to be secretive about their stress levels; 70% wanted to be able to discuss their stress openly and a third would like their employer to approach them directly if they are showing some telltale signs.

Most people do nothing to tackle the pressure they are under and opt to live with it. Half of respondents felt stressed at least once a week, 21%, every day and 63% said they would do nothing to deal with it.

Mind spokesperson, Julia Lamb, said: ” Persistent, unrelieved pressure can lead to stress, feelings of anger and frustration and physical and mental health problems.”

Lamb says work-induced stress can happen for a number of reasons, but mostly, “It is about unrealistic expectations being placed on people to perform more than they are capable of.”  She says the symptoms to look out for are:

  • Insomnia and difficulty sleeping
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle tension or aches and pains
  • Headaches
  • Stomach upsets
  • Heart palpitations
  • Inability to focus or concentrate
  • Irritability
  • Loss of sense of humour
  • Withdrawal from social contact

Mind’s tips for preventing and managing stress include better workload management, to ensure no one is expected to deliver more than they are capable of and training for managers to identify the risks, to recognize when staff are stressed and to support their workers.

It seems simple, but workers should make sure they take a proper lunch break and stick to their employment hours, so they can unwind properly. Flexible working hours and the ability to work from home also help, as does a pleasant working environment.

Lamb says: “Good communication between line managers and staff will enable managers to spot small differences in behaviour; from being more tense or irritable than usual, to becoming less enthusiastic or withdrawn.”

“In a good working relationship, colleagues can usually see physical signs of tension or distress in others. So if someone appears stressed on an ongoing basis, it’s important to find out if work is the problem, and if so, work together to alleviate stressful feelings.”

A 2010 study by Binnewies et al, suggests that fun and rest over the weekend are vital to restore employees’ mental and physical resources and said it was crucial that people should mentally detach from work and engage in non-job related tasks that allow for personal achievement.

Sport and hobbies are ideal and the key thing is to not mentally focus on work during time off and organizations should promote employees’ recovery, by not overburdening them.

Sue Firth and other experts agree that there are some fundamental and easy changes to consider if you want to tackle your stress.

Eat healthy. Many people feel at their most stressed when their blood-sugar levels are low. Never eating breakfast, or skipping lunch are two of the easiest traps to avoid and a ready source of healthy snacks (nuts/raisins) can help you operate smoothly.

Get enough sleep. A lack of decent sleep can lead to chronic aggravation and studies have shown a direct correlation between rest and the ability to fight pressure. A set schedule and early nights help balance your body.

Exercise: Exercise is important for everyone, whether it is a lunchtime walk, or competitive sport. Even a bit of stretching and a stroll around the office counts.

Get rid of addictions: Always good advice; limiting alcohol, caffeine and nicotine reduces stress and improves overall health.

Use relaxation techniques: Sue Firth is an advocate of relaxation methods and favours pilates or yoga. She also recommends laughter and fun. Others choose to listen to the radio, their favourite music or read a book. A trip to the cinema on Sunday evening is an excellent way to unwind and a gentle transition into the working week ahead.

Build a circle of friends for social support: It always helps to have people to talk to, but a social circle also gives you distraction from your own problems and supportive friendships are necessary for a productive, rounded life.

Manage your time well: Good time-management gives you better control over your schedule, however busy, and is a skill everyone should acquire. Better organization leads to less pressure and increased efficiency allows more time to relax properly.

Sue Firth says individuals should manage stress in a combination of ways and there are three stages of stress reduction. “The first is understanding how stress affects the brain and the ability to think. Most people presume it’s best to take action when faced with a problem and look for rapid solutions, but actually too much analysis only makes a taxed system worse. Instead, calming techniques become essential in order to dissipate adrenaline, giving the brain a better chance of problem solving. Do this first and then tackle it logically, vastly increasing your abilities and productivity.”

“Secondly, look at the ‘sources’ of stress or external issues you are facing and prioritise them. Ask if they are frequent events or people, because these will be the most important to tackle first due to their impact. You then need practical solutions that enable you to do what you can to reduce the difficulties you’re having. Seeking support, negotiating a better relationship or looking for ways to modify the way you are handling the situations are only a few of the techniques.”

The third stage is to examine how these situations make you feel and consider how you can change or affect your feelings or thoughts. Sue says: “These are known as the ‘causes’ of stress, the reasons why something is bothering you, rather than what is troubling you. Although it’s more difficult to change your attitude to something, it is possible if you try to re-adjust your mind. I do it all the time, so it has become second nature. It’s a question of perspective and trying to stay neutral, rather than judgemental and critical.”

Sue says that companies should monitor and manage stress, with regular professional development meetings, where the subjects of happiness, motivation and commitment to the role are discussed alongside their performance.

She says: “Regular anonymous questionnaires assess employee satisfaction and provide feedback about the levels of contentment within the company. Concerns are often picked up through sickness absence and the number of people leaving the company, so monitoring these and completing interviews with someone who is leaving can give useful feedback.”

“If a company is following the law in relation to stress, it is vital they have a policy available to everyone, which tells them the procedure to follow when they are feeling particularly unhappy. The icing on the cake would be the provision of stress management workshops, or an employee assistance programme, to help learn how to handle stress better, or pick up the phone to a trained counselor, should they be experiencing grief or a significantly stressful situation.”

Sue Firth’s final piece of advice is: Just breathe.

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