Stress in the Workplace – Manage it and know the facts!


people most at risk from stress

In one US study as many as 40% of workers described their jobs as very stressful. While not a scientific gauge and not measuring serious stress health problems, this gives some indication as to how prevalent work-related stress is. As regards official health records, in the UK, the nursing and teaching occupations are most affected by work-related stress, with 2% of workers at any one time suffering from work-related stress, depression and anxiety. (The figure for teachers rises to 4% when including physical conditions relating to stress.) Care workers, managers and professionals are the next highest affected occupations, with over 1% suffering from serious work-related stress at any one time. UK HSE work-related stress statistics suggest that work-related stress affects men and women in equal numbers, and that people in the 45-retirement age suffer more than younger people. More socially-based USA research suggests that the following American social groups are more prone to stress (this therefore not limited to work-related stress): young adults, women, working mothers, less educated people, divorced or widowed people, the unemployed, isolated people, people without health insurance, city dwellers. Combined with the factors affecting stress susceptibility (detailed below), it’s not difficult to see that virtually no-one is immune from stress. An American poll found that 89% of respondents had experienced serious stress at some point in their lives. The threat from stress is perceived so strongly in Japan that the Japanese even have a word for sudden death due to overwork, ‘karoushi’.

work-related stress trends

Data is sparse and confused (stress statistics are also complicated by metal health reporting in the UK), but the statistics do indicate certain growth. In the UK HSE statistics indicate a doubling of reported clinical cases between 1990 and 1999. Working days lost per annum appear to have been about 6.5 million in the mid-1990’s, but rose to over 13 million by 2001. Greater awareness of the stress ailment in reporting no doubt accounts for some of this variance, but one thing’s for sure: the number of people suffering from work-related stress isn’t reducing.

costs of stress

UK HSE statistics suggest stress-related costs to UK employers in the region of £700m every year. The cost of stress to society is estimated at £7bn pa. (These figures were respectively £350m and £3.7bn in 1995/6 when total days lost were half present levels.)

stress causes

Stress is caused by various factors – not all of which are work-related of course, (which incidentally doesn’t reduce the employer’s obligation to protect against the causes of stress at work). Causes of stress – known as stressors – are in two categories: external stressors and internal stressors.

external stressors – physical conditions such as heat or cold, stressful psychological environments such as working conditions and abusive relationships, eg., bullying.

internal stressors – physical ailments such as infection or inflammation, or psychological problems such as worrying about something.

From the above, it is easy to see that work can be a source of both external and internal stressors.

Stressors are also described as either short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic):

  • Short-term ‘acute’ stress is the reaction to immediate threat, also known as the fight or flight response. This is when the primitive part of the brain and certain chemicals within the brain cause a reaction to potentially harmful stressors or warnings (just as if preparing the body to run away or defend itself), such as noise, over-crowding, danger, bullying or harassment, or even an imagined or recalled threatening experience. When the threat subsides the body returns to normal, which is called the ‘relaxation response’. (NB The relaxation response among people varies; ie., people recover from acute stress at different rates.)
  • Long-term ‘chronic’ stressors are those pressures which are ongoing and continuous, when the urge to fight or flight has been suppressed. Examples of chronic stressors include: ongoing pressurised work, ongoing relationship problems, isolation, and persistent financial worries.

The working environment can generate both acute and chronic stressors, but is more likely to be a source of chronic stressors.

stress effects on health and performance

Stress is proven beyond doubt to make people ill, and evidence is increasing as to number of ailments and diseases caused by stress. Stress is now known to contribute to heart disease; it causes hypertension and high blood pressure, and impairs the immune system. Stress is also linked to strokes, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), ulcers, diabetes, muscle and joint pain, miscarriage during pregnancy, allergies, alopecia and even premature tooth loss.

Various US studies have demonstrated that removing stress improves specific aspects of health: stress management was shown to be capable of reducing the risk of heart attack by up to 75% in people with heart disease; stress management techniques, along with methods for coping with anger, contributed to a reduction of high blood pressure, and; for chronic tension headache sufferers it was found that stress management techniques increased the effectiveness of prescribed drugs, and after six months actually equalled the effectiveness of anti-depressants. The clear implication for these ailments is that stress makes them worse.

Stress significantly reduces brain functions such as memory, concentration, and learning, all of which are central to effective performance at work. Certain tests have shown up to 50% loss of performance in cognitive tests performed by stress sufferers. Some health effects caused by stress are reversible and the body and mind reverts to normal when the stress is relieved. Other health effects caused by stress are so serious that they are irreversible, and at worse are terminal.

Stress is said by some to be a good thing, for themselves or others, that it promotes excitement and positive feelings. If these are the effects then it’s not stress as defined here. It’s the excitement and stimulus derived (by one who wants these feelings and can handle them) from working hard in a controlled and manageable way towards an achievable and realistic aim, which for sure can be very exciting, but it ain’t stress. Stress is bad for people and organisations, it’s a threat and a health risk, and it needs to be recognised and dealt with, not dismissed as something good, or welcomed as a badge of machismo – you might as well stick pins in your eyes.

causes of stress at work

These are typical causes of stress at work:

  • bullying or harassment, by anyone, not necessarily a person’s manager
  • feeling powerless and uninvolved in determining one’s own responsibilities
  • continuous unreasonable performance demands
  • lack of effective communication and conflict resolution
  • lack of job security
  • long working hours
  • excessive time away from home and family
  • office politics and conflict among staff
  • a feeling that one’s reward reward is not commensurate with one’s responsibility
  • working hours, responsibilities and pressures disrupting life-balance (diet, exercise, sleep and rest, play, family-time, etc)

factors influencing the effects of stress and stress susceptibility

A person’s susceptibility to stress can be affected by any or all of these factors, which means that everyone has a different tolerance to stressors. And in respect of certain of these factors, stress susceptibility is not fixed, so each person’s stress tolerance level changes over time:

  • childhood experience (abuse can increase stress susceptibility)
  • personality (certain personalities are more stress-prone than others)
  • genetics (particularly inherited ‘relaxation response’, connected with serotonin levels, the brain’s ‘well-being chemical’)
  • immunity abnormality (as might cause certain diseases such as arthritis and eczema, which weaken stress resilience)
  • lifestyle (principally poor diet and lack of exercise)
  • duration and intensity of stressors (obviously…)

signs of stress – stress test

At a clinical level, stress in individuals can be be assessed scientifically by measuring the levels of two hormones produced by the adrenal glands: cortisol and DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), but managers do not have ready access to these methods. Managers must therefore rely on other signs. Some of these are not exclusively due to stress, nor are they certain proof of stress, but they are indicators to prompt investigation as to whether stress is present. You can use this list of ten key stress indicators as a simple initial stress test: tick the factors applicable. How did I do?

  • sleep difficulties
  • loss of appetite
  • poor concentration or poor memory retention
  • performance dip
  • uncharacteristic errors or missed deadlines
  • anger or tantrums
  • violent or anti-social behaviour
  • emotional outbursts
  • alcohol or drug abuse
  • nervous habits

methods of personal stress management and stress relief

If you are suffering from work-related stress and it’s beginning to affect, or already affecting your health, stop to think: why are you taking this risk with your body and mind? Life’s short enough as it is; illness is all around us; why make matters worse? Commit to change before one day change is forced upon you.

If you recognise signs of stress in a staff member, especially if you are that person’s manager, don’t ignore it – do something about it. It is your duty to do so. If you do not feel capable of dealing with the situation, do not ignore it; you must refer it to someone who can deal with it. You must also look for signs of non-work-related stressors or factors that increase susceptibility to stress, because these will make a person more vulnerable to work-related stressors. These rules apply to yourself as well….

Stress relief methods are many and various. There is no single remedy that applies to every person suffering from stress, and most solutions involve a combination of remedies. Successful stress management frequently relies on reducing stress susceptibility and removing the stressors, and often factors will be both contributing to susceptibility and a direct cause. Here are some simple pointers for reducing stress susceptibility and stress itself, for yourself or to help others:

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