What is stress at the workplace? And how to cope with stress at work?

February 28, 2020

There’s a lot of talk about stress nowadays. But what is it actually? Does it exist for a reason? Work involves lots of mental and emotional challenges and demands that can cause or amplify stress. This article sheds some light on what stress is and how it affects us? It also covers a few tips on how to cope with stress.

What is stress at the workplace?

Stress can be thought of as external pressure on you. People can deal with pressure and adapt to it to some degree. Stress is an automatic and uncontrolled reaction to the “threat” you face, that helps us to overcome challenges. However, a constant state of stress becomes unhealthy as it has physiological and hormonal reactions which can lead to negative emotions and symptoms. Stress can build up slowly and you might not even realize how stressed you are before you get physical reactions. 

Should you consider yourself as a superhero and therefore immune to stress, I have bad news for you. None of us is immune! Stress has an impact or mental burden even on the strongest one of us. Those who think themselves as invincible have the mightiest fall. Unfortunately they need to hit the wall first. This happens after neglecting the early signals of exhaustion and pushing aside the early feelings. 

How to find the balance between good and bad stress?

There might be both good (eustress) and bad stress (distress) in your work and life. Good stress can drive you forwards, while bad stress ultimately builds up and causes problems and can even damage your mental and physical health. You should try to distinguish what kind of stress is bad for you so that you can concentrate your stress management efforts on those stressors.

Stress at work can either be harmful for your well-being or it can be positively challenging. Ultimately, the difference between the two types of stress is whether the stressor creates opportunities for achievement or if it prevents you from accomplishing your tasks or goals.

What are examples of positive stressors:

  1. workload

  2. time pressure, 

  3. increased responsibility 

  4. variety in tasks and the requirement for continuous learning. 

Increased responsibility and variety in tasks and requirement for continuous learning at work can create positive stress or negative challenges that we all need to stay engaged with our work. Increased responsibility can be demanding but still cause positive stress if it is challenging, but not to an extent where it takes all your energy. However, to keep it positive, you need to know your own limits.

What are examples of negative stressors:

  1. unclear roles at work,

  2. bad social relationships,

  3. insecurity about your job, 

  4. lack of autonomy,

  5. time pressure.

Time pressure can also be good for you if it drives you to get things done. It quickly becomes negative and causes stress if the deadline is unrealistic and it feels impossible to succeed.

Why should we be concerned about stress?

Job stress is a major concern in all developing and industrialized countries. It affects people, but also organisations and whole societies. It can lead to multiple physical and mental health issues, lower life satisfaction, and early retirement. This is why you and everybody you work with should take an active role in managing stress and the negative effects it might have.

94% of respondents experience work related stress according to Wrike’s 2019 US stress statistics. Stress can peak your performance, but when it starts exhausting your team it  will bring down your business. In one study conducted by Everyday Health in the US found out that 57% of individuals experiencing stress feel paralyzed by it. Burnout and exhaustion have been estimated to cost hundreds of billions Euros in both lost productivity and sick days. 

What are the symptoms of stress at work?

Common signs of stress are e.g, feelings of being unproductive or being more irritated or cynical than before. Physical reactions can vary from feeling tense to having more headaches, rapid heartbeat or poor quality of sleep. You could also have trouble remembering things and learning new things.

For stress to be positive, it has to be somehow rewarding or positively challenging. Good stress should be beneficial for your well-being, whereas negative stress hinders it. Even if a task is demanding or laborious, as a positive challenge and momentary stressor, it can create an opportunity for you to feel the accomplishment and success.

Negative stress creates hindrances in your work. You might feel that it is difficult or impossible to accomplish what is expected of you. At work, this kind of stress can be caused by various things that you might not be able to control.

What can negative mental stress cause? Continuous negative stress can take all your energy. You probably aren't very satisfied with your work either, if you face a lot of negative challenges. If negative stress continues, people may even decide to find a new job. In the worst scenario, negative challenges can exhaust you and cause you to burn out and suffer health issues.

Recovering from new kinds of stress 

Technology has changed our whole lives and therefore we have to be able to recover from a new kind of stress in new ways. For example, new ways of working,  busy schedules, workload, poor social relationships, unclear roles, and work-home conflicts are common stressors. Recovering from mental and emotional stress instead of physical can require different strategies. Because technology follows us home, we might easily forget to give ourselves and our minds the time to recover.

When thinking and designing the future of work in our organizations, let’s keep in mind how we can balance the stress also in the new work environment and facing new sources of stress. The most important thing is that we all learn to identify the stressors and find ways to recover from stressful periods at work that work for us personally. 

How to manage work stress?

What is the best way for you to relax after a stressful workday? Do you regularly go outdoors or take a break from stimulating technology such as your smartphone? When you are stressed, do you still try to eat healthy, sleep and rest enough? Everyone should find the coping styles that suit them best. You can easily learn effective ways to manage stress and also how you can recover from mental stress? 

What can you do if your work is not challenging enough?

Some common ways to introduce positive stress i.e. challenges into work are learning new skills, taking on new responsibilities, and changing work habits or routines. You should be able to craft your job to fit your strengths and personal development needs better. You can also craft how you view social interaction situations (e.g. in customer service) or try changing your view on topics at work. One surprising way to introduce more positive stress could be to help a colleague or to do some volunteer work. It can have an energizing impact on you despite your existing heavy workload. 

Few questions you can ask from yourselves: Do you repeat tasks or find some tasks uninspiring? Have you thought about different ways to do the tasks or perhaps tried to collaborate with new people? Have you tried to think of your job or collaboration differently? Have you helped your colleague with her high workload? 

What to do when you have too much negative stress at work?

You might not be able to remove negative stress i.e. challenges from your work, but it is often possible to cope with them better. If you are able to openly discuss the causes of stress, you might get help from your coworkers or organization. For example, if your role at work is unclear, you should try to bring it up in your conversations. Or if the goals or deadlines are unrealistic, it is very likely that everybody involved suffers from them and are ready to make changes. And if there are some challenges in the social interactions or collaboration in your team, try to find a way to discuss how to improve collaboration in your team.

We are also facing an overload of “technostress” at work and in private life. Our brains are overloaded with information and  social media services and games aimed at maximizing your dopamine production. Let’s not forget that our brains are still in the early-age of humanity when we were wandering through the lands and forests and not used to be on the constant activated or alerted mode. All the signals, noise, likes and information we face though the waking hours of the day are just too much and has a huge impact on the increasing burnout and exhaustion. 

How to find the balance?

Not many jobs involve zero negative stress. On the other hand, you now know that every job should be challenging enough. If you have the resources to meet the challenges and demands of your work, it can feel rewarding and energizing. You won't get bored, but neither will you burn out. A supportive team or organization can help with finding this balance. 

We should also promote servant leadership on all levels of our organization, not only on management. When we come to work, let’s bare in mind that we are there to help and support—or serve if I may—each other in achieving our targets and developing our potential aiming to be the best version of ourselves. Acknowledging your personal values and strengths will help you in finding and developing your potential. Should you be in managerial or leadership position, this is your most important task in improving your team’s mental wellbeing and performance at work.

As a final note, balance is never stable. It varies constantly based on the challenges you face at work or personal life. Same applies to your own personal and job resources. Learn how to find the long-term balance for mental recovery.

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