Workplace Stress and How to Cope With It

Workplace Stress and How to Cope With It

March 7, 2020 0 By Anthony Ekanem

Stress has been defined as the reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them. Most of us acknowledge that stress is an inescapable part of life in our modern-day society. It is in the home, the school, and the workplace. Workplace stress management is becoming a buzz word of a sort, as more and more organisations are now seeking ways to cope with workplace stressors as employers have a legal duty to protect their employees from work-related stress by embarking on effective risk assessment in that regard.

Workplace Stress Defined

The Health and Safety Executive has defined workplace stress as “a harmful reaction that people have to undue pressures and demands placed on them at work”. There is an important distinction here between pressure, which can be positive if managed properly, and stress, which can be detrimental to health.

Stress in the workplace can be positive stress that results in greater productivity or negative stress that reduces productivity. Our above definition does not say that stress in the workplace is a reaction to pressure but excessive pressure. It is when stressors are too demanding, exerting too much pressure on the individual, that they become negative. Workplace stress that is harmful in nature is intense, continued or repeated.

Employees feel stress when they cannot cope with pressures and other issues that are beyond their control. Employers should match work demands to employees’ skills, knowledge and experience. For example, employees can get stressed if they feel they don’t have the necessary skills or time to meet tight deadlines. Providing necessary planning, training and support can reduce pressure on employees and bring stress levels down significantly.

Stress affects people differently. What stresses one individual may not necessarily stress another. Factors such as skills and experience, age or disability can all affect the way an employee can cope with work-related stress.

Signs of Stress on an Employee

A change in the way an employee acts can be a sign of stress, for example, the employee may:

  • take more time off work
  • arrive for work late often
  • be nervous most of the time

A change in the way an individual thinks or feels can be a sign of stress, for example:

  • mood swings
  • being withdrawn
  • loss of motivation, commitment and confidence
  • increased emotional reactions – being more tearful, sensitive or aggressive
  • feeling negative
  • being indecisive
  • feeling isolated
  • being unable to concentrate

The employee may act differently, for example:

  • eat more or less than usual
  • smoke, drink or take drugs ‘to help him or her cope’
  • have difficulty sleeping

Causes of Stress at Work

Six major work areas can lead to work-related stress if not properly managed. These are:

  1. Demands – such as workload, work patterns and the work environment
  2. Control – such as how much say the employee has in the way they do their work
  3. Support – such as the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues
  4. Relationships – such as promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour
  5. Role – such as whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that they do not have conflicting roles
  6. Change – such as how a change in the organisation is managed and communicated.

Effects of Work-related Stress

According to the Health and Safety Executive, Stress is a major cause of sickness absence in the workplace and costs over £5 billion a year in Great Britain. Workplace stress affects individuals, their families and colleagues by impacting on their health.  It also impacts on employers in terms of costs relating to sickness absence, staff replacement, lost production and higher accidents. Over 11 million days are lost a year because of stress at work, according to the Health and Safety Executive. 

Who Is Affected by Workplace Stress?

Everyone is affected at some time or the other. As the world tries to increase output and limit production time, workplace stress affects both blue-collar and white-collar workers. Evidence indicates that work that was once considered to be non-stressful is now nearing high-stress ratings.

On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the highest, increasing numbers of occupations are inching up toward the scales top. A table prepared by the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology lists law enforcement officers at the 7.7 level. Airline pilots are close behind at 7.5. And while dentists were seen to cause patients stress, they were rated 7.3. Even teachers have a high-stress level of 6.2.

Adolescents and older workers often have more trouble coping with workplace stress.  Women may have more trouble than men. People who have high levels of stress in the family will be more affected by work-related stress.

Family Stress Increases Workplace Stress

When a healthy balance between work and family is absent, workplace stress is increased. Two-income families and single-parent families are especially affected. Time-sensitive work can make bigger demands than the worker may be able to handle. Work calendars may change, thereby creating stress in taking care of the children. Exacting or victimising treatment at the workplace can metamorphose into family stress, and back to workplace stress.

Health Impacts of Stress

It is well accepted that stress produces a fight-or-flight response in humans. The heartbeat picks up speed. Breathing rhythm changes. Blood is sent to muscles and other vital organs. Adrenaline is released into the blood, raising levels of energy-providing nutrients. Our bodies are ready to fight “the enemy” or run from it. The trouble is, you cannot easily fight workplace stress. You might want to land a punch on the nose of the boss that makes unreasonable demands, but you cannot. You might want to quit on the spot, but you need the income, so you are not able to carry through on your fight-or-flight response.

Frustrated body systems trying to cope with this dilemma may give in to consequences such as chronic fatigue, depression, anxiety, migraine, insomnia, hypertension, heart disease, substance abuse, and a host of other problems.

Self-Help for Workplace Stress

If you were to take a self-help course on how to cope with Workplace Stress, you would expect to learn practical things you could do to cope with the problem. Reports and research aside, you would want steps that could help you to cope with the issue. The following steps can help you.

  1. Analyze your job. Do you have a clear job description that tells what is expected of you? Are you sufficiently qualified for the work expected? Do you have the tools you need? Does the job use your talent?
  2. Analyze your workplace. Is it clean and safe? Is it attractive and laid out well? Are things easy to find? Is it quiet enough for work? Is there a quiet room where you can take a break? Can you take a 5-minute break every hour or so? Are your work hours reasonable?
  3. Analyze your feelings. Do you feel that your job is meaningful? Do you think you get enough feedback from others as to whether you are doing well? Do you feel as though people see you as an individual rather than a resource? Do you feel that you have the right to say no when the workload becomes too heavy?

Once you have answered the questions, decide what action you will take to change any unwanted situations. 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 tools that can reduce stress. You can often clean or rearrange a workplace. You can also make some ergonomic changes to enhance physical safety. With deep thinking, you can create a better workflow, or relocate needed tools.

If your job seems meaningless, be creative. 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 their 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 arrived earlier than everyone else? Ask respectfully if consideration can be given since your work is done early.

You will best cope with workplace stress when you learn which monkeys are yours to feed, and decline to feed someone else’s monkey.