16 January, 2012

Work related stress & how to manage it

Unemployment is in the news. A lot. Ireland’s unemployment rates are hovering around 14.4%. The stress of unemployment is well known. A person facing unemployment is faced with many pressures and concerns, and their well being is often affected. Unemployment in a recession holds particular challenges. This is a fact and unquestionable.

However the plight of the employee in a recession is less reported. As the recession deepens, reports are indicating that many employees are experiencing high levels of work stress. Employees are working longer hours and harder than ever before. They are faced with increasing demands and are working in increasingly competitive environments. As the recession continues, some workers are accepting this work stress as a normal condition and often simply forget or get used to feeling such distress.

There is a difference between work place pressures and work related stress. We must acknowledge that day to day pressure is often part of a person’s work life. But pressure can maintain productivity, stress does not.

Mind UK have published some stark results from their survey of 2050 workers, surveyed during this recession (2010) from across the UK:

  • 50% of workers had lost sleep because of work
  • 50% reported low morale in their work place.
  • Almost 30% reported working longer hours.
  • One in five reported that work stress had made them physically ill.
  • One in four had cried in their workplace as a direct result of work stress.

The initial response a person will offer the stressed worker is one of sympathy. This often develops into an acknowledgment of their difficulties. These conversations often end with a comment that they are lucky to have a job. This response is of little short term or long term use to someone who may be so stressed that they risk becoming mentally or physically unwell. This response also promotes a passive attitude towards managing stress and attempting to resolve the difficulty.

So what can be done?

Firstly we must acknowledge that work plays a central role in our well being. Work is an important source of esteem, identity and fulfilment. It provides opportunities to interact socially and professionally with others. Lest we forget, it pays us too.

Secondly, if you are experiencing stress in your work place /work life you need to be honest with yourself. Is this coming from an aspect of your home or social life? Are you bringing it into your work place or are you bringing it from your work life into your home?

By acknowledging your work stress you can then begin to take responsibility for it. This process will begin by building your awareness of how stress affects you, where it’s originating and how you can begin to control it.

Identify how stress affects you:

Stress can affect individuals in different ways. It can affect your physical or emotional health and change your day to day behaviours. It is important to be aware of how stress affects you. When you begin to notice these symptoms it is time to take action.

Physical signs:

Headaches, fatigue, perspiration, muscle pain, weight changes, chest pains, tummy pain and changes to your bowel habits.

Emotional signs:

Feelings of negativity, depression, hopelessness, mood swings, increasing irritability & having a “short fuse”.

Behavioural signs:

Changes in your eating and sleeping habits, withdrawing from friends and family, increased use of cigarettes and alcohol.

Typically a stressed employee can have difficulties functioning in a work environment.

Have you noticed any of the following signs?

  • Had too many things to do at once?
  • Were unable to decide on where to start / how to prioritise your work.
  • Were forgetful about arranged meetings or deadlines?
  • Have difficulties managing your time?
  • Did not take breaks or lunch?
  • Brought work home, or worked longer hours than others / than expected?
  • Felt afraid to make a decision?
  • Felt overwhelmed and tearful?
  • Thought about work tasks during your leisure time or woke up thinking about it during the night?
  • Beginning to feel less confident about the work you do?
  • Feeling irritated by colleagues / demands that would not usually bother you?
  • Have you had difficulties concentrating?
  • Increasing difficulties saying no to additional / unreasonable demands?
  • Increasing difficulties asserting yourself?

If you have noticed any of the above signs over a 2 – 4 week period, you may be experiencing work stress and need to take action to manage this.

Identify where the stress coming from:

The World Health Organisation has published a series of documents relating to workers health. It has identified that work related stress emerges form either your work content or your work context.

Work content:

The tasks involved are meaningless or monotonous, there’s an unpleasant workload, an unpleasant pace of work, hours are unpredictable, shift patterns are antisocial, your ability to participate in and influence decisions is minimal or does not exist.

Work context:

Poor interpersonal relationships, few opportunities for development, poor status, poor pay, unclear roles, poor leadership and a blurred interface between home and work life.

Identify what you can do about it:

You can use some self help strategies and seek external help to manage (www.bupa.co.uk)

Self-help to manage work stress:

  • Try to make your environment more comfortable, request items that will make your work easier.
  • Schedule and take regular breaks.
  • Leave your work station and move around.
  • Focus on eating nutritious food, avoid high sugar contents.
  • Schedule your annual leave in advance; try to take a break every quarter.
  • Separate your technological link with work, make a plan around not checking emails and messages and stick to it.
  • Confide in a trusted colleague and if possible your line management.
  • Practice assertive communication in work.
  • Develop and maintain some work life balance.
  • Take regular exercise.
  • Breathe, take deep breaths regularly.

External help for work stress:

  • Many companies use the services of Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP), find out if your employer has one.
  • Many companies have a HR Dept., which will have policies on dealing with work place stress. Consult with your line management about this or contact them directly.
  • Consult with your GP, he or she may recommend a counsellor or other health care professional who can help.
  • Seek out an occupational therapist, who can help you improve your participation in work, and help you maintain your work life balance.
  • Talk to your family and trusted friends, letting them know what’s troubling you.
  • Engage in yoga, tai chi, mindfulness classes to slow down and learn to breathe.

Remember you are not alone. In 2007 the American psychological Association reported that 75% of workers in the USA listed work as stressful.

Managing your work stress is a process that will take some time. It is important to remember that changing your work habits will take planning.

If you require some specific guidance and support, Occupational Therapists are commencing an outpatient Work Stress Management Group programme in the Dean Clinic St Patricks this month.

Read more about how to access the Dean Clinic services


Support & Information Service

The Support & Information Service is a telephone and email service staffed by experienced mental health nurses 9-5 Monday to Friday with an answering and call-back facility outside hours. You can contact the Support & Information service by calling 01 249 3333, or if you would like to email your query to info@stpatsmail.com we will endeavour to get back to you within these hours.