Workplace stress 101

What causes workplace stress and how can you take action to manage your stressors?

The words pressure and stress are often used interchangeably however, they are two very different things.

Just like a solid object, we can stand a certain amount of pressure without being unduly impacted. Often the object may respond to the pressure but, once the force is removed, it returns to its original shape/state. We show a similar resiliency.

However, if the pressure is stronger than the object it will become impacted (deform) and/or break. Likewise, when the pressure is more than we can cope with, we feel what we call in the health arena stress (in physics this is termed strain).

Whilst pressure can helps us focus and motivates us to get something done, no amount of stress is good for us. And over the long-term, it can negatively impact our mental and physical health.

It is known to cause and/or influence many medical conditions. Evidence shows that chronic stress pushes up blood pressure and harms the heart. It has also been shown to play a role in gastrointestinal disorders and diabetes.

Psychologically it can lead to depression and anxiety, as well as make existing mental health issues worse.

In the UK, work-related stress, anxiety or depression is the primary cause of work-related absence. Between 1 April 2019 and 31 March, 2020 it accounted for around half of all work-related ill health cases and nearly 18 million working days were lost.

The HSE estimated approximately 828,000 workers were affected by work-related stress, depression or anxiety which was significantly higher than previous years. Analysis has determined that COVID-19 does not appear to be the main driver of this change (HSE, 2020).

The pressure-performance relationship

In the workplace, we all need sufficient motivational pressure (targets, deadlines) to push us to perform.

Too little, we can become bored and distracted, too much and we are in danger of burnout. Each of us has a unique optimal performance or goldilocks zone where the pressure is just right.

Being under pressure is not unusual at work. Perhaps you are currently working to a tight deadline, juggling a number of deliverables, dealing with a complex task/decision or being asked to do something you don’t feel particularly comfortable or confident with.

If it all feels challenging yet manageable, you are in the stretch zone.

Human beings are wired for this. Our bodies are designed to cope with challenge, firing us up with fight/flight hormones to help us deal with whatever we need to confront. This can be helpful. It keeps us focused and makes us work efficiently.

And once the difficulty has passed and the challenge dealt with, our bodies switch back to a calm and more relaxed state. We return to our comfort zone.

But, if the demands are ever increasing or the difficult situations are relentless, the endless pressure soon becomes stress.

We feel we have no sense of control and, no matter how organised we are, cannot manage the demands being placed on us.

We are more than stretched, we are strained.

At this stage the fight/flight response is firing all the time keeping us on high alert. In a state of panic, unable to think creatively, we feel stuck and alone as our performance starts to slow and slide.

If this situation continues, the person can soon start to feel a sense of hopelessness about their situation, cynical about their role and employer, emotionally and physically exhausted. In other words burned out.

What is work-related stress?

It is widely agreed that working is good for us as it can meet many of our super seven needs; it can give us a sense of purpose, achievement and belonging as well as opportunities to grow and develop personally and professionally.

How then can it also cause harm?

The HSE defines work-related stress as the harmful reaction people have to undue pressures and demands placed on them at work.

It has identified six aspects of job design, workplace culture and working environment that, if not adequately managed, can become stressors.

For example, you might feel stressed if:

  • when change (personnel, technology, office, procedures) occur you have no avenue to offer input/comment or they are brought in quickly without notice (change)

  • the culture is one that does not align with your values, there is tension between teams or colleagues or you are feeling bullied and harassed (relationships)

  • your responsibilities conflict, your job description is unclear or there has been no training to help you in your role (role)

  • the processes and procedures are bureaucratic, your manager provides little/no feedback or you have no colleagues with who to share the load (support)

  • you have little or no say in what work you are to do or how/when it is to be delivered (control)

  • you have more to do than you can realistically achieve, deadlines are tight deadlines or different people think you work to them (demands)

Managing your stressors

One of the things that happens when we are stressed is that we become blinkered and myopic in our view.

We are effectively so lost in the forest of demands that the trees have blended into one and things can feel pretty dark. Whilst this is natural (we are designed to deal with threat through single focus) it is unfortunate as we cannot take the necessary helicopter view to find our way out.

Working with a stress management coach gives you the opportunity and the time to explore with someone what has been going on for you and what solutions there might be.

Understand what stressors are in play

When I start working with someone, the first thing I do is seek to gain clarity and understanding on what factors are in play.

This means systematically reviewing each of the six factors to learn what is occurring to cause the individual to feel out of control and unable to cope. Using the HSE’s work-place stress factors provides a framework for the conversation.

Tip! If you are going to do this, don’t start with the demands. I’ve learned that multiple demands are usually a given if someone is suffering with workplace stress. Also listing out all the things that need to be done can be both distressing and a distraction, when understanding the situation in its entirety is what’s important so, unless you think it will be helpful to you, leave the demands until the end.

This is the order in which I explore each of the factors:

1. Change

2. Relationships

3. Role

4. Support

5. Control

6. Demands

I use this order for another reason too. The first five factors can provide resources from which you can draw to help yourself to cope with the situation and/or find solutions.

For example, there may be communication avenues open to you for expressing your concerns about a change, input to a forth coming one or propose one that would improve things for you.

Or, whilst you may not feel comfortable talking to your manager about how you are doing, you can see yourself sharing with them if a supportive colleague is present.

Perhaps there are opportunities in the company for training and development that you can explore or maybe there is someone inhouse that can help you learn what you need know.

You may realise you have co-workers that you might share the load with. And maybe the workplace offers flexibility on working so that you can work on a weekend with no interruptions to get something finished NB this one is only a short-term solution to managing high volumes of work.

Once you have a clear picture of the operating environment and what resources are available, you can then review the demands.

Next step is to explore actions and decide when you will to them. This of course includes telling your manager or other senior member of staff what's going on so that management action can be taken. Sharing with them your review shows you have taken the initiative and means they too don't just focus on the demands.

Who knows, you may not be the only one but you might be the first one to speak about it. Managers then have a duty to act, not just on your behalf but for other people in similar roles.

Take care of you.

If you would like to discuss matters raised in this post, feel free to drop me a line and we can set up a call.