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Stress at work: how can we cope?

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Stress at work: how can we cope?The workplace is one of the greatest causes of stress in our lives. At times we feel overwhelmed as we consider everything we need to accomplish. It becomes an even greater challenge as obstacles arise and keep us from progressing in our day-to-day assignments.

As business executives and managers, it is our job to recognize and manage occupational stress. A completely stress-free workplace is almost impossible to achieve, but in order to keep your organization moving forward, your employees need be healthy and satisfied with their work.

Stress is a growing problem in many organizations and is having an increasingly negative impact on employees. Not only does it affect a person's health and how much he or she is able to work, but it also affects performance. It is important to promote the health and well-being of those who work in our companies in order to reduce negative effects on productivity.

Causes of stress

The stress response is a double-edge sword. When stress is working properly, it helps you to stay focused, energetic and alert. However, beyond a certain point, stress stops being helpful and can cause damage to your health, relationships and productivity.

There are two main types of stress. The first is acute stress, which is short-lived and often the result of unexpected stressors. The second is chronic stress, which is a state of ongoing physiological agitation from an unresolved issue or situation.

There are three main areas that influence the level of chronic stress felt in the workplace:

  1. Job demands. The terms and conditions of a job can be a major source of stress. Job demands can be thought as consisting of intrinsic task requirements, the levels of uncertainty, time pressure, and the rate, amount and difficulty of work.

  2. Individual differences. Individual differences are important because they affect how we make decisions, handle conflicts, respond to stressors and attempt to cope with stress. Many people with the same job and physical setting may not perceive their environment as having the same level of stress. One person may see a challenge as motivating and a chance for self-improvement while another may see it as a serious threat.

  3. Social demands. Too much or too little social stimulation can be stressful: too little and you could feel lonely or isolated; too much and you could become overwhelmed. What defines the adequate level of social demand also differs with each individual. Social demands can originate outside as well as within the organization. While social demands can be distressing, social support from friends, colleagues and family can benefit psychological well-being by “buffering” the negative impacts of stressors.

Stress in the workplace

It is important to realize that our bodies do not distinguish between physical and psychological threats. If you are stressed about a project, a busy schedule, balancing home and work life, a pile of bills or a fight with a friend, your body could react just as strongly as if you were facing a life-or-death situation.

Small episodes of stress have little risk to the health of a person. However, when stress is prolonged, the body is in a state of constant activity, or stress overload. Gradually the body's defence system is worn down and the person is left increasingly susceptible to illness.

The key to stress management is taking breaks. When we are dealing with chronic stressors, it is important to find things that will help us to take a break from whatever it is that is causing us stress.

“Improving communication and assigning appropriate workload are two of the most important preventive measures management can instil in an organization to reduce chronic stress.”

Below is a list of some of the common warning signs and symptoms of stress. The more signs and symptoms you notice in yourself or your colleagues, the closer you may be to stress overload:

  1. Thought or reasoning symptoms:
    • Memory problems.
    • Inability to concentrate.
    • Poor judgment.
    • Negative attitude.
    • Anxious or racing thoughts.
    • Constant worrying.

  2. Physical symptoms:
    • Aches and pains.
    • Diarrhea or constipation.
    • Nausea, dizziness.
    • Chest pain, rapid heartbeat.
    • Loss of sex drive.
    • Frequent colds.

  3. Emotional symptoms:
    • Moodiness.
    • Irritability or short temper.
    • Agitation, inability to relax.
    • Feeling overwhelmed.
    • Sense of loneliness and isolation.
    • Depression or general unhappiness.

  4. Behavioral symptoms:
    • Eating more or less.
    • Isolating yourself from others.
    • Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities.
    • Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax.
    • Nervous habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing).

Stress can be evident in many different ways depending on the person. That is why it is important to learn how to recognize how you, and the people around you, react to stress.

The role of management

Stress levels in the workplace should be carefully and regularly monitored by management. If left to itself, stress often results in high absenteeism, increased turnover rates, low productivity and poor levels of quality. A company's efficiency and productivity largely depend on its ability to cope with and adjust to stress at work. Management's role is to first identify what is causing the unnecessary stress and then to implement policies and procedures that will help to both manage and reduce stress.

Unfortunately, there is no standardized process that will solve everyone's stress-related problems. Every situation and individual is different and therefore various coping strategies are needed. Each employee needs to find his or her own means to address stress. Some strategies that have proved successful are:

  1. Peer support. Talking to colleagues will help the individual to deal with stress.
  2. Exercise. Exercise not only provides a reduction in stress levels but also an increased ability to resist its effects in the future.
  3. Laughter. It makes sense that a good laugh would make one happier. There have been a number of studies to prove it scientifically as well as intuitively.

Other strategies also include counselling, psychotherapy, meditation, yoga, T'ai Chi, massage and acupuncture. No one strategy will work in every situation, but research shows that applying two or more methods results in a higher success rate. As management becomes aware of these various strategies, efforts should be made to make them available to employees or at least make employees aware of the strategies.

Getting to the source of the problem

All these possible strategies have proven successful in reducing stress in one way or another, but there tends to be a problem with the employees managing work-related stress themselves. Rarely does it get to the root of the problem. If success is to be had in the organization, management needs to be involved in identifying stressors, recognizing changes that need to be made and implementing preventive measures.

Improving communication and assigning appropriate workload are two of the most important preventive measures management can instil in an organization to reduce chronic stress.

Bad communication is one of the most frequently cited major causes of stress. Bad communication can be reflected in many ways in the workplace. Lack of feedback, unclear job responsibilities, or even just the difficulty of trying to physically contact someone within the organization, are just a few examples of poor communication.

Understaffing is another concern often expressed by employees. Studies have shown that heavy workloads can result in diminishing worker satisfaction, burnout and physical illness. This, in turn, has a snowball effect on the rest of the business. As efficiency decreases and staff turnover increases, other employees' workloads grow as they now carry the extra burden of picking up the slack and take part in training new employees.

It is therefore crucial that management reviews the level of staffing in the business and identifies ways to deal with understaffing. Questions management may want to consider when dealing with inappropriate workloads include:

  • Is the workload evenly distributed among employees?
  • Can temporary staff be hired during higher workload periods?
  • What were former employees' reasons for leaving and how can you solve the problems?
  • Are there jobs that require employees to work late and is it really necessary for them to do so?

Stress prevention

Stress is becoming a more prevalent issue in our fast-pace society as extended periods of economic recession occur, international competition increases and technological changes continue to take place.

Management has a responsibility to the company to ensure the employees are in a state of well-being and incorporate fair treatment and positive feedback. When employees are healthy and satisfied with their work, productivity will be at the maximum. It makes good business sense to pursue stress-prevention strategies. Reducing stress in the workplace will contribute to the quality of work life and help you to move your company forward.

August 2011.


This is a shortened version of “Getting to grips with stress in the workplace: Strategies for promoting a healthier, more productive environment”, which originally appeared in Human Resource Management International Digest, Volume 19 Number 4, 2011.

The authors are Jolynn Carr, Becky Kelley, Rhett Keaton and Chad Albrecht.