Work is stressful, and so what we do about that stress is important. Anxiety, depression, burnout and substance misuse may all arise directly or indirectly from stress in the work environment. At their most extreme work-related stress issues make up a significant amount of the agenda for those who go on to complete suicide.
Employment is good for mental health. Work-related stress is an unavoidable but fluctuant part of work. It may be seasonal (as at this time coming up to the end of the financial year) or recurring (as at times of increasing demand through volume of work) or intermittent (arising from issues related to hiring and firing of people or arising from conflicts among staff).
When Professor Sir Michael Marmot carried out his famous Whitehall studies looking at the occurrence of stress-related cardiac events in people working in the UK civil service his results changed forever our understanding of stress in the working environment. He proposed that the frequency of heart attacks amongst the executives in Whitehall was related to the level of responsibility born by those executives. To his surprise he found two broad categories of work stress contributed to increased cardiac events amongst employees.
These two issues were a) Work Load, and b) Control of the work experience. While increasing volumes of work are associated with work stress, reducing control or autonomy is also a toxic stress related factor. This is not limited to the level of responsibility or burden placed upon the employees. Control may be more important than any other factor.
The stress of increasing work load is easy to understand. We all have limits and like everything else in life work needs balance. Human beings need sufficient time for rest and play.
Issues relating to control are more subtle and perhaps more significant in the work place. People need control over the issues they give priority to. When these issues (we might call them values) are in conflict with the work environment rather than in synergy with the worker stress of all kinds increases. When this stress results in impaired mental health it can be very damaging for the employee and this is ultimately damaging for the industry and the community.
Practical everyday examples include the stress arising from challenges of child-care that are so prevalent for many parent-employees, or the disintegration of everyday life associated with the re-emergence of low wage on-demand piece work. A significant proportion of modern employment simply leaves the burden of life’s personal priorities to staff themselves and this causes enormous stress. Wise employers understand the interdependence between employer and employee. When this understanding is lacking the result is stressful alienation, misery and low productivity.
In reality lifestyle synergy is important to the growing knowledge-based service economy in Ireland and in the rest of Europe. The motivation and commitment of an employee is the most valuable asset a service industry employer has. Many of the more enlightened employers have come to realise that maintaining the mental health of their human capital is good for the bottom line!
So what can we do to manage stress in our work place? How can we make a difference in the interest of our wellbeing? There are many simple steps we can take and each can lead to a better experience and better mental health for us even in the most stressful work environments. Even small personal steps can make a big difference to our ability to overcome the experience of stress. A search for a global or comprehensive answer to stress-related problems is a mistake. Stress is managed by small steps taken one after another. A wise man once said “never manage stress by examining the big picture”. Instead each of is better working on the small picture and being confident that the good results will emerge. Stress management is like sharing in the making of a tapestry. It is not about writing our own War and Peace!
The next step is to acknowledge our stress experience. Excessive tiredness, irritability, and exhaustion may be associated with diminished performance and a loss of interest in the work itself. We may need to recognise that we are “burning out” and then be determined to take steps in the interests of our own mental health.
The benefits of looking after ones mental health cannot be underestimated. Taking 20 minutes vigorous exercise at least 3 times per week is of proven value. Reducing caffeine and nicotine consumption can improve our sleep. Getting better sleep, (going to bed an hour earlier and rising an hour earlier), can transform our sleep pattern and bring about a feeling of restful preparedness. Eating more regularly and smaller amounts is really important. Postponing eating at work is a bad idea. The combination of hunger and tiredness only contributes to irritability, conflict and poor judgement.
It is worth practicing a mindful attitude to the stressful issues of work. Keep you sense of humour. Try to communicate pleasantly. If you are in conflict with your employer (or with your colleagues) ask yourself some emotionally-intelligent questions. Is this conflict worth pursuing? After all it may be ruining the environment in which you are spending the bulk of your daylight hours. On reflection you may find this conflict is not that important. Any soldier might ask this question. As one very stressed employee once said to me: “I asked myself if this was the ditch I wanted to die in? In the end I found that it wasn’t!” Put more simply let us agree this principle. “If the conflict cannot be resolved, at least the argument can end”.
Practically speaking issues of control of mental health can be taken back by the employee without being destructive. This regaining of command of our mental wellness is restorative, mature and practically mindful. The politics and pressures of the workplace are not going to go away. It used to be said that rule number for the employee was “never fall out with the boss”. In todays work environment the first rule must be “never loose respect for your mental health”. Respecting the mental health of our employees could be the best investment our employers ever made. Sharing a concern for our own mental health could be the best career move we ever planed.
If you need more information about mental health services in your area or if you need any information about any of the issues discussed in this blog then please call our Information and Support Line on (01) 2493 333. Our dedicated mental health professionals will be happy to inform you about HSE services in your area or in the independent mental health sector at St. Patricks Mental Health Services and the Dean Clinics nationwide. For useful information check out www.helpguide.org/articles/stress/stress-at-work.htm