Today is World Day for Safety and Health at Work

What do we mean by stress?

There are many useful definitions that describe in detail what stress is and what occupational stress means. A scientific definition could be that stress is one’s reactions to life’s events: stress is the non-specific response of the body to any demands placed upon it. While this definition is scientifically accurate, it does not help in a practical sense when we wish to deal with, and manage occupational stress. The National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health in the U.S. came up with a much more practical definition of job stress: It is the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources or needs of the worker.
This definition helps to focus on the mismatch between the demands placed upon a worker and the worker’s capabilities and resources and moves away from the notion that some people are naturally more resistant to stress than others.
Stress can play a part in many aspects of our lives. Many people leave a stressful work environment on a daily basis and go home to a person or a home life where they can distress and remove themselves from the harmful effects of work stress. It is also true, however, that some people go to work to escape the stressors and pressures of a difficult home life or personal life and find that work is a place to de-stress. However, where do we go to de-stress, if we have significant stressors in the work place and significant stressors in our home life or personal life? The answer is that there is nowhere to go to de-stress and it becomes critically important for us to address the stressors in our home lives and our work lives.
Do we wish to totally eradicate all stress from our work lives? The answer is no. There is a significant body of scientific knowledge that suggests that our work performance improves when we are put under manageable stress. However, it is when that stress or pressure becomes too great and becomes unmanageable, that we start to experience fatigue, exhaustion, ill-health, panic and ultimate breakdown and burnout. This tells us two things: firstly it tells us that a level of healthy tension is useful in the work environment, as it provides stimulation for us to perform at optimum levels. It also tells us that, productivity and performance does not increase exponentially when we become overloaded with work. In fact, the opposite is true: our performance decreases rapidly as the work overload composes levels of unmanageable stress.

How to deal with stress

People often fall into this trap of concentrating on the nasty physical and psychological manifestations of work stress. They tend to deal with these signs and symptoms of stress in a remedial way, rather than dealing with the sources of stress.
On some occasions, people who suffer stress are not aware of the reasons behind their stress. The first thing we need to do in dealing with stress, is to quietly reflect on our stress levels and attempt to identify specific causes of our stressful feelings. This reflective exercise is hugely beneficial in ultimately determining how we deal with stress.

Sources of stress in the work place

Some occupations are apparently inherently stressful. Air traffic controllers are often cited as sufferers of occupational stress due to the stresses of the job. The stressors associated with these inherently stressful jobs, can be ameliorated by training, supervision and support.
The role one fulfils in an organisation can sometimes be the source of a lot of stress, particularly when there is ambiguity associated with the objectives for that particular job. For example, if you are the person responsible for the quality and the excellence of a product or service, but you are also responsible for eliminating cost, these two competing imperatives, can be an ambiguous nature of your objectives and can be the source of a significant amount of stress.
Another source of stress is related to how your career is developing: if you are the type of person who wishes to progress through promotion after promotion and you feel this is not happening or at least not happening fast enough, this can be a source of stress. Equally, if you are the type of person who is quite happy in the role and you do not wish to progress through seniority, yet you are pushed into roles of responsibility; this can cause a level of stress also.
Finally, one of the biggest sources of stress, in any work place, is related to the relationships that you have with your colleagues. It is supremely ironic that one of the biggest sources of positivity and wellbeing in any work place, are the people you work with, yet they can also be the biggest source of distress and upset. If you do not have a good relationship with your immediate supervisor, this relationship can be the source of significant amounts of stress. If you happen to be a supervisor and you do not have a good relationship with the people you are supervising, this equally can be a source of significant stress. If your role involves having to delegate many tasks and you are unable to do this for whatever reason, this difficulty in delegating is another source of stress related to colleagues. In addition, work place gossip and bullying are now very clearly recognised as work place hazards that need to be properly addressed by employers.

Mental health problems in the work place

Much research has been carried out, examining the relationship between our mental health and the work environment. One study reported that 27% of those suffering from mental illness felt their work had caused their ill-health. In addition, 60% of those with mental illness thought the work had exasperated the problem. These statistics are staggering and in some respects difficult to believe. However, when we reflect on just how much time we spend at work (in some respects, half of our waking lives) we then realise that a work place can have a significant impact, either positive or negative, on our mental health.

Tips for work stress

  • Focus on the work you enjoy and delegate where possible. Obviously it is not possible to delegate all tasks and responsibilities, however, we should when we can, take the opportunity to reflect on the things we enjoy doing.
  • Ask yourself “What work would I do for free?” I call this the Euro Millions question: Imagine it is Friday evening and you have just won a multimillion euro prize in the Euro Millions Lotto. Stop and reflect on what would bring you back to work on Monday morning. Every occupation has its difficulties and challenges. The Euro Millions question gets us to focus on the positive aspects of our work.
  • Use your time effectively and do not let it use you. Where possible, schedule open time in your working day as these open times will soon fill up with additional tasks.
  • Build good friendships at work. We spend a significant amount of our time at work and therefore we should do as much as possible to build a healthy, emotional environment in which to nurture our emotional wellbeing.
  • Learn to say no to inappropriate requests. Some people have a knack of identifying very competent people with an inability to say no and will persistently use them until they have been told otherwise.
  • Create a physical work environment that pleases you. Again, we spend a lot of time in this environment, so therefore it should be as pleasing as possible.

Who gets stressed?

It really depends on how an event is appraised by the person and whether that person perceives themselves as possessing the resources needed to respond to the challenging event successfully. In other words, if you assessed a challenging event and come to the conclusion that you can successfully deal with this challenge, the likelihood is you will not be stressed by the event. Conversely, if you assess yourself as being unable to cope with this situation, it is likely that this will be a self-fulfilling prophesy.
We need to begin to realise just how important diet, rest and exercise is in staving off the negative effects of work place stress.
Relaxation and mindfulness help us to de-stress. However, these techniques, for being very effective, require much practise and consistent practice will lead to effective use of these techniques. Just as there is a difference between knowing how to run a marathon and actually doing it, there is a difference between knowing how to relax and actually putting that knowledge into practice.
Finally, we should reflect on whether we worry too much or whether we worry about things we cannot change. We need to self- check to ensure we do not “awfulize” or “catastrophize”, as these negative thought patterns are often the first step in experiencing emotional stress.

By Tom Maher, Director of Services at St Patrick’s Mental Health Services

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