Sunday, September 6, 2009

Stress in the Workplace and How to Cope with It

Most of us readily acknowledge that stress is an inescapable part of life in our modern society. It�s in the home, the schools, and the workplace.

Most of us readily acknowledge that stress is an inescapable part of life in our modern society. It�s in the home, the schools, and the workplace.

Workplace stress management is becoming a buzz word of sorts, as more companies seek ways to cope with workplace stressors. But what is it?

Defining Workplace Stress

�Stress is the reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them.� (Managing stress at work: Discussion document, United Kingdom Health and Safety Commission, London, 1999)

Stress in the workplace can be either positive stress that results in greater productivity, or negative stress that cuts productivity. Our definition does not say that stress in the workplace is a reaction to pressure, but to excessive pressure. It is when stressors are too demanding, exerting too much pressure on us, that they become negative.

Workplace stress of a harmful nature is intense, continued, or repeated.

Who Is Affected by Workplace Stress?

Everyone is affected at some time or other. As the world tries to increase output and limit time required, workplace stress hits both blue and white-collar workers. Evidence indicates that work that was once considered non-stressful is now approaching high-stress ratings.

On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the highest, increasing numbers of occupations are inching up toward the scale�s top. A recent table prepared by the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology lists law enforcement officers at the 7.7 level. Airline pilots are close behind at 7.5. And while they may seem to cause patients stress, dentists are rated 7.3. Even teachers have a high stress level of 6.2.

Adolescents and older workers often have more trouble coping with workplace stress � women may have more trouble than men. People who have high levels of stress in the family will be more affected by workplace stress.

Family Stress Increases Workplace Stress

When a balance between work and family is missing, workplace stress is increased. Two-income families and single parent families are especially affected. Time-sensitive work can make greater demands than the worker can handle. Work schedules may change, creating stress in handling children. Harsh or bullying treatment at work can cycle into family stress, and back to workplace stress.

Health Impacts of Stress

It is well accepted that stress produces a �fight-or-flight� response in humans. The heartbeat picks up speed. Breathing rhythm changes. Blood is sent to muscles and other vital organs. Adrenaline and noradrenaline is released into the blood, raising levels of energy-providing nutrients. Our bodies are ready to fight the enemy or run from him.

The trouble is, we cannot easily fight workplace stress. We might want to land a punch on the nose of the boss that makes unreasonable demands, but we cannot. We might want to quit on the spot, but we need the income, so we are not able to carry through on our �fight-or-flight� response.

Frustrated body systems trying to cope with this dilemma may give in to consequences such as chronic fatigue, depression, anxiety, migraine, insomnia, hypertension, heart disease, substance abuse, and a host of other problems.

Some employers have instituted workplace stress management programs, with more or less success. In many cases, though, a program of self-help for workplace stress, without individual research, might be more effective.

Self-Help for Workplace Stress

If you were to take a self-help course entitled, as this article is, �Stress in the Workplace � How to Cope with It�, you would expect to learn practical things you could do to cope with workplace stress. Reports and research aside, you would want specific self-help. You would want steps that could help you begin to cope today.

The following practical steps will get you started. Write your answers.

1. Analyze your job. Do you have a clear job description that tells what is expected of you? Are you sufficiently qualified for the work expected? Do you have the tools you need? Does the job use your talent?

2. Analyze your workplace. Is it clean and safe? Is it attractive and laid out well? Are things easy to find? Is it quiet enough for work? Is there a quiet room where you can take a break? Can you take a 5-minute break every hour or so? Are your work hours reasonable?

3. Analyze your feelings. Do you feel that your job is meaningful? Do you think you get enough feedback from others as to whether or not you are doing well? Do you feel as though people see you as an individual rather than a resource? Do you feel that you have the right to say �no� when the workload becomes too heavy?

Once you have answered every question, decide what action you will take to change unwanted situations.

You can, for example, request a clear job description if you don�t have one. You can ask to discuss job expectations. You can request missing tools that would reduce stress.

You can often clean or rearrange a workplace. You can make ergonomic changes for physical safety. With thought, you can create better work flow, or relocate needed tools.

If your job seems meaningless, be creative. Look around for new ways of doing the job, of cutting costs or increasing production. A challenge can make a big difference in coping with workplace stress.

Finally, learn to say �no� to unnecessary demands. Were you asked to �help� a habitual-long-lunch co-worker by adding part of her work to your own? Agree to do it once, but explain respectfully why the practice is unfair to both of you. Are you expected to remain at work until the last person leaves, even though you arrive an hour before anyone else? Ask respectfully if consideration can be given, since your work is done early.

You will best cope with workplace stress when you learn which monkeys' are yours to feed, and decline to feed anyone Else's monkey.


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