Here is a comprehensive guide to workplace stress – the causes, signs and symptoms, and the best way to manage it no matter what your role may be.
'Stress' is a biological and psychological response to a threat we don't feel like we have the resources to deal with. A little stress at work can be a good thing. It assists with the flow of goal setting, motivation and handling deadlines. The right amount of pressure is motivational and ensures we are on task and in a productive mindset. Negative stress, on the other hand, can lead to detrimental mental and physical effects - such as anxiety, concentration, fatigue and headaches, which are common symptoms.
Employees in stressful occupations are required to maintain peak performance under stressful and unpredictable conditions, exerting high levels of cognitive control to sustain focus while suppressing task-irrelevant actions. Previous research has shown that physical and emotional stresses differ in cognitive control processes. Physical stress impairs, while emotional stress can be suppressed, and people can outwardly cope with reoccurrences for a while. But eventually the two marry up and the emotional becomes physical, as mentioned earlier.
How does stress impact employees and organisations?
Across the last decade, mental stress has led to 95 per cent of workplace mental disorder claims. As well as the direct expense of the claims, the organisational costs of stress can include absenteeism, lowered productivity and reduced motivation. In their research into mental health, conducted between 2010-11 and again in 2014-15, Safe Work Australia found that around 91 per cent of workers' compensation claims classed as a mental health condition were directly linked to work-related stress.
Here are the most common causes:
* work pressure (31 per cent)
* work-related harassment and/or bullying (27 per cent)
* exposure to workplace or occupational violence (14 per cent)
When escalating tension occurs in the workforce, a person will show signs of this in what is known as a 'fight or flight' response. This involves accessory/shallow breathing and often presents a physical response such as anger or visible distress that may be accompanied by irrational outbursts. It's important that when these incidents occur, we take a moment to consider the impact that our initial verbal reaction could have on the person. This approach means we are more likely to respond calmly and with clarity, avoiding an overly emotive response.
How to manage stress?
Most of us can relate to a time where we lost control in a situation, and upon reflection we would have approached the matter differently. In these instances, do your best to control your breathing, try to remain calm and think logically. Equip yourself with the tools to be organised and in control of your workload. This includes prioritising tasks in order of importance, developing better time management strategies and implementing tactics to manage interruptions.
Dr Herbert Benson, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and the director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, discovered the relaxation response's power to reduce stress back in the 1960s. Interestingly, his subsequent research found that this approach compares with what people have been doing for centuries through prayer, chanting and repetitive motion such as through yoga, Pilates and practicing mindfulness with positive affirmations. Today, scientists have provided evidence that regular practice of these relaxation techniques lowers heart rates, blood pressure and oxygen consumption. It can also alleviate conditions with causes closely related to stress such as hypertension, arthritis, insomnia, depression, infertility, cancer, anxiety and even ageing.
Meditation is a fantastic way to encourage relaxation and release muscle tension. Ideally, we should all set aside 10 to 20 minutes for this each day to ensure a healthy mindset and improve overall wellbeing.
Director - Asia Pacific
Australian Human Resources Institute