Mental health has recently caught the attention of many organisations ever since studies have shown that a large part of the employed population suffers from some form of stress, anxiety or depression. In this article we will discuss stress we encounter at work.
So, what is stress? and how does it manifest in our physical and mental states? Stress in itself is a biological phenomenon which is activated within when we are preparing for something eventful. It is a useful survival instinct that can tell us what’s wrong, and even prepare us physically to take on a situation that the brain has deemed challenging.
The degree of stress experienced depends on the functioning of two protective physiological mechanisms: the first is our “Alarm reaction” which gets triggered when confronted with a threat to our safety. Our ﬁrst response is physiological arousal: our muscles tense and breathing and heart rate become more rapid. We either ﬁght or ﬂee.
The second is an adaptive mechanism or “Adaptation”, which allows us to cease responding when we learn that stimuli in the environment are no longer a threat to our safety. If this process did not function, we would eventually collapse from physical wear and tear, and mental exhaustion.
Causes of stress are categorised into 5 different types – Lifestyle, Relationships, Financial, Parenting, and Work Related. In this article we will primarily focus on work related stress. Workplace stressors can be categorised as:
- Intrinsic to job – long hours, work overload, poor physical working conditions, time pressures, physical danger.
- Role in organisation -role ambiguity and conflict, responsibility for conflicts, organisational boundaries (internal and external).
- Career development–over or under promotion, lack of job security, thwarted ambition.
- Relationship at work – poor relations with boss, subordinates, or colleagues, poor social support.
- Organisational structure and climate– lack of control over work, little or no participation in decision, restrictions on behavior (budgets, etc), office politics, lack of effective consultation, financial difficulties.
- Management styles– unclear management, work role and poor management style.
Stress manifests itself in various ways, both obvious and imperceptible; we can categorize these symptoms into 4 broad categories:
|Emotional (How you feel) |
|Cognitive (How you think) |
-Poor concentration and memory
-Poor organisation and decision making
-Less creative in problem solving
-Hypersensitive to criticism
|Behavioural (How you behave) |
-Have accidents/make mistakes,
-Problematic social behaviour (e.g. withdrawal, aggression)
| Physical (Your body) |
-Sweating, dizzy, nauseous, breathless
-Aches and pains
-Asthma, ulcers, skin complaints, cardiac problems
Manifestations of stress on Individuals
Stress from work can impact family life, mental health, and even increase risks for chronic illnesses and heart attacks. Many studies have established a direct co-relation between poor mental health and its impact on organisational productivity and its bottom line.
|For the individual||For the workplace/organisation|
|Health||Increased absenteeism and turnover|
|Well-being/quality of life||Reduced quantity and quality of work|
|Functioning/goal achievement||Reduced job satisfaction and morale|
|Self-esteem/confidence||Poor communication and increased conflict|
It is important to note that stress management approaches that concentrate on changing the individual without changing the sources of stress are of limited effectiveness, and may be counterproductive. Organisations are realising that they can no longer approach the solutions to reduce work stress at individual level only, but also take accountability for its cause. Decision makers are encouraged to follow a few simple tips to ensure employees’ well-being and help increase the productivity of the organisation as a whole.
It is important to create a safe space for your employees where they can talk to their superiors without any fear of harsh repercussions. Keeping employees in the loop – irrespective of good or bad news goes a long way to build trust.
Feedback is an essential element for everyone in an organization’s workforce; it is important to learn how to give it constructively so that it has some value. Constructive feedback is a tool that is used to build things up, not break things down. It lets the other person know that you are on their side.
Encourage employees to take ownership of every aspect of their work. When accountability is built safely amongst team members, it encourages them to make their own decisions and contribute meaningfully.
Encourage Work-Life Balance:
Studies have found that looming deadlines and unpaid overtime often become high sources of stress in the workplace. It is important that team members find time to relax together, have conversations aside from work and connect over their daily lives. This will foster an environment of understanding in times of personal difficulties and soften the process of conflict resolution.
Create ‘Mindfulness’ Spaces:
If you have enough physical space, you can allocate some of it to create a space for ‘creativity’. Have small open session where anyone can walk in and participate. Build listening circles, create hobby clubs and help design a space where people can come, relax and enjoy themselves. This helps in humanizing and bonding with the team and often goes great lengths to increase overall productivity.
While the organisation builds the right environment, at an individual level, it is in our (and the organisation’s) best interests to practice the following on daily basis:
- Identifying stressors– Keeping an account to identify which situations create the most stress and one’s response to it, can help build clarity. Writing down your thoughts, feelings and information about the environment, including the people, the circumstances involved, and how you reacted to it, helps find patterns among your stressors.
- Make conscious, healthy choices – Rather than stress eating or binging, try mindful eating when you feel stressed. Any form of physical activity is beneficial; find time for hobbies and activities that bring you pleasure.
- Manage your sleep well – It is important for an adult human being to get at least 6-8 hours of good sleep every night. Building good sleep habits helps the body de-stress most of the unease that we build up during the day. It is advisable to create a plan around bedtime habits like no smart devices in bed, no caffeine for at least 5 hours before bed, etc.
- Learn how to relax – Meditation, deep breathing exercises and mindfulness can help reduce stress. A few minutes each day to focus on a simple activity like breathing, walking or enjoying a meal can lead to a more relaxed and calmer mind. The mental well-being that meditation provides can be a successful tool in the long run.
- Build support circles – Friends, family and loved ones can be a great support system if mindful communication is established. Build a close circle of people you can trust and talk to about your stressors. A well-established connection between your support system can help alleviate stress by leaps and bounds.
If you still continue to feel overwhelmed by work stress, you may want to talk to a psychologist, who can help you find the exact cause and manage stress. Identify the root cause(s) so that you know what specific intervention(s) you need, rather than seek general solutions.
However not all stress is bad. Psychologists have classified stress further into two types – eustress, and distress. Eustress is the good kind of stress – a positive short-term response that helps us with self-motivation and energy. Distress, is the anxiety-causing signal that we feel taking over our mind in times of tough situations and can often lead to harm if unattended and prolonged. A well balanced environment of performance culture and a structure that promotes mental well being is key to long lasting success that augurs well both for the individual and the organisation.