We are pleased to welcome back guest author Marie Scott who is a trained Cognitive Behavioral Therapist. She gives us her view on how to manage work-related stress.
There are very few jobs in which you won’t experience a certain amount of stress at some point or other; to a degree, it can be part and parcel of life in general. Feeling a certain amount of pressure can be a positive thing, being both motivating and energising, and for some occupations it is practically an inevitability. Take the working life of a paramedic as an example, with the pressure of not knowing what exact situation they are about to walk into, needing to make split-second decisions on matters of life and death – this all adds up to a pressurised situation, one where one’s adrenaline would be constantly flowing. However, feeling a certain amount of pressure due to the inescapable demands of your job isn’t the same as experiencing the damaging effect of workplace stress.
Before we discuss what can be done about workplace stress, let’s begin by examining what workplace stress actually is. As already mentioned, many jobs contain a certain amount of pressure – whether it is pressure to hit sales or production targets, or demands to get large volumes of work done in a short space of time – and that in itself isn’t a bad thing. Some people positively thrive under these conditions and experiencing pressure isn’t the same as experiencing stress. Pressure can enliven us and motivate us, drive us to achieve our goals and reach further than we thought we were capable of. However, when that pressure gets too much for us and overwhelms us, it can turn into stress. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the government body tasked with keeping people safe at work, defines workplace stress as “The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work”. I think the key words to take from this are “excessive pressures” and “adverse reaction”. A certain amount of pressure is a positive thing, it keeps us motivated and stops us from getting bored, but more pressure than we are able to cope with leads to stress – a state of being where our bodies prepare for attack by launching into ‘fight or flight’ response, leading to a number of physical and mental issues. The symptoms of stress include (but are not limited to) anxiety, digestive issues, tension headaches, irregular heartbeat, insomnia and mood disorders. Prolonged workplace stress can lead to both mental and physical illness.
If you suffer from workplace stress, there are a number of things you can do to attempt to minimise its effects on you. Depending on the nature of your job, you might be able to rearrange your working life so that the things that cause you stress can be removed or minimised. Sometimes our own behaviour and working practices add to the stress we experience – perhaps our time management or organisational skills are poor, leading us to feel rushed and pressured. Maybe our tendency to leave things until the last minute, believing that the pressure of a deadline makes us produce better work, actually works against us by leaving us feeling as though we’re constantly racing against the clock.
If you are able to take an objective look at your working life, you might be able to identify these self-sabotaging behaviours yourself and take practical steps to replace them with more helpful behaviours. For those of you who aren’t able to do this alone, CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) can help you with this by helping you to identify the thoughts and behaviours that increase the stress you experience and finding ways to change those thoughts and behaviours for ones that are more helpful. Relaxation techniques, meditation and mindfulness can also be beneficial for people who find it difficult to cope with the mental strain of workplace stress by teaching you new ways to deal with the pressures you have to cope with.
Of course, we can experience stress in many of the aspects of our lives, such as our relationships or with our finances, but workplace stress can be particularly harmful because of our powerlessness and lack of control over it. The techniques I have just discussed might be useful to many, but some causes of stress in the workplace are out of your control. Badly designed workplaces, unrealistically high targets, incompetent managers or bullying at work, among many others, all cause work-related stress and no amount of breathing techniques or time management courses are going to help in those situations. If we go back to the HSE, they say that it is the employer’s responsibility to provide a safe working place and that doesn’t just include keeping you safe from physical harm, it also places upon your employer a duty of care to keep you safe from mental harm in the workplace – and this includes making sure that you don’t suffer from prolonged stress in the workplace or any form of discrimination or bullying. Your employer has a legal duty to assess the risks to your health from stress at work and take steps to implement measures to minimise those risks. As an employee, your first step needs to be discussing these issues with your employer but if you feel that you aren’t being taken seriously or your concerns aren’t being heard, you do have the right to take steps to protect yourself from harm. Prolonged stress from any area of life has the potential to do great harm to your physical and mental health and you have the right to take steps to prevent yourself from this.
As we see, there are a number of steps you can take to help yourself if you suffer from work-related stress – whether these are self-help techniques, talking therapies such as CBT or by taking steps to hold your employer to account in terms of taking your physical and mental health at work seriously. Because work-related stress can make us feel like we are lacking any sense of control over our lives, sometimes it can be empowering to take that first step as it helps us to feel as though we are taking back control of our lives. Most of us need to work to survive – to pay the bills and provide us with the necessaries (and maybe even luxuries) of life – but that doesn’t mean we should put up with unacceptable levels of workplace stress to the detriment of our health.