If you allow stress to overcome you in the workplace, this affects your performance which in turn affects your career and earning capacity not to mention the affect it has on your long term health.
Everyone experiences stress at some point in their lives. Some stress is good for you as it gives you the edge especially in the workplace. The problem arises is when you become overwhelmed with stress to a level where it becomes dangerous to your health. Left unchecked, it contributes to many health problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes.
Let’s take a look at what stress is.
What is stress?
Stress is a natural physical response to external events that makes you feel threatened whether real or perceived. It’s how you respond to pressure or a threat by feeling tense, nervous or on edge.
The body doesn’t distinguish between physical or psychological threats. When you’re stressed over a traffic jam, busy schedule, an argument with a spouse or colleague, or a mountain of unpaid bills, your body reacts just as strongly as if you were facing a life-or-death situation, triggering the fight or flight response.
The three stages of stress
The first stage of stress is arousal and attack. This is a natural response to external stimulus, where your energy levels are raised and you become more alert and aware.
The second stage of stress is when the chemicals in your body change. The stress hormones are released into your body. If the stress triggers continue, there is a buildup of the stress hormones and your life patterns change.
The third stage of stress is when your energy levels become drained and eventually depleted.
The physical effects of stress
Stress triggers a surge of hormones in the body (adrenaline) that temporarily affects your nervous system. Once the stress hormones are released, they stay in your body for hours. Each successive stressful event contributes to releasing even more stress hormones into the body.
When you become overwhelmed by stress, your emotional levels run so high you won’t respond appropriately or make the best decisions in the workplace. High levels of stress hijack your ability to deal with a situation calmly and accurately. You hear what you want to hear, rather than understanding what is being said.
Not all stress is bad
Not all stress is bad. When working properly, optimal stress levels help you to stay focused and energetic, keeps you alert, and helps you rise to meet the challenges in your personal and professional life. Stress keeps you on your toes during an important presentation at work, sharpens your concentration in a crisis, or drives you to perform at optimum levels.
If you carry a great deal of responsibilities and worry a lot, your emergency stress response may be turned on looking to protect you. The more your body’s stress system is activated, the easier it is to trip additional stress responses and the harder it is to shut it off.
Having the ability to recognize when your stress levels are high and taking immediate action to diffuse or reduce your stress levels will help you perform better in the workplace. You want to control stress levels, which enables you to make good decisions and not destructive ones.
Stress triggers inappropriate responses
Excessive stress is not helpful because it causes major damage to your mood, affects your productivity, your relationships, and your health. When stress becomes overwhelming, you get near breaking point. Each additional stressful burden, regardless of how trivial it is, can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
This triggers adrenalin and activates a physical change in your body. This reaction to a physical threat is akin to someone confronting you with a knife, which is understandable. However, what you don’t understand is, unfair criticism, a heated argument at work, or just one of those days when everything seems to go wrong also causes a reaction just the same as a physical threat. When faced with these kinds of stressors, your body prepares you for fight or flight.
You may or may not be aware of the physical changes to your body when under stress. What you can’t see or feel is the increased levels of cortisol in the blood. If over-produced over time, it suppresses the immune system, making you more susceptible to illness and/or infections.
It’s easier to see and feel the physical signs of stress in yourself but much harder to see the emotional and behavioral signs of stress that equally trigger the fight or flight syndrome.
Men and women handle stress differently
According to Robert Sapolsky, PhD, professor of neurobiology at Stanford University, men and women react differently to stress mainly due to hormones. When they are stressed, three hormones are released into the body, cortisol, epinephrine (commonly known as adrenaline), and oxytocin.
With women, when cortisol and epinephrine rush through the body when stressed, oxytocin is released from the brain, which counters the production of cortisol and epinephrine. This promotes the nurturing and relaxation emotions. Women are more likely to deal with stress by befriending others, talking to friends, and reaching out. This is designed primarily to protect themselves and their off-spring.
Men also secrete oxytocin when they are under stress, but in much smaller amounts; therefore, they have a tendency to go into fight or flight mode. They will bottle it up (go into a cave), fight back, or look for an escape.
Pickhardt suggests men under stress will often look to achieve a winning performance at all costs. Women will enter self-sacrificing relationships when under stress. The greatest stressors for women is relationship loss and performance failure for men.
This is important because, if you are a male leader dealing with women subordinates or a female leader dealing with male subordinates, both your and their reaction to stress will be different. You may have to adjust your leadership style to suit in stressful situations.
Stress and performance
There is a definite correlation between stress levels and performance. When stress levels are too low, the tendency is for you to feel bored, frustrated, and dissatisfied. When stress levels are too high, their tendency is for you to become irrational, exhausted, experience a loss of self-esteem to where serious illnesses can set in. Optimum stimulation results in rational problem solving, creativity, progress, and high satisfaction levels.
What stress costs a business
The costs of stress in the workplace and for an individual are potentially high. Some people die from stress related diseases or become unemployable.
Stress is the most common cause of long-term sickness and absence from the workplace. The World Health Organization estimated in 2012 that stress cost American businesses over $300 billion dollars a year. As of April 2013, mental stress costs Australian businesses more than $10 billion per year. In the UK, stress is costing businesses over £4 billion in lost working days and wasted wages.
Staggering statistics and a very good reason to keep stress levels high on your agenda.
Here are some other interesting statistics. Depending on the researcher, as many as 25% of employees take time off work because of work related stress.
- 75% – 90% of visits to a doctor are stress related.
- 60% – 80% of work related accidents are related to stress.
- 30% of health care claims are stress related.
Consider the effect this has on productively and ultimately profitable outcomes.
Common causes of work related stress
As you can see, there is potentially a huge cost to you and a business through stress. Learning to manage stress levels in the workplace is critical to your physical and mental health.
Some common causes of employee stress are:
Many jobs demand regular contact with others at work. Poor or unsupportive relationships with colleagues, supervisors, or managers can be a potential source of stress. In addition, stress can occur if people feel isolated or unfairly treated.
Poor work relationships can result from:
- A lack of understanding and leadership
- Poor management style (inconsistent, aggressive, autocratic, uncaring)
- Managers constantly finding fault with their subordinates
- A feeling of isolation at work
- Bullying and harassment
- Others not pulling their share of the weight
- Others taking credit for personal achievements
- Poor relationships with colleagues
- Poor communication
Aspects of the job
- Lack of training or adequate resources
- Unrealistic deadlines and expectations
- Workloads that are unmanageable
- Understaffed for work already timetabled or committed
- Lack of clarity between roles and responsibilities
- Being bored or doing mundane work
- Physical working environment (noise, heating or lack of it, bad lighting)
- Lack of involvement in the decision-making process
- Lack of control over certain aspects of the job
- Not considering ideas and suggestions from employees
- A lack of influence over performance targets
- A lack of time to complete tasks
Lack of influence, overload, and a lack of control also contribute to work-place stress.
Job Security, rewards and recognition
- Job insecurity
- Fear of redundancy
- Temporary positions and fixed term contracts
- Dissatisfaction with income
- Lack of feedback on performance
How people cope with stress
To handle stress, there are a variety of behaviors employees adopt to help cope with their stress levels.
- Lowering performance standards to reduce stress levels
- Attacking others (fight or flight syndrome)
- Mentally or physically avoiding something causing distress
- Crying to release the stress and/or seeking comfort from others
- Disassociation by separating themselves from parts of their life
- Copying other behaviors to deal with the stress
- Becoming passive aggressive
- Seeing unwanted feelings in other people
- Distancing themselves by moving away or retreating
- Denial by refusing to acknowledge there is distress
- Mentally and physically avoiding distress
- Outbursts of extreme emotion
- Escaping reality through fantasy
- Deliberately provoking others as an excuse to react
- Self-harming by physically abusing their body
- Consciously holding back unwanted feelings
Breaking stressful habits
Everyone is different and what works for one may not work for another. Something that is stressful for you may not be stressful for one of your colleagues.
For example, driving in traffic may trigger high levels of stress for one person for they get agitated easily, leading to potential road rage. Yet, another person might take the same trip and think of driving in traffic as relaxing, because it’s an opportunity to listen to a podcast or music.
It is critical to keep your stress levels under control and equally important to find a method of reducing stress levels. Consider what might help you reduce your own stress levels.
On a final note
Managing your stress levels in the workplace are critical to your success. When your stress levels are too high, immediately take action to reduce your stress levels and you will perform better in the workplace.
In a Nutshell
- Stress is a natural response to a physical or psychological threat real or imagined
- The first stage of stress is arousal and attack.
- The second stage of stress is the release of stress hormones in the body.
- The third stag of stress is when your energy levels become drained and depleted.
- Stress hormones affect your nervous system.
- When you become overwhelmed with stress, your emotional levels run so high you don’t respond appropriately.
- High levels of stress hijack your ability to deal with a situation logically.
- Some stress is needed for optimal performance.
- Men and women handle stress differently.
- Women deal with stress by talking to friends and reaching out.
- Men deal with stress by bottling it in (going into a cave) or move into fight flight or flee mode.
- Whens tress levels are too low you tend to become bored and frustrated.
- When stress levels are too high you tend to become irrational, exhausted and lose confidence.
- Work relationships, aspects of the job, job security and rewards and recognition contribute to stress in the workplace.