Coping with workplace stress

Emer  Waters is an independent provider of occupational health services to small and medium enterprises. For further information on forthcoming stress management courses and related occupational health events contact her at info@occhealth.ie

Emer  Waters is an independent provider of occupational health services to small and medium enterprises. For further information on forthcoming stress management courses and related occupational health events contact her at [email protected]

When you wake up in the morning does your heart sink at the thought of going to work? Does facing exacting deadlines, a bullying boss or unco-operative colleagues fill you with dread and fear?

Or maybe your workplace is a pleasant place in which to work. However, the usual day-to-day demands are proving too much for you because you are already overwhelmed by personal issues.

Emer Waters, a local occupational health advisor, says most people experience stress at work at some stage of their career. In the current economic climate people may find it even harder to cope with the challenges that lie ahead.

“Often, in times of uncertainty we find ourselves struggling to cope with the demands of work and we become ‘stressed’ with the pressures of the job. As work pressures increase, employers, managers and employees all begin to feel the strain.”

Workplace stress is described as a reaction to pressures at work. “Stress occurs when an individual perceives an imbalance between the demands placed on them by work on one hand and their ability to cope on the other,” explains Emer. “It often occurs in situations characterised by low levels of support and control.”

While some stress is a normal part of life excessive stress interferes with productivity and can damage people’s physical and emotional health.

“We all need to find ways to control our stress levels. Admittedly, we can never achieve absolute control over our lives as external forces will often influence our decisions. Yet, it is vitally important to make the distinction between influence and control.”

While certain situations, people or experiences may influence our behaviour we must decide the level of control these factors have over our lives, both professionally and personally, she says.

Stress - work-related or not?

She says it is important to remember that personal stress can adversely affect your work performance.

“Ask yourself is the stress you feel as a result of a work-related issue? Could it be that the source of your stress is related to personal, family, relationship or health concerns and is projected onto your work? Give consideration to this possibility, then decide whether work is the root cause.”

Stress checklist

Often when people feel overwhelmed by work or life pressures, they lose confidence, become irritable or withdrawn, less productive and find work less rewarding.

“As individuals we must be aware of those telltale signs warning us that our health is at risk from excessive stress.”

Here are 10 signs and symptoms which may indicate you are at risk of stress. As a simple exercise, score yourself out of 10.

1. Feeling anxious, irritable or depressed

2. Apathy, loss of interest in work

3. Problems sleeping

4. Fatigue

5. Trouble concentrating

6. Muscle tension or headaches

7. Stomach problems

8. Social withdrawal

9. Loss of sex drive

10. Using drugs and/or alcohol to cope

Now, consider five additional symptoms directly related to your work.

11. Fear of job security

12. Workplace conflict, poor working relationships with colleagues and/or management

13. Increased demands for overtime due to staff cutbacks

14. Pressure to perform to meet rising expectations but without an increase in job satisfaction

15. Pressure to work at optimum levels - all the time.

Emer Waters says if you can identify with some of the symptoms from the initial checklist and also include any from the remaining five on the list relating to work-specific concerns, then you may be experiencing work-related stress.

If you exclude the work-specific list then it is likely the source of your stress lies in another area of your life.

How do you manage your work stress?

There are a variety of ways in which we can reduce our overall stress levels, especially work-related stress.

Start by accepting responsibility for improving your physical and mental well-being, advises Emer.

Avoid pitfalls by identifying unhealthy habits and negative attitudes that can add stress to your working life. Focus on your strengths yet be aware of your limitations.

Try to improve your communication skills, too. This will enhance your relationships with managers and work colleagues.

De-stress the healthy way

She offers the following advice to help people reduce their stress.

Get moving: Aerobic exercise releases endorphins into the bloodstream, lifting your mood, increasing energy, sharpening focus and relaxing mind and body, she outlines. Try to get 30 minutes exercise a day. Three 10 minute sessions staggered should get you started

Eat Healthily: Choose small portions and eat regularly. This helps to stabilise blood sugar levels. Opt for the high protein, low carbohydrate/low fat options and watch your sugar and salt intake.

Drink Water: Aim to drink two litres daily. Use a 500ml bottle and refill it if a two litre bottle appears too daunting.

Drink alcohol in moderation and avoid smoking. “Alcohol may seem to improve your mood short-term but it simply adds to your stress when used as an anxiety release. Dependence grows and so does your anxiety. The nicotine in cigarettes is a powerful stimulant so cut them down if not out.”

Sleep well: Stress and worry can cause insomnia and lack of sleep can make you vulnerable to stress thus creating a vicious cycle. When you’re sleep deprived your ability to handle stress is compromised. It’s much easier to keep your emotional balance when you are well-rested - a key factor in coping with workplace stress. Cut back on coffee. Try herbal remedies instead such as camomile or green tea.

Time Management tips

Create a balanced schedule: Review your daily schedule, tasks and responsibilities. All work and no play is a recipe for burnout. Find the balance between work and family life, social activities and downtime for you.

Beware of over-committing: Be careful when scheduling your working day. Avoid where possible, back-to-back meetings or trying to squeeze too many tasks into one day. Distinguish between urgent tasks and those which can be placed in the pending tray.

Try to leave early: Ten to 15 minutes can mean the difference between a frantic start and a nice relaxed introduction to your working day. Do not add to your stress levels by running late.

Plan regular breaks : Ensure you take little breaks throughout the day. Have lunch away from your desk and try to go for a short walk at lunchtime. The fresh air will help clear your mind and re-focus on the remainder of your work day.

Task Management tips

Prioritise tasks: Make a list of all your tasks starting with the most important. Complete this first. Don’t put off the tasks you find unpleasant. Try to do these first then the remainder of your day will be more pleasant.

Break up projects into manageable tasks. When dealing with a large project or task try to break it up into smaller more manageable pieces and tackle these step by step. It makes a large task less daunting and you can maintain control of the situation without becoming stressed.

Delegation is key. Get others involved whenever possible. Whether at home or at work, we all need help and support from time to time. Try to avoid over-controlling behaviours which prevent you from allowing others to assist with a task. Smart individuals know when to delegate.

Eliminate self-defeating behaviours to reduce workplace stress

As individuals we can often make stresses in the job even worse with negative patterns of thought or behaviour, explains Emer.

“Negative thinking prevents us from moving forward towards addressing and resolving the situation. Negativity will only ever highlight the problem, it will never provide a solution. It is a self-defeating emotion and one which will only serve to heighten your stress levels. If you can change self-defeating habits, you’ll find employer-imposed stress easier to manage.”

1. Resist perfectionism. In work, as in life, everything cannot be perfect. If you attempt to do everything perfectly you are setting unrealistic goals for yourself and are setting yourself up for a fall. Be realistic and set goals which you feel are attainable.

2. Clean up your act: Keep a clean desk policy and de-clutter your workspace. Keep up to speed with filing and general office housekeeping. Keep a ‘to-do’ list and check things off as you complete them. Plan your work schedule and stick to it. You’ll feel more in control.

3. Flip negative thinking: If you only see the downside of every situation then you become demotivated and low in mood. Try to think positively about your work and most importantly, avoid negative-thinking colleagues. Give yourself a psychological pat on the back when you accomplish small tasks. Acknowledge your own achievements and a job well done - even if others don’t.

4. Take time out: Make sure to leave your desk for a few minutes each day and take a walk in the fresh air. Clear your head and focus on something pleasant that makes you smile.

5. Talk about it: Sometimes the best way to relieve stress is simply to talk about it. Sharing your concerns with a sympathetic friend or colleague and getting support and empathy can help focus your mind on what is required to resolve the situation.

6. Maintain work friendships: We spend one third of our lives at work. Having a good working relationship with colleagues is vitally important. Invest in your working relationships. If you work as part of the team you are more likely to receive their support in times of stress or crisis.

7. Smile: Amid all the doom and gloom it is important to try to find humour in situations. If you or others around you start taking things too seriously try to find a way to break through the situation. A little laughter can help lift the mood.

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