Managing Work Stress

WHAT IS STRESS?
Most experts define stress as a response to life situations like the following:
• Having too many responsibilities
• Having vague or confusing expectations
• Having to do unpleasant tasks
• Facing too many distractions
• Doing work one is not trained for
• Working with difficult people
• Being bored
• Being sick
• Experiencing too many changes
• Being in physical danger
• Living or working in a crowded space
• Getting insufficient exercise
• Getting poor nutrition
• Getting insufficient sleep
• Getting insufficient time to relax
• Being dissatisfied with one’s physical appearance
• Abusing drugs or alcohol

WHAT CAUSES STRESS?
Stress has become a factor in our culture in the last 20 years because of things that were originally designed to make life less stressful. Conveniences such as ATM machines, microwave ovens, and fax machines have made life easier in many ways, but they also have woven an expectation of instant gratification into our culture. And this causes stress.

Here are a few other examples of products and services that were invented to make life more efficient and productive, but which sometimes seem instead to add to stress:
• 24-hour stores and restaurants
• 1-hour photo developing
• Drive-thru fast food
• 10-minute oil changes
• The Internet
• Catalog and online shopping
• Personal computers
• E-mail
• Headline news
• 30-minute pizza delivery

WHAT CAUSES STRESS AT WORK?
Almost everyone complains of stress at work these days. It often results from one of the following:
• Having too much or too little work to do
• Having to do work that is very complicated and demanding
• Having to do work that is boring and repetitive
• Having unclear goals and expectations
• Having to follow changing or confusing procedures
• Being at a career dead end
• Working in a company with an impersonal management philosophy

WHOM DOES WORK STRESS AFFECT THE MOST?
Stress affects people in every type of work setting. People at the top of organizations suffer from stress because of excessive workloads, unrealistic expectations, and isolation. The phrase “it’s lonely at the top” has some truth to it. Middle managers often experience stress because they have responsibility for the people who report to them but lack the control to execute what is expected. With the recent epidemic of corporate downsizing, middle managers have also been given greater and greater workloads. Managers who manage to keep their jobs often feel as if they are living in the shadow of termination. Professionals suffer from their own brand of stress, caused by monotony. Doctors, lawyers, and other professionals often perform the same kind of work for many years, resulting in boredom and desperation. Workers at the lower levels of today’s organizations often feel stress caused by boredom and the frustration of dealing with the public. They also may feel less successful than their coworkers in higher-level jobs and may feel stressed by their lack of status.

WHY HAS WORKPLACE STRESS GOTTEN WORSE?

The nature of work has changed. The fight-or-flight response to stress is ineffective in response to the stresses of life today.

The workplace has become decentralized. In many places, people no longer work together in one place, but may be scattered around the world or be working from home, connected by technology.

People change with each generation. Baby Boomers differ from Generation Xers in terms of their values, their work ethic, and their definitions of success. These generational differences contribute to stress at work.

DOES STRESS AFFECT WOMEN DIFFERENTLY?
Both genders experience stress. It affects women in some unique ways, however. Here are a few of them:
• Overall, women are still paid less than men for the same work.
• Women still face a “glass ceiling” as they climb the corporate ladder. A recent report stated that only 2 percent of the members of top management of North American corporations are women.
• Women who choose to have children are usually responsible for the logistics of childcare.
• Women with children often do more housework when they get home than their husbands do.
• Compared to men, women with children also tend to experience more guilt feelings about leaving their children to go to work.

HOW CAN BUILDING HEALTHY RELATIONSHIPS HELP YOU MANAGE STRESS?
The subject of how to build strong relationships fills many books. In the limited space of this handout, let’s look at the key components of this stress-reducing strategy.

Identify the sources of stress in your relationships. Write about them in a journal. Make a list of people who cause you stress and explore what the issues are.

Resolve the underlying issues. For each of the situations identified in the preceding step, assess what needs to happen to resolve it. Make a list and design a plan to improve the situation.

Learn skills to improve relationships. Relationship skills are learned. We are not born knowing how to get along well with others, and most of us learned only limited skills from our parents. Identify the skills you need to develop, and make a plan for yourself. You can learn these skills by reading books, taking classes, or working with a therapist.

Avoid toxic people and situations. Some people have a toxic effect on you. If you can, limit the amount of time you spend in these situations. Look for opportunities to decline their invitations. When these people are family members, remind yourself that you don’t have to feel guilty about avoiding anyone who makes you feel bad about yourself. In work situations, look for ways to rearrange your schedule or your workspace to avoid interacting with such people.

Seek out positive people and situations. This step is the reverse of the previous step. Look for opportunities to spend more time with people and in situations that make you feel good. Think about people who make you feel good about yourself, and look for ways to increase time with them.

Watch what you eat. Some foods amplify the stress response. These include:
Caffeine stimulates the release of stress hormones. This increases heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen flow to the heart. Ongoing exposure to caffeine can harm the tissue of the heart.
Refined sugar and processed flour are depleted of needed vitamins. In times of stress, certain vitamins help the body maintain the nervous and endocrine systems.
Too much salt can lead to excessive fluid retention. This can lead to nervous tension and higher blood pressure. Stress often adds to the problem by causing increased blood pressure.
Smoking not only causes disease and shortens life, it leads to increased heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration.
Alcohol robs the body of nutrients that it might otherwise use for cell growth and repair. Alcohol also harms the liver and adds empty calories to the body.

Eat more complex carbohydrates. (Examples include fruits, vegetables, whole breads, cereals, and beans.) This is especially important during times of high stress.

Get moving. The human body was designed to be physically active. However, in most jobs today, people sit most of the time. They hardly move at all, except when it is time for coffee breaks or lunch. When faced with stressors, we respond with our minds, not our bodies. It is no wonder that many of us have a difficult time responding to stressful events. Exercise is one of the simplest and most effective ways to respond to stress. Activity provides a natural release for the body during its fight-or-flight state of arousal. After exercising, the body returns to its normal state of equilibrium, and one feels relaxed and refreshed.

Look for ways to let go of tension and anxiety. Meditation and progressive relaxation are two valuable ways to regenerate and refresh yourself. You can purchase meditation and relaxation audiotapes or record your own. This is especially important because your health and long life depend on minimizing stress and achieving a sense of balance and well-being.

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