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Stress and Stress Management in the Workplace

Unmanaged stress can have a serious impact on employee performance and overall wellbeing, which in turn, has crippling consequences on company output.

The results of poor stress management and workplace pressures can include decreased proficiency, higher absenteeism rates, low company morale, counterproductive team work and employee health related problems. Effectively assessing stressors, stress types and implementing the necessary measures to create healthy stress management programs can be the differentiating factor of a mediocre business to a productively efficient one.

What are stressors?

It must be noted that stress factors are subjective and what one person may find stressful, others may not necessarily experience as negatively. The way in which we experience and react to stress is described as an emotional condition which triggers physical, psychological and emotional responses from the individual.
Formally, a stressor is defined as an event or context that elevates adrenaline and triggers the stress response which results in the body being thrown out of balance as it is forced to respond.

Examples of Stress Triggers

  • Environmental stressors (elevated sound levels, over-illumination, overcrowding)
  • Daily stress events (e.g. traffic, lost keys)
  • Life changes (e.g. divorce, bereavement)
  • Workplace stressors (e.g. role strain, lack of control)

Stressors usually fall into one of four categories:

  • Internal stressors - these we carry around inside of us. They are self owned stressors. These stressors may range from the posture we adapt, to addictions and assessment of life/personal satisfaction or simply not getting enough sleep.
  • External stressors - these are the stressors in the environments in which we operate and will range from parental pressure, to work pressure, to role pressure, to household pressure, traffic, crime etc.
  • Hidden stressors - these are factors which cause stress but where the underlying cause is difficult to identify. It often results in conflicting feelings and a sense of an inappropriate reaction or response to a situation. For example underdeveloped emotional intelligence where self-awareness is not apparent.
  • Obvious stressors - there are also those situations which obviously do or are intended to bring about stress. For example a work deadline would be an imposed obvious stressor where as the death of a loved one would be un-imposed but an obvious one.

Stress and performance

For the most part, people view stress as a negative factor. Stress however is only negative when it is excessive, unmanaged and results in adverse symptoms and experiences. Some of the negative consequences include:

  • Feeling anxious, irritable, or depressed
  • Apathy, loss of interest in work or other activities
  • Problems sleeping
  • Fatigue,
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Muscle tension or headaches
  • Stomach problems
  • Social withdrawal
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Using alcohol or drugs to cope

It is clear that with these symptoms the individual's performance at work, home and in social settings will be adversely affected. Negative stress also seems to have a self-building facet where once stressed, additional factors just keep contributing to the stress and increase the stress levels while decreasing performance and functioning.

The balance between excessive stress (distress) causing non-functional behavior and good stress (eustress) is often represented as an inverted U graph.

This is why some stressors provide a motivational force that can in fact drive us forward, whether that is at work or with personal aspects.

Eustress is a feeling of excitement and a sense of commitment to something. Eustress is often experienced when playing a sport, when accomplishing a goal or when succeeding at a challenge.

Stress and personality types

Research has also shown us that personality types are influenced differently by stressors. The Myers Briggs Type indicator is a personality inventory which generates 16 types of personality. There are 4 scales/dimensions including:

  • introversion and extroversion (effectively where we get our energy from)
  • sensing and intuition (where we source our information from)
  • thinking and feeling (how we process this information)
  • judging and perceiving (how we put the information back out and manage the environment)

The outcome of the Myers Briggs personality indicators yields a 4 letter profile which in turn gives an indication of individual stress responses and how best to manage such responses.
Knowing that personality types differ in their response and approach to stress, it becomes useful in stress management programs to understand the various personality types and to implement wellness programs which accommodate the differences between people. This is more likely to yield a positive (eustress) approach to the everyday stressors and increase performance, life satisfaction etc.

Stress management and wellness

The logical first step to stress management is the assessment of the stress levels in an organisation. Administering a fast and effective stress test will provide an indication of the stress levels and the types of stress. Following on from this, initiatives can be implemented to reduce and/or manage the stress.

Some stress management activities for the individual may include:

  • exercising - this creates a hormonal reaction which releases positive stress
  • selecting and eating foods which keep you going and provide the right nutrition and sugar levels
  • limiting the intake of alcohol
  • getting enough rest and sleep
  • avoid over-committing yourself
  • resist perfectionism

From a workplace perspective, stress management initiatives may include:

  • assessing personality types and managing stress levels accordingly
  • putting balanced work schedules together
  • implementing and an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
  • breaking project work into smaller pieces
  • Providing time management and stress management courses
  • assessing the communications styles within the organisation and addressing directive communication which is not conducive to performance
  • appropriate delegation of responsibility so that people are not overburdened with delivery
  • assessing the emotional intelligence within the workplace so as to leverage off those who are able to draw energy and direct within stressful or emotive situations.
  • Offer rewards and incentives for positive management of workplace pressure and stressors as well as support to others in these situations
  • Promote a work environment and organisational culture which encourages entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity in solutions and which is supportive and consultative in communication style.
  • Ensure the organisational values are aligned to the culture and that management reinforces this in all human capital activities.
  • Providing opportunities for social events and/or less formal communication
  • Looking into the prospects of building a gym or supporting participation by staff in sports

This list is not exhaustive and there are many things which both individuals and the organisation are able to do to build a wellness program which derives benefits. Given that organisations are as unique as individuals, it will become important to assess the specific circumstances and to design and develop a program which is tailored to that organisation. Ultimately however, stress management and employee wellness will contribute to the bottom line and society as a whole.

By Cindy Hardy
Industrial Psychologist

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