Mental health

Coping with workplace stress

Posted Jan. 17, 2011, at 4:16 p.m.

Work stress is increasing:

In a 2007 survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, 74% of Americans reported that work is their top stressor. This represented an increase compared to 2006, where 59% of people identified work as their number one source of stress. Thus, there is clear evidence that people are struggling more and more to cope with demands associated with their jobs.

Consequences of high work stress

The physical, psychological, and behavioral impact of high stress levels are becoming increasingly well understood. Short term physical effects of stress include:

  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Digestion problems
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Lack of energy (also a symptom of depression)

The behavioral effects of work stress, particularly threat of layoff, include:

  • Decreases in following safety rules
  • Increase in the number of workplace injuries and accidents.

Causes of Workplace Stress

The specific factors which make work stressful are numerous. Not only do individual workplaces have their own unique set of stressors, but individuals are affected differently depending on the other demands on their lives. However, research suggests a number of common factors that contribute to job stress.

  • Sense of powerlessness: Jobs where employees are given little control over their work are more likely to cause people to feel depressed, hopeless, and helpless.
  • Unclear job description: When workers are unclear about what is expected of them, stress increases. Developing clear job descriptions, even if there is not total agreement, produces less stress and anxiety than jobs where expectations are not clearly defined.
  • Traumatic events on the job: Some jobs involve dealing with situations like automobile accidents, medical emergencies, or violence. Other traumatic events may be related to co-worker harassment. In either case, symptoms of anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder can result.
  • Work setting: Physical environments that are noisy, have little privacy, or subject to poor temperature or ventilation, are chronically stressful. Certain work settings may also have chronic interpersonal stress such as pressure to perform or frequent disagreements.

Strategies for Decreasing Workplace Stress

Minimizing the impact of work stress involves both short term and long term strategies.

Short-term strategies

  • Recharge outside of work: If your work stress is temporary, it may be sufficient to try to focus on recharging outside of work. Getting support from friends or family, engaging in enjoyable recreation activities, or exercise will help with short term stress.
  • Avoid negative coping mechanisms: Try to avoid using things like smoking, increasing alcohol consumption, or overeating to cope with short term stress.
  • Increased involvement in work decisions: In some work settings, employers encourage employees to become involved in how work is done. If this is the case in your workplace, getting more involved can help reduce stress.

Long-term strategies

Research has helped identify characteristics of healthy workplaces; that is, those that emphasize employee well being. Healthy workplaces are also those that have the greatest capacity for improving overall organizational performance. Characteristics of healthy workplaces include:

  • High levels of employee involvement
  • Allowing a high degree of flexibility to achieve work-life balance
  • Opportunities for growth and development
  • Emphasis on health and safety
  • High levels of employee recognition.

For More Information, visit the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program on line.

Psychiatrist David Prescott is director of performance improvement at The Acadia Hospital in Bangor.

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