Understanding and managing stress in the workplace

Creating boundaries and engaging in regular self-care exercises can increase productivity and wellness

One evening after work, I started to experience chest pains. I tried to ignore it, but it kept persisting, and then I started to worry. I started to Google “heart attack symptoms in women” and then trying to convince myself I was okay and the feelings would pass.

I did not have a heart attack, but this was the moment I realized, although I knew my life had been in an anxious state for some time, I had not been taking care of myself. I let my stresses and anxieties build up to an unhealthy level due to a high-stress work environment and a lack of balance between home and work.

Workplace stress has been a topic of research and discussion for more than a decade, some even citing it as an epidemic of the 21st century. I wish that I could disagree; however, the truth of the matter is that much of our time is spent in the workforce. With an economy that can feel unpredictable, the rising cost of, well, everything, and the general mental status of the country, attention to workplace stress is evident.

Statistically speaking

The American Institute of Stress provides some alarming statistics regarding workplace stress:

  • 25 percent of people view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives.
  • 26 percent of workers said they were “often or very often burned out or stressed by their work.”
  • Job stress is more strongly associated with health complaints than financial or family problems.
  • 80 percent of workers feel stress on the job, nearly half say they need help in learning how to manage stress and 42 percent say their coworkers need such help.
  • 14 percent of respondents had felt like striking a coworker in the past year, but didn’t.
  • 9 percent are aware of an assault or violent act in their workplace and 18 percent had experienced some sort of threat or verbal intimidation in the past year.
  • 60 percent of lost workdays each year can be attributed to stress.
  • 75-90 percent of visits to health care providers are due to stress-related conditions, costing employers in increased health costs.

Let’s talk about stress

Stress is as natural part of life, something that we cannot avoid, and occurs on multiple levels from many sources.

A stressor is the stimulus or event that triggers our stress response. Stressors can be both internal (thoughts and feelings) or external (things that happen outside of us).

The Stress Response is the reaction to any pressure or demand. This is a total experience that includes both mind and body.

Many of the most stressful events in life are related to the workplace: firings, business readjustments, changes in financial status, altered responsibilities, changes in occupation, trouble with bosses/colleagues, changes in work hours, retirements and vacations.

When the stress response is triggered, our bodies go through a physiological change to adapt to the pressures and demands of the experience. It is an amazing process that allows us to adapt and to succeed in the face of threats, traumas and change. However, when stress becomes a chronic issue, the body and mind become deregulated, leading to breakdowns both physically and mentally.

Brain and body impacts

When our body goes into the stress response, there are numerous events that instantly take place that put us into the fight or flight mode. We have all experienced this at one time or another: muscle tension, activation of strong emotions, stress hormones surging through the body (adrenaline and norepinephrine), cortisol is released, pupils dilate, blood pressure increase and the digestion is slowed down. Anything that threatens our sense of well-being will trigger us into a state of hyper-arousal (the stress response). It is like the gas pedal of a car when your foot is pressed all the way down. We know, or at least can assume, what this does to an engine. So, what are the imagined effects on the mind and body?

Now, imagine this as a permanent way to go through life.

Common symptoms

  • Physical: Change in appetite, increased drug, alcohol, tobacco use, pounding heart, frequent colds , headaches, muscle aches, fatigue.
  • Emotional: Anxiety, bad temper/irritability, mood swings, depression.
  • Mental: Poor concentration, lower productivity/lack of new ideas, forgetfulness, “spacing out,” negative attitude, busy mind.

What can we do?

Mindfulness and awareness are keys in combating stress. This involves the ability to pay attention to our mind and body, without judgment and assess what you may need in that particular moment.

When people are feeling completely overwhelmed and they cannot see a way out of the situation, they can get caught in depressive rumination, which creates feelings of inadequacy, depression and helplessness. There have been proven benefits in providing stress management programs in the workplace. These programs target the employees’ ability to self-regulate and learn to focus on what can be controlled versus what cannot. The attitudes and culture related to mental health and self-care can also be examined in the workplace to support its employees.

As an employee, creating boundaries between work and home, and engaging in regular self-care exercises throughout the work day have shown to increase productivity and wellness. Taking breaks, doing gratitude exercises, breathing, checking in with ourselves and learning to take a more mindful approach to work, and life in general, keeps us more focused, and ultimately happier.

Jolene Feeney is the owner of Mindful Wellness Counseling. Her therapy model focuses on taking action. She engages humor, genuine regard, empathy, mindfulness and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) informed techniques to achieve the individual therapy goals set. She can be reached at Jolene@www.mindfulwellnesswa.com.