We often see workplace stress as something that is exhibited by loud outbursts and angry body language. We also expect to see physical signs such as headaches, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, exhaustion and sleeplessness whether in ourselves and others as indications that things have got too much.
There are however more subtle effects of mounting workplace stress that we should recognise and be alert to.
It’s the subtle signs of stress that mislead.
Such things as feelings of hopelessness, agitation, anxiety, making mistakes, minor but persistent irritability, forgetfulness or poor communication. As individuals we are usually the least capable of assessing our own stress condition and typically we will underrate our exposure to stress effects. We are also likely to make excuses to deny that we are already in its grasp. Our families and close friends are much better placed to make that assessment and should be consulted regularly to give us a more objective appraisal of our condition.
“I think I’m handling the stress of this job pretty well, don’t you?”
Senior managers are sufficiently well read on the topic to be aware of the good practice behaviours to deal with stress, but often totally ignore all learned advice and lunge headlong into stress exposure without attending to the well known precautions. We far too often deceive ourselves that we can deal with stressful situations better than others who have gone before. Denying our susceptibility to stress is the first step to stress mis-management.
Prevention is always better than cure.
Everyone encounters stressful situations at times, and learning to manage stress can involve different strategies. There are a myriad of books and websites offering advice. This can include:
- Monitor your stress: Identify and understand your stress triggers, or what makes you feel stressed. Notice the warning signs that you are becoming stressed; these may include muscle tension, being irritable or tired.
- Change stressors if you can: Clearly attempting to control those things likely to raise your stress levels is important – provided they are within your sphere of influence. For example making changes to your work hours or job routine; get extra help to resolve lingering problems; postpone major life changes such as moving house if you are already stressed at work.
- Exercise: Regular exercise can relieve tension, relax the mind and reduce anxiety.
- Relaxation: Deep breathing exercises, muscle relaxation exercises, yoga and meditation are some techniques that can relax the body and reduce stress.
- Recreation: Do things you enjoy, whether active or passive that help clear your mind of work matters. Make sure you use your leave entitlement to have a meaningful break from work.
- Spend time with family or friends: Being with people you find uplifting, resolving personal conflicts, and talking about your feelings can help.
- Look after your health: Maintain a healthy diet, ensure you get enough sleep and avoid using drugs and alcohol to cope. Have a regular health and fitness check-up.
- Control your own workload: Make sure you take your lunch and tea breaks away from your office or work station. Learn to say ‘no’. Don’t allow yourself to be overwhelmed by new commitments.
The American Psychological Association
emphasises the need to take control of the environment around you to reduce stress. Being mindful of what should have your attention and what is currently dominating it is an important stress management strategy.
“Establish boundaries. In today’s digital world, it’s easy to feel pressure to be available 24 hours a day. Establish some work-life boundaries for yourself. That might mean making a rule not to check email from home in the evening, or not answering the phone during dinner. Although people have different preferences when it comes to how much they blend their work and home life, creating some clear boundaries between these realms can reduce the potential for work-life conflict and the stress that goes with it.”
Getting help in managing workplace stress.
Many managers are successful in managing the ebb and flow of stress in their working life and do not need external intervention. In these cases they already observe many aspects of the good advice listed above. In addition they tend to encourage others close to them to help monitor their condition and provide feedback if they notice any changes in demeanour or tell tale signs of elevated stress levels. Having someone to confide in at times of stress is very helpful.
Disciplining ourselves to observe these stress management behaviours is the most challenging part. In this age of technology there are even a range of mobile phone “Apps” (like My Stress Kit) providing self-management tools to:
- Identify what’s raising your stress levels
- Track your stress levels and causes, with tips on preventing stress
- Link to a bank of stress relief tips
- Monitor how your stress levels are changing over time
Even more challenging to our self esteem is acknowledging that we need to seek help, advice and counselling – and deciding who is best to provide that support. Sometimes the best recourse is someone close and then again sometimes it is best given by someone at arms length.
Protracted exposure to stressful situations or job environments can lead to long term anxiety and depression leading to decline in general wellbeing and health problems. If you feel unable to manage your stress alone or with support from loved ones, it is preferable to seek help from a counsellor or health professional.
There are a number of well credentialed organisations active in the Australian business environment who can provide expert assistance when circumstances arise. These include: