Stress at work doesn't have to be the norm

Level best

Work-related stress can take a toll in so many ways – on you and the company’s bottom line. It may be normal, but it doesn’t have to be the norm

Level best

In today’s turbulent world, the workplace can be an emotional minefield. Even before the COVID-19 lockdown and its unprecedented impact on the economy, SA’s workforce was worried, drained and overwhelmed by long hours, tight deadlines, financial concerns and ever-increasing demands.

As Ann Werner, an industrial psychologist and registered business coach based in Cape Town, says, ‘work-related stressors can vary from being in the wrong job for your skillset with no option to shift positions, to a lack of confidence in management. An organisation’s toxic “witch-hunt mentality” or blame culture, feeling overlooked, and experiencing gender bias or misalignment with your own personal ethics can also contribute to chronic job-related stress’.

And that’s by no means the definitive list of tension-inducing factors that many employees experience while earning a living. Lack of job security, difficult interpersonal relationships with colleagues and insufficient recognition or reward for a job well done can also add to workplace stress, says Randburg-based psychologist Ilse de Beer. Add unrealistic targets and lack of resources, and it’s no wonder some office spaces and boardrooms feel like war zones.

Ongoing stress eventually affects employees’ ability to cope, wreaks havoc with their mental and physical health and colours their work performance. ‘Dealing with constant stress at work can diminish focus and derail productivity, initiating a vicious cycle of perpetual hyper-alertness,’ says Durban-based clinical psychologist Sherona Rawat. ‘When this happens, stress hormones are secreted on an ongoing basis, significantly wearing down your mental, emotional and physical health.’ These can range from the relatively benign – more colds and flu – to the more serious, including clinical depression, heart disease and metabolic syndrome. Chronic stress can also lead to anxiety, high blood pressure and a weakened immune system.

Living with job-related anxiety takes its toll on professional and personal relationships, sleep patterns, confidence and overall well-being. Dealing with it in unhealthy ways, such as overeating, drinking too many glasses of wine and abusing prescription drugs, is common.

‘You’re also likely to find that “calling in sick” becomes a more frequent occurrence as you battle with feelings of hopelessness and exhaustion,’ says Rawat. This isn’t uncommon. A study conducted by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group revealed that more than 40% of all work-related illness is due to work-related stress, major depression, burnout and anxiety disorders. And, according to figures supplied by Occupational Care South Africa, a workplace health and wellness solutions company, absenteeism costs the SA economy between R12 billion and R16 billion a year. A generous percentage of this collective time off is due to workplace stress and burnout. In other words, workplace anxiety is more than just a matter of employee health – it has a direct effect on a company’s bottom line.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. In fact, experts posit that most of us operate better when we experience an ‘ideal’ level of stress. ‘When you’re excited about your work, it provides a feeling of contentment, efficacy and self-worth,’ says Werner. ‘This is the good buzz, known as “eustress” – you are busy, able, well supported and are enjoying the challenges.’

When your work is aligned to your natural strengths and abilities, it can be described as a peak experience; a type of elation. ‘This type of stress flushes your body with feel-good endorphins – and creates a desirable adrenalin rush that serves to encourage and to push better performance, rather than detracting from one’s capacity,’ she says.

In order to prevent this welcome, positive element of stress from spiralling into the intense levels of anxiety that have a negative impact on well-being, it’s worth doing an impromptu audit of your workplace habits – and exploring ways in which you are able to dial back the stress so you can cope more efficiently. ‘Anxiety levels can be heightened by uncertainty caused by things outside your control,’ says Rawat. ‘The best way to combat that is to focus only on the things you can control – like your effort, your attitude and how you treat your colleagues – rather than the outcomes over which you have no power.’

Health psychologist and world-renowned speaker Kelly McGonigal makes a case for a positive rethinking of stress. In her opinion, it’s not stress per se that is harmful, it’s the way you think about it. ‘Instead of seeing stress as your enemy, make it work for you,’ she says.

‘Stress and anxiety are nothing but a sign that you care about something, and this care can be moulded into something that improves your performance, instead of inhibiting it.’ In her book, the Upside of Stress, McGonigal steers clear of any ‘think happy thoughts’ pseudo-science and instead grounds her message in numerous scientific studies.

‘The first step is to acknowledge stress when you experience it. Simply allow yourself to notice the stress, including how it affects your body,’ she writes. ‘The second step is to welcome the stress by recognising that it’s a response to something you care about. Can you connect to the positive motivation behind the stress? What is at stake here, and why does it matter to you? The third step is to make use of the energy that stress gives you, instead of wasting that energy trying to manage your stress. What can you do right now that reflects your goals and values?’

On a practical level, check your job description, paying attention to the tasks required and key result areas, suggests Werner. ‘See if there is alignment with what you are doing and what is expected of you.’ If necessary, have a talk with your supervisor and go over expectations as well as strategies for meeting them. This can relieve stress for both of you.

It’s also critical that you draw boundaries – and stick to them – when you don’t have capacity, says Werner. ‘If you struggle to say “no’” when necessary, ask yourself why you are willing to forfeit your time for someone else.

‘Are you keen to be liked at all costs? Do you feel your work isn’t as important as others’ [work], or have you been led to believe that some contemporaries call the shots and you need to fall in line? This might be difficult, but it is important to remember that you count too,’ she adds. ‘While, initially, you could feel bad about letting someone down, the upside is you are not resentful about them “taking” time away from you. Learning to say “no” is a process but it is one well worth beginning.’

Then it’s time to take stock. Werner advises that you ‘prioritise projects and break them down into manageable chunks. For those in a rote-function environment, place tasks in order of necessity – those in a more dynamic environment should refocus and reorganise tasks regularly. Amid the stress, you can complete smaller tasks and create pockets of eustress, which in turn can be motivational’.

Focus on getting these small sections completed with as few distractions as possible. Be disciplined about not checking your social media feeds and opening emails – and move to an uninterrupted space if you can. Cultivating positive relationships in the workplace is also key. ‘Connecting with co-workers and developing friendships can help buffer you from the negative effects of stress,’ says Rawat. Steer clear of high-conflict personality types in the office, and look for ways to lighten the mood in the workplace when things start becoming too serious. And, finally, make the time to replenish and return to your pre-stress level of functioning, says Rawat. This means ‘switching off’ from work and engaging in relaxing pursuits or exercise.

Whether it’s playing chess, training for a marathon, or baking cakes, your hobbies will provide an outlet for stress and something to look forward to after a hard day (or week) in the office.

By Biddi Rorke
Image: Gareth van Nelson/Highbury Media