It’s become a widely accepted ‘symptom’ of modern living but stress can lead to dire consequences across all spheres of daily life. Coping mechanisms are crucial in mitigating its impact


Stress. It’s everywhere, isn’t it? We’re constantly being told how stressed we are; that we need to find ways to de-stress… Chances are, you and the people around you – colleagues, friends, partner – regularly talk about how stressed you are. It’s become a part of our daily reality, as commonplace as rush-hour traffic and smartphones. But is it normal? Well, yes, it’s certainly become embedded in our understanding of what comprises a successful career. Perhaps a better question, though, is: should it be?

It’s an interesting question, considering how thoroughly the Western world fetishises stress. No pain, no gain, as the saying goes – and in many company cultures there is an unspoken agreement that the more stressed you are, the more virtuous and valuable you are as an employee. There are powerful rewards for appearing to be (and in the majority of cases, actually being) highly stressed – being busy is often conflated with productivity (a fallacy, since working strategically is far more effective than effort alone). Ergo, the busier we are, the more important, successful and, tellingly, valuable we feel.

The little hit of validation we get from exclaiming, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t make it to <insert social event here>; work is just so manic at the moment’ is dangerously addictive – just like those little red notification symbols on our social media apps. Seemingly harmless – until it becomes a compulsion that infuses every waking hour. That’s not to say that we aren’t genuinely stressed; that we aren’t straining under the weight of deadlines and endless demands for our attention. It’s real, it’s pervasive and it’s harmful.

When your body produces stress hormones for a prolonged period, a month or more, this is referred to as chronic stress. These hormones can be good and useful in short bursts, but chronic stress can place huge strain on your body, increasing your risk of disease and robbing you of your peace of mind.

The 2017 Profmed Stress Index found that work stress is one of the largest health problems facing SA professionals. Responses from nearly 3 000 of Profmed’s professional membership base revealed that apart from financial stresses, 45.5% still see work as the biggest contributor to stress in their lives – and 10.09% of respondents indicated that they had taken time off work due to stress-related illnesses over the previous six months.

‘Wearing your stress like a badge of honour is the worst possible affliction you can impose on yourself – you’re shooting yourself in the foot,’ says stress consultant and author Bridget Edwards. ‘Being a martyr never served anyone – being chronically or continually stressed doesn’t either. We all know that person who continually tells everyone how hectic their lives are, and it’s nothing to be proud of. Instead, do something positive to address and reduce your stress.’

Some important questions to ask are: how much of it is genuinely due to circumstances beyond our control and how much is self-created? And how does one go about ‘fixing’ the problem, either way?

The first step is to identify the cause. ‘Work stress can be related to many different things,’ says Dr Debbie Smith. ‘These may include workload, colleagues and personalities, uncertainty about the future – restructuring at work or feeling unclear about your role at work – and a general lack of fulfilment. Once you understand where your stress is coming from, you can address it more specifically to your needs.’

Once you’ve pinpointed where the main source of stress seems to be emanating from, you can look at practical solutions, both short and long term. The first, most obvious place to start is to check in with your health.

Regular exercise, a healthy diet, enough sleep, spending time with loved ones, pursuing fulfilling hobbies: these should be your first port of call for mitigating the damage caused by stress as they’ve been shown to have a palliative effect. ‘Self-care is critically important – never underestimate the value of your health,’ says Edwards.

Overconsumption of alcohol, inadequate sleep, and not making time to unwind (preferably in nature), away from digital distractions, can all amplify any tension you might be experiencing. ‘Much of today’s stress is a choice,’ she says. ‘How much TV or social media do you participate in? Do you sleep correctly, exercise and eat a healthy diet? Those are choices.’

Our attitudes and perceptions can play a huge role in how we experience our work environment. When one examines the deeper causes of stress, more often than not it is because of the way we are interpreting and approaching our circumstances. Consider whether your appraisal of your circumstances is entirely accurate. Often, we experience stress when we feel alternatives or solutions to a pressured situation are not available to us.

For example, will you really be fired and end up penniless on the street if you admit to your manager that you are not coping with your workload? It might sound absurd, but this is a path our thoughts can follow if we don’t examine them carefully and question their accuracy.

Likewise, we may feel our job is completely wrong for us when, in actuality, it may simply be that we feel insecure and believe we fall short of what is required for the role.

‘No job is ever really wrong for you, but rather a stepping stone of learning and growth for that period of time,’ says happiness coach and author Tamlyn Godsall.

‘However, you can for sure be happier and more fulfilled in some jobs more than others. I love this equation. I think it sums it all up. Passion + Action = a purposeful life. It starts with getting clarity on who you are and what you love to do because when you are clear on that and express that in your job role, you feel purposeful; you feel like you are trading your time and your life for something meaningful.’

Finding meaning in your career can go a long way towards a more rewarding work life – if your thoughts are preoccupied with how much you’re looking forward to achieving certain results or goals, you’ll automatically be thinking fewer thoughts along the lines of ‘there’s never enough time’; ‘it’s hopeless’; ‘I hope no one notices I’m no good at X’. In other words, less stress.

Godsall recommends a simple tool devised by Joy Movement called LLC – ‘look, let go and choose’. Look at the situation that is causing stress or anxiety; let go of the thought, belief or programming that is creating that; and choose to replace it with a more empowering thought. For example, say you’re having the thought: ‘My boss is really difficult to work with and I can’t stand it.’

Look: Observe your response to the situation dispassionately, and ask yourself: ‘Is it serving me, or not? Is it useful or not?’ If not…

Let go: Say to yourself: ‘For a moment I am going to shake it off and let go of that perception, and choose a new one – even if only for a moment.’

Choose: We can create a different response by asking questions like: ‘What happens if I put myself in my boss’ shoes? What am I grateful for about my boss? What can I learn from this experience? What is within my control here? What is one action I can take to help me change this experience?’

Small changes in perception can be incredibly powerful, especially if made consistently over time. ‘Every difficult experience can be a gift if only we let it,’ says Godsall.

By Rachel McGregor
Image: Gallo/Getty Images