What we're not talking about with work stress
In today’s world, work stress is far and away the top issue faced by American adults. As more and more companies strive to survive the ever-changing factors of industry, employees are often finding themselves tasked with doing the work of three people. As workloads become more overloaded, the stress mounts high and has real impact on mental health. No one wants to be perceived as not being able to take on whatever work is handed down - but let’s face it, we’re human, and the juggling act can really take its toll.
Why should we be talking about it more
What are we not talking about with work stress? Exactly how serious it is, and how to manage it. The general perception of increased workloads seems to be that a good employee is somehow able to summon superhuman powers of tackling a huge workload with ease, without missing a beat. Whether it’s a top-level supervisor or an entry-level staff member, it’s common to see employees take on more work than is feasible out of fear of being replaced by someone else. Being a good, hard-working employee often feels like the answer to every question has to be “yes.”
While a lot of work has already been done to stop the stigma associated with mental health in the workplace and companies are becoming more aware of the need to address it, an important fact remains: the workload is still very stress-inducing. The old ‘9-to-5’ work life has long since been replaced with a workday that never seems to end, thanks to always-on devices that serve as a digital tether. No matter what job you’re in, it’s pretty likely that you feel like you’re always working. And whether you’re physically in the workplace or at home, your full plate is probably never really cleared and always on your mind.
In addition to the workload itself, issues expand when it’s increasingly common for workers to have been shifted to unfamiliar tasks within their companies and wonder how much longer they will be employed. Adding to the pressures that workers face are new bosses, computer surveillance of production, fewer health and retirement benefits, and the feeling they have to work longer and harder just to maintain their current economic status. Workers at every level are experiencing increased tension and uncertainty.
According to the American Institute of Stress, workload represents 46% of work stress, followed by 28% people/co-worker or management issues, 20% juggling work and personal life, and 6% lack of job security. Increased levels of job stress as assessed by the perception of having little control but lots of demands have been demonstrated to be associated with increased rates of heart attack, hypertension, and a major strain on mental health.
This kind of pressure really adds up - the impact on mental and physical health is real and the statistics are eye-opening. Excessive workplace stress causes a staggering 120,000 deaths and results in nearly $190 billion in health care costs each year. This represents 5 to 8% of national health care spending, derived primarily from high demands at work ($48 billion), lack of insurance ($40 billion), and work-family conflict ($24 billion).
As reported by the Center for Workplace Health (American Psychiatric Association Foundation) these are some of the harmful health effects from excessive stress:
1. Damage to key brain structures and circuitry, reduced ability to cope with future stress and increased anxiety and chronic depression.
2. The onset of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
3. Reduced immune system functioning.
4. Increased inflammation and depression.
High on-the-job demands and insufficient resources contribute to work stress. In addition, an effort/rewards imbalance with perceptions of high effort and low compensation or recognition can also contribute to work stress. Goals perceived as exceedingly difficult, rather than achievable challenges, are also factors in excessive stress, anger, and anxiety.
What you can do about work stress
Leaving a job is not always an option - so let’s take a look at some suggestions for workplace stress management as provided by the American Psychological Association.
Make the most of workday breaks
Even ten minutes of “personal time” will refresh your mental outlook. If you can, get outside. Take a brief walk, or sit in a quiet spot and simply sit quietly with your eyes closed and breathe. Your scheduled breaks (lunch, etc) should be used as just that - eat, rest, get some space. Working through a break is counterproductive.
If you feel angry, walk away
Mentally regroup by counting to ten, then take a second look at the situation. It can also help to blow off a bit of steam by taking a brisk walk around the workplace.
Be realistic when accepting and approaching tasks
Set reasonable standards for yourself and others. Don’t expect perfection. Review your job description with your supervisor - your responsibilities and performance criteria may not accurately reflect what you’re doing. Working together to make necessary adjustments can benefit your mental and emotional health and has the potential to enhance the organization’s overall productivity.
Enlisting the help of a mental health professional can benefit you immensely. By working together to develop healthier coping skills, a qualified therapist can offer an outside perspective and listen in a non-judgmental way. They can help you create a game plan with constructive stress-reducing techniques both during and after work, as well as communication methods for defining and defending important mental and emotional boundaries.
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