Coping with Stress at work

Health, Work

Stressful situations are part of everybody’s experience at work. Still, when such situations cover a prolonged period of time, they may induce both physical and emotional health problems.

The physical consequences of sustained stress may be various, also including serious conditions, such as heart problems, frequent infections, asthma, ulcers, skin diseases and mental disorders like anxiety and depression (Hwang WJ & Hong O., 2012; Hunter HJ, Momen SE, Kleyn CE., 2015; Rosenberg SL, Miller GE, Brehm JM, Celedón JC., 2014; Cohen S, Janicki-Deverts D, Miller GE., 2007; Segerstrom SC, Miller GE., 2004).

A state of heightened stress may be the outcome of strain due to external situations or to poor, inadequate individual resources in responding to such situations (Michie, Occup Environ Med, 59: 67-72, 2002).

When a stress condition takes place in a business setting, two different approaches can be implemented.

  1. Within the Company: by developing an inclusive management culture and implementing a prevention program.
  2. On an individual level: by scrutinizing the way each person interprets and faces external pressure, and by identifying and developing the strategies that can be implemented to attain a state of higher well-being;

On an individual level, the first step to treat a state of distress is acknowledging it. Whether at work or in one’s private life, it is important to ‘listen’ to our emotions and our body. Some signs of a high stress level are:

  • Muscle tension
  • Headache and dizziness
  • Tachycardia and shortness of breath
  • Gastrointestinal disorders, nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty in sleeping
  • Difficulty in concentration and memory
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety and depression symptoms
  • Apathy, loss of interest and motivation
  • Social isolation

One tool that can develop the ability to perceive one’s own physical and emotional reactions is Mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a form of meditation having a positive effect on physical symptoms (for example by lowering blood pressure) and emotional responsiveness. The technique was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a US molecular biologist, who integrated Eastern meditation techniques with scientific and psychoeducational aspects, and is applied in the medical field to reduce pain and stress. By creating protocols and pursuing scientific studies, it has been possible to assess its effectiveness as well as its results on the brain and other systems. (Hölzel BK et al, 2011; Davidson RJ et al, 2003). Mindfulness is now being increasingly used in workplaces and schools. (Allexandre D et al, 2016; Zenner C et al, 2014).

Further steps to efficiently manage stress problems are: recognizing stress-triggering situations, avoiding stress-inducing behavior and developing alternative habits to prevent high, long-lasting stress levels.

Coaching can help a person to identify the lifestyles and habits that should be changed to reduce a chronic stress condition; to develop skills facilitating time and workload management, thus contributing to solve problems and conflicts; to improve communication skills and assertiveness; to acknowledge and master one’s own emotions. Ultimately, coaching should lead the person undergoing a stressful situation to feel confident and able to change it, not just comply with it.

An individual-oriented approach, though, may not be effective unless the company develops strategies aiming at achieving a work organization minimizing stress-inducing factors.

The following are some factors increasing stress levels in the working place (Michie S, 2002; http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/work-stress.aspx) sono:

  • Excessive workload
  • Poor opportunities for professional growth
  • Unchallenging and uninteresting work routine
  • Low level of involvement or no control on work-related decisions
  • Unclear requests and performance expectations
  • Fear to be fired
  • Increased overtime work due to staff cuts
  • Ongoing pressure and request increase with no adequate satisfaction improvement

Work-related stress and its consequences are a growing problem in today’s companies (http://www.apa.org/http://www.eurofound.europa.eu/; https://osha.europa.eu/), Beside damaging people, they are causing a palpable damage for the company itself, due to more sick days, turnover increase, lower quantitative and qualitative performance, and an increase in work-related accidents.

The company’s role should be to devise a cultural change favoring better and more efficient communication, openness to listening, a shared information plan reducing uncertainty about future outcomes, and a clear definition of each worker’s roles and responsibilities.

The role of the company in developing a climate of active participation is crucial and should aim at:

Affording workers an opportunity to take part in decisions affecting their work.
Making sure the workload is adequate to each worker’s skills and resources; avoiding impossible deadlines Showing appreciation for the work that has been carried out. Commending performance at work both personally and officially through a structured company system (e.g. rewards and incentives).
Providing opportunities for professional development
Promoting initiative and a climate affording the workers greater control on their work
Feeling involved and highly valued, even through a professional development program, and being enabled to balance career and private life creates wellbeing, which, in turn, fosters productivity and creativity in the workplace.

References

Hwang WJ, Hong O. Work-related cardiovascular disease risk factors using a socioecological approach: implications for practice and research. Eur J Cardiovasc Nurs. 11(1):114-26 2012

Michie S Causes and Management of stress at work. Occup Environ Med 2002, 59:67-72

Hunter HJ, Momen SE, Kleyn CE.The impact of psychosocial stress on healthy skin. Clin Exp Dermatol. 2015 Jul;40(5):540-6. 2015

Rosenberg SL, Miller GE, Brehm JM, Celedón JC Stress and asthma: novel insights on genetic, epigenetic, and immunologic mechanisms. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 134(5):1009-15. 2014

Cohen S, Janicki-Deverts D, Miller GE. Psychological stress and disease. JAMA : the journal of the American Medical Association. 2007; 298:1685–1687.

Stansfeld S, Candy B. Psychosocial work environment and mental health–a meta-analytic review. Scand J Work Environ Health. 2006 Dec;32(6):443-62.

Segerstrom SC, Miller GE. Psychological stress and the human immune system: a meta-analytic study of 30 years of inquiry. Psychological bulletin. 2004; 130:601–630.

Mirams L, Poliakoff E, Brown RJ, Lloyd DM. Brief body-scan meditation practice improves somatosensory perceptual decision making. Consciousness cognit. 2013;22:348-59.

Hölzel BK, Carmody J, Evans KC, Hoge EA, Dusek JA, Morgan L, et al. Stress reduction correlates with structural changes in the amygdala. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2010;5:11-7.

Hölzel BK, Ott U, Hempel H, Hackl A, Wolf K, Stark R, et al. Differential engagement of anterior cingulate and adjacent medial frontal cortex in adept meditators and non-meditators. Neurosci Lett. 2007; 421:16-21

Keng SL1, Smoski MJ, Robins CJ. Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: a review of empirical studies. Clin Psychol Rev. 31(6):1041-56. 2011

Ravalier JM, Wegrzynek P, Lawton S.Systematic review: complementary therapies and employee well-being. Occup Med (Lond). 2016 Apr 4 [Epub ahead of print]

Hölzel BK, Carmody J, Vangel M, Congleton C, Yerramsetti SM, Gard T, Lazar SW. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Res. ;191(1):36-43, 2011

Davidson RJ1, Kabat-Zinn J, Schumacher J, Rosenkranz M, Muller D, Santorelli SF, Urbanowski F, Harrington A, Bonus K, Sheridan JF. Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosom Med.65(4):564-70. 2003

Allexandre D, Bernstein AM, Walker E, Hunter J, Roizen MF, Morledge TJ. A Web-Based Mindfulness Stress Management Program in a Corporate Call Center: A Randomized Clinical Trial to Evaluate the Added Benefit of Onsite Group Support. J Occup Environ Med. , 58(3):254-64, 2016

Zenner C, Herrnleben-Kurz S, Walach H. Mindfulness-based interventions in schools-a systematic review and meta-analysis. Front Psychol. 30; 5:603, 2014.

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