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Stress at work can be defined in many ways. There’s the danger of not satisfying your boss at work and worrying about keeping your job. There’s the stress of feeling not good enough or feeling harassed at work.
Stress has always been a part of the human experience—evolution has given humans a number of ways to cope with stress. Stress is actually a very normal response of the body to situations or stimuli that are understood to be “dangerous”. We evolved in a stressful world and our stress responses evolved with us to protect us from dangerous animals, dangerous environments or any kind of emergency situation.  Stress is related to the “Fight or Flight” response you may have heard about.  In the “Fight or Flight” response, someone is faced with some sort of situation in which they have to decide which is the best response—stay and fight or take off for the nearest tree to climb!

In the end, stress is whatever bothers YOU or interferes with YOUR health and wellness.  It doesn’t then matter that your next door neighbor loves the high-pressure job or your friend shrugs off missing a deadline. Chronic stress is a continuous, long-term condition where the stress that you perceive is at a constant level.

Fight or flight response: production of stress hormones and substances

Certain hormones and substances are produced when anyone thinks they may be in danger or are under stress. This is part of the “Fight or Flight” response. Those hormones and substances can give someone enough energy to fight—or enough energy to climb that tree – fast!

Some of the substances are produced by the brain which affects the production of other hormones.  This is all controlled very closely by what is called the HPA (Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal) axis. The hypothalamus secretes a hormone (ARH) that in turn, causes the pituitary to secrete ACTH.  ACTH is secreted into the blood and acts on the adrenal glands to secrete more cortisol and adrenaline.  Cortisol and adrenaline work together to ensure the body has enough energy by increasing the amount of blood sugar and oxygen in the body.  Other organs and systems respond as well:
  • Blood is diverted to vital organs, like the brain, the heart, the lungs and skeletal muscle (those muscles that will help you fight….or climb that tree!)
  • The heart rate and blood pressure increases.
  • Breathing rate increases to get more oxygen.
  • The liver starts breaking down its’ stored blood sugar to provide instant energy.
  • Other organs and tissues produce glucose.
All of these responses are normal – and actually can protect you when necessary.  So what goes wrong and why is chronic stress bad for you? Well, this physiological response is meant to be only temporary—just to get you out of an emergency situation that happens occasionally.  Many people, however, have constant—chronic—stress in their lives—they constantly feel as if they are in an emergency situation, are overwhelmed with work or with problems at work and at home.  They feel as if there is no relief.  In cases like this, the body responds by adjusting relentlessly—and we simply get exhausted.  Then, when yet another emergency or stressful situation occurs, the body has nothing left.  This can lead to all sorts of problems, both in physical and mental health.

Few types of “stress situations” at work and a few ideas on how to deal with them

Here are some different types of “stress situations” at work and a few ideas about what to do about them.

1.    High demand job, but little control over decisions—these types of jobs tend to lead to higher rates of heart disease , cardiovascular problems, depression and substance abuse.  The best advice is to work with your employer with the goal of gaining more control over the decision making process.

2.    High effort, but low compensation—these jobs are those where you’ve worked very hard, and have done great work, but haven’t received that raise, the promotion or maybe even any recognition.  You feel under-appreciated or unappreciated.  What to do? Open communication about your career goals is usually a good start—at the very least you will get a better idea of where you stand.  At best, talking to your boss about your career goals will let them know that you want more and may give you some ideas about how to get that reward you feel you’ve worked for.

3.    You’re the lone worker—and get no help, supervision or guidance and have no one to turn to when a question “above your pay grade” comes up.  Again, communicating these needs and requirements to your boss is the best advice.  Many people are pretty oblivious to anything other than those things which affect them directly—your boss may simply be unaware that you have problems.  Be specific about what you need from them and when you need it.

4.    You are forced to be a “people-pleaser”—this occurs often when you are required to deal with customers—who may be verbally abusive, very demanding and often totally unreasonable!  It can be difficult to maintain professional behavior and courtesy. In this case, you may want to talk to your boss to see if there is some extra professional training they could send you to take—this way, you can get a break from the situation and learn better how to deal with it. You can also learn to maintain “boundaries” and learn to better understand—and tell the customer—what you can and can’t do.

5.    The work never ends—because you have to check your email or your Blackberry just one more time before actually taking some time for yourself. This is called “technostress”.  You don’t have to be a “Luddite” to get tired of being wired all the time! One bit of advice centers around boundaries again.  Let your boss know that you love your job, but for a predetermined amount of time—whatever seems to work best for your—you are turning off your computer, phone, Blackberry or whatever, and then do it!  Use the time for yourself or your family, but make a promise to yourself and keep it.

6.    You are coming close to a burnout—you’ve pretty much had it, are exhausted and are having a difficult time doing even the easy jobs.  It’s definitely time to take a break! Talk to your employer, use your vacation, personal or sick time, take a leave of absence or whatever mechanism is available to you and take the time off.  After a true burnout, the recovery is very long and can be difficult.  As Ben Franklin said “ An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” 

7.    You are bullied or emotionally abused at work. It is sad but true that the same type of person that was the schoolyard bully may grow up to be your boss. A recent Zogby survey found an estimated 37% of workers report being bullied in the office. Almost 50% of workers have either been bullied or have witnessed work-place bullying.  The approach recommended by researchers at Arizona State University's Project for Wellness and Work-Life, in a report entitled "How to Bust the Office Bully,"   is that people should “figure out a rational way to tell their stories to colleagues, bosses or human resources while managing their emotions.”5 Make sure you emphasize that you are trying to be reasonable, understand the other person’s perspective but that you are competent and good at your job and the bullying is making it difficult for you to DO the job.
8.    Life—and work—isn’t fair.  Your boss has his or her favorites, the decisions made are bizarre or make no sense, the employees are treated like servants or children, rewards or bonuses are given out unfairly and so on.  If you can go to someone in the Human Resources department, that may be the best first step.  Reasonable, non-emotional communication is a good way to start.  Make sure that your concerns are documented and try to get support from other co-workers who may feel the same way.

Stress on the job can be a problem—but you can minimize it by taking some of the steps listed above AND by trying to make sure that stress in other areas of your life are minimized. See also the article: Super foods to fight stress.

  • Kavimaki et al. Work stress and risk of cardiovascular mortality: prospective cohort study of industrial employees. British Medical Journal, 325:857,2002
  • Photo courtesy of eyeliam by Flickr :

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