Have you ever felt stressed, I mean really, really stressed? But then, something funny happens; you see a child dancing or hear someone on the radio and somehow the former feeling seems to have disappeared? The question is, were you ever really stressed before, or was it something else?
Most people would attest to feeling stressed at times. It could be because of something that’s touching them personally or maybe it’s the stories you hear in the media. It could also be something that’s affecting a family member or friend. But here’s the thing. Stress is not homogenous in nature or even uniform as a term.
When we use or relate to stress in a homogenised way, we can confuse, or devalue its meaning. By doing this we can unknowingly, actually cause even more ‘stress’. What I’m hoping to do here, is to untangle, in brief, the treads that bind the term stress to intangibles and unknowns. It’s important that we do this and do away with umbrella terms. This enables us to more accurately pinpoint and verbalise what we and others are truly experiencing. In so doing, we have a much better chance of being able to deal with the real issue, properly.
What is Stress?
The word stress has become an umbrella term, synonymous with words which actually much better, fit what we’re truly feeling. This may be; overwhelmed, anxious, tired, fatigued, bored, scared, dreading, fearful, grief or sadness and much much more. If we could more accurately name what we’re experiencing, then we’d be more likely to be able to ‘claim it’, ‘see it’ and ‘do something with and about it’. One area that this is really important in, is the area of work.
According to the HSE, 28.2 million days (2018/19) are lost every year due to work-related ill- health and a staggering £9.8billion lost to employers in costs. In years gone by, we’ve been used to hearing ‘work-related ill-health’ and maybe thinking of accidents or injuries. But what we’re actually talking about here, is stress-related illness. In fact, workplace injury only accounted for 4.7 million days lost.
The HSE also pinpoint stress-inducing situations, like those that we may be familiar with, ie, those of overstimulation. Here an individual finds it hard to cope with increased demands or expectations. However, The World Health Organisation (WHO) the leading authority on world health and wellbeing, suggests that there are varying areas which induce work-related stress and some may actually relate to under-stimulation. There are three areas of importance to consider:
Here an individual may find it difficult to cope with monotony, lack of variety, under-stimulation or what they perceive as ‘meaningless’ tasks. Or they may feel that they are unable to contribute to decision-making processes. These situations may be particularly relevant to graduates, who are eager to make their mark in their first or second job but struggle to navigate the change from highly singular academic to team orientation. Or, for the returnee parent who was managing a household but finds that these skills do not necessarily translate in the same way within the workplace. What is important is to recognise, not only that these situations may induce ‘stress’, but more importantly the terminology the employee uses to describe the stress as this is something that can actually be actioned.
Here individuals may feel uncertain of where they fit into the organisation. Or some may be struggling with home-work-life balance but feel unable to express it. Contrarily, achieving a much sought after promotion can actually be stress-inducing. This is not due to the additional responsibility, but rather the transition and adjustment and the impact it has on existing relationships. Having a safe space, if not with the line manager, then with HR to voice may be particularly useful.
What is interesting, is the area of respect and acknowledgement. It is an innate desire which most humans crave and is actually the fourth tier of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Its sits way above the need for salary, food and shelter. A 2007 presentation by Semmer, on recognition and respect, suggests that; ‘(people) go to great pains to defend their personal esteem and social self-esteem’. Furthermore, research by Tessema et al (2013) linked recognition as an important facet of job satisfaction. They stated that ‘people who feel appreciated are more positive about themselves and their ability to contribute’. It is important to note that there may be cultural variations to this and that financial compensation is also a contributory factor. However, recognition may be an under-utilised tool in boosting employee self-esteem and combating experiences that an employee may consider stressful.
Stress in and of itself is merely a biochemical reaction induced by internal or external stimuli. The body is wired to maintain a steady-state of homeostasis. Here ph levels, temperature, tissue viscosity and repair, metabolism, maintenance of commensal bacteria and emotional and physical stresses amongst other factors, are all kept in a healthy range. Anything beyond this state creates not only a stressor for the body but also a potential danger.
In maintaining homeostasis, the body utilises many different systems (or pathways). There are a few pathways for stress, but a critical factor is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA). In short, when someone experiences a stressor, the brain signals to the adrenal glands that action is required to combat the stress. In reaction, the body then releases the most appropriate chemicals to induce action and eventually return the body to homeostasis.
Fight or Flight
Most people are now aware of the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ state. Particularly in the former, the body needs rapid glucose for brain processing and simultaneously to activate muscle tissue contraction. However, for someone who is chronically bored or feeling devalued at work, the emotions of frustration and internal anger may similarly induce a fight or flight state. This is another reason why it’s really important to use language accurately because differing pathways often cross or interact. They may start with a similar initial root, however, produce differing feelings that can be confused, such as depression and anxiety or physical pain with elation or cold and fear.
Even if only sitting at the desk, the body will utilise the same mechanisms required to address a fire or a verbal onslaught. It will initially release adrenaline and glucose and insulin and overtime cortisol as the perception is of a ‘real’ danger to the body’s survival. But ultimately, for an individual sitting at a desk, ruminating rather than speaking out or acting, they risk having stress chemicals accumulate in the body. This then creates the body to continually signal action requests in order to navigate out of the situation. This is where people begin to get sick with tension headaches, gut problems, sleep problems and fear-based anxiety. Simply being able to accurately say what the actual problem is, can help to turn things around.
Some useful tips
Access the right words. A simple thing which teachers and parents use and may sound condescending to adults, but may actually help, is to say (in the nicest way); ‘use your words’. In line with this, it’s very useful to have an emotional vocabulary sheet to help people access what they are actually feeling.
Identify the stressor. This may be as simple as ‘I struggle going into a meeting’ or ‘I feel that saying ‘no’ or ‘I can’t’ will be seen as a weakness and marked against me.’ Or for some, it may be something at home, or sometimes going into a similar situation in which someone has failed before. By accurately identifying the stressor, mechanisms can be put in place to address it.
Good nutrition. A healthy brain and gut (where serotonin the ‘feel-good chemical’ develops) creates healthy, active individuals. Most workplaces have cakes and biscuits available all of the time But simply having a variety of fruit, water and some healthy nut bars, can help people to sustain their energy. This not only prevents people from getting into energy peaks and troughs which actually induce internal stress for the body but also makes them more alert.
Encourage breaks. Energy is created by oxygenating the body. Simply encouraging staff to get some fresh air actually creates a greater level of energy in the body and can help to reduce feelings of stress. It is challenging when running a business to spend time with each employee, but by encouraging staff to talk to each other and by fostering community and allowing open and honest communication, respect and self-esteem can be further developed.
For a long time, the emphasis on making improvements in the workplace has been on increasing opportunity and making physical adjustments. These are important. However, simple measures such as helping staff to accurately pinpoint what their actual issues are can be a way of reducing work-place stress and creating a more productive workforce.
Semmer, N K., 2007. ‘Psychology of Work and Organizations, Recognition and Respect (or lack thereof) as predictors of occupational health and well-being. [online] Available at: https://www.who.int/occupational_health/topics/recognitionrespect140207.pdf Accessed: 20th February 2020
Tessema, M., Ready K J., and Embaye A, 2013. ‘The Effects of Employee Recognition, Pay, and Benefits on Job Satisfaction: Cross Country Evidence, Journal of Business and Economics. [online] Available at: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/d999/306d685a85cbe2232a844f8415a689e985f0.pdf
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