I Is working getting more stressful?
Both your daily work hours and your weeks are getting longer. You are no longer taking breaks; you don't have time. Lunch? You quickly eat a sandwich at your desk. You've got stomach problems, backaches and the boss is asking you to do more and more. Once at home, you are still rushing to get things done. You are having trouble sleeping, you are eating less, and you are losing interest in your work.
This is the overall picture that is emerging in the workplace. We have to do more with a lot less, responding mainly to what is most "urgent." There is less and less time to sort out our priorities and values. We are living in the fast lane. It is not surprising therefore, to encounter many people who feel out of breath and stressed out.
II What is stress?
Stress can be both good and bad. Having a certain amount of stress in our lives is normal. Positive stress gives us the energy and motivation that we need to tackle the daily challenges at home or at work. It helps us deal with the difficulties we encounter in our lives, and it helps us work towards meeting our goals. However, stress can also yield negative consequences when it becomes a source of exhaustion, frustration or dissatisfaction.
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III Can stress affect our health?
One out of two workers reports being very stressed because of their job. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association's (CMHA) COMPAS survey, the number of people reporting high work-related stress went from 47% in 2000 to 62% in 2001.(1) Furthermore, the CMHA estimates that "stress on the job and related illnesses costs the Canadian economy five billion a year." (2)
Being subjected to stress over a long period of time--negative stress--affects our health. Negative stress is experienced when there is an imbalance between imposed pressures and our ability to deal with them. In order to fight stress, our body causes some physiological changes. These are biochemical changes that we feel physically: panic attacks, chest pain, asthma, heart palpitations, nausea, indigestion, ulcers, itching, diarrhea, neck stiffness, cramps, headaches, sleeping problems, etc. These symptoms may appear harmless but they can cause illnesses. Studies show that with prolonged stress, the body produces chemicals that weaken the immune system, potentially resulting in illnesses such chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, phobias, panic disorders, anxiety disorders. (3)
Initial stress can lead to secondary stress, which further increases stress levels, creating a vicious circle. For example, following a stressful event, you develop panic attacks. Your initial stress (being overworked) is intensified by a secondary stress (your worry about how you reacted to the stress of being overworked).
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IV Overcoming stress
The causes of stress on the job vary widely, as do the strategies to reduce or prevent these causes. Employers and employees need to work together to find solutions.
A Solutions for Employers
* Reduce workloads. The most frequently reported reasons for mental health problems in the workplace are the demands.(4) Many studies show a significant correlation between heavy workloads and mental health problems as well as physical health problems such as coronary heart diseases and high cholesterol levels.
* Involve employees in the decision-making process. Participation is related to the psychological well being of employees. Some researchers have found that a lack of employee participation in decisions affecting them is correlated with high levels of psychological tension leading to alcohol abuse, depression, poor overall physical health, low self-esteem and low satisfaction levels on the job. By increasing employee involvement in decisions that affect them, you give them with more control over their work environment and consequently lower their feelings of insecurity and tension. Furthermore, increasing employee involvement encourages interaction among members of the organization, thus improving communication and encouraging social support within the organization. (5)
* Identify the cause of stress. It could be that the environment at work is very noisy. You then need to eliminate or control the noise level. Or perhaps employees experience pain because of repetitive movements. Rotating employees between different tasks can prevent this problem.
* Offer flexible working hours. In Canada, only 24% of the workforce has a flexible work schedule. According to the University of Guelph's Centre for Families, Work and Well-being, flexible working hours are associated with a decrease in lost time at work.(6)
* Offer employees anti-stress activities. Some Canadian organizations are helping their employees manage stress by creating anti-stress days. Others have created exercise rooms in the work setting or have paid for their employees' health club memberships. This helps employees relax and keep fit. These organizations realize that a stressed out employee is more likely to become ill and perform less efficiently on the job. These companies have acted in their own best interest as well as in the employees'.
* Change the structure, the politics and the values of the organization. An organization with a centralized structure where decisions are made by top management, leaves little room for autonomy at work. Some studies show that in decentralized organizations, employees are much more satisfied at work and perform better on the job. Organizational policies concerning remuneration, promotions, transfers or training can also affect the mental health of employees in positive or negatives ways.
* Create a Just Organization. Employee perception of organizational justice is determined by three factors.(8) First, employees look at how distribution of resources (money, perks) is related to employee contributions. Second, justice perception is influenced by the way in which the organization makes decisions. Employees feel that they are treated fairly when they see that decisions are ethical, in their own best interest and that they have been included in the decision making process. Finally, justice perception is related to relationships between managers and employees. Employees see themselves as being treated fairly when managers appropriately inform them about upcoming changes, give them the reasons why, and treat them with dignity and respect. Studies have shown that organizational justice has a positive influence on satisfaction, motivation, energy and commitment. Inversely, employees that perceive injustice tend to be more hostile towards the organization and experience a wide range of frustrations.(7)
B Solutions for Employees
We can make small changes to help ourselves deal with stress and to improve our overall mental and physical health. Bruno Fortin, psychologist and animator of workshops on stress management, offers five strategies to manage our stress:(8)
* Pause. We need to try to understand our stress. Becoming aware of how we react to stress and how we feel is one of the first steps. It's important to periodically evaluate our health, our quality of life and our stress levels. Going faster won't help us accomplish more.
* Redefine priorities. We can work on our stress by having a more balanced life. We need to take the time, even if it is once a year, to clarify our values and set some priorities. Our stress levels depend on our perceptions, and by recognizing signs of tension, we can then modify the way we react.
* Explore the room that is available for maneuvering. We have to learn how to say no when circumstances permit it.
* Find an outlet - An outlet can be confiding in someone you feel comfortable with, writing about how you feel, expressing your "build up", taking up a sport, doing exercises or deep breathing.
* Take into account your capacities. We need to find ways to act within our capacities. You cannot change everything all at once. It is preferable to incorporate changes gradually.
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Even though stress can stimulate us day by day, helping us be more productive and constructive, it can also become destructive. Stress, mainly from the workplace, is one of the major health hazards of our time. If we want to change this situation, employees and employers must rally together to improve quality of life at work. In doing this, both will come out as winners: employees will be more productive and employers will see their businesses or organizations become more profitable.
Note: As the references used in the original article were often unavailable in English, we have found related references from the same organization or other related sources.
1. Canadian Mental Health Association COMPAS Survey on Stress and Depression. Toronto, Ontario, 2001. Available on the Internet at http://www.cmha.ca/english/research/compas_survey.htm#_Toc512618119.
2. Canadian Mental Health Association.
En francais: La Semaine de la santé mentale cible le stress en milieu de travail. 1999. Press release available at http://www.icomm.ca/cmhacan/french/mediafre.htm
In English: See Ontario CMHA Network magazine special issue on "Stress in the Workplace." Fall 1999. Available at http://www.ontario.cmha.ca/admin_ver2/maps/fall%5F1999%2Epdf.
3. Canadian Centre for Occupational Health & Safety (CCOHS). Workplace Stress Available at http://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/psychosocial/stress.html. This page also reference the Basic Certification Training Program: Participant's Manual of the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board of Ontario.
Health Canada - Workplace Health Bureau. "Best Advice on Stress Risk Management in the Workplace." Available at http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hecs-sesc/workplace/pdf/stress_risk_management_1.pdf.
Health Canada. "An Examination of the Implications and Costs of Work-Life Conflict in Canada." Available at http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hppb/childhood-youth/spsc/pdf/Duxbury.pdf.
4. CMHA Ontario Mental Health Works. "Managing mental health in the workplace: How to talk to employees, deal with problems and assess risks." 2002. Available at http://www.ontario.cmha.ca/images/mhw/mhw_employers_booklet.pdf.
5. CPRN Work Networks. "JobQuality Indicators Participation & Influence." 2001. Available at http://www.jobquality.ca/indicator_e/com001.stm and http://www.jobquality.ca/indicator_e/com002_1.stm.
6. Centre for Families, Work and Well-Being. The Work-Life Compendium. 2001. Available from the University of Guelph at http://www.uoguelph.ca/atguelph/01-10-03/articles/stress.html and http://www.worklifecanada.ca/families.shtml.
7. Folger, R. & Cropanzano, R. Organizational justice and human resource management. Thousand Oaks: Sage. 1998.
Sheppard, B.Hh, Lewicki, R.J., Minton, J. Organizational justice: the search for fairness in the workplace. Lexington Books, New York, 1992.
Moorman, R. H.. Relationship between organizational justice and organizational citizenship behaviors: Do fairness perceptions influence employee citizenship? Journal of Applied Psychology, 76: 845-855.
8. Fortin, Bruno. Available at http://www.chez.com/brunofortin/Stress.html (only available in French)
Similar English sources on dealing with work stress are available from the Canadian Centre on Occupational Health & Safety (CCOHS) and CMHA http://www.cmha.ca/english/coping_with_stress.