Fight or flight: dealing with stress in the workplace

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOTV) Human behavior is marked by ever-changing attitudes and, as a whole, is subject to conditions that surround each individual circumstance. Regardless of a positive or negative perspective, psychological feelings can be just as debilitating as physical factors on the body. One of the most common feelings affecting a majority of humans every day is stress – more importantly, workplace stress. According to a survey by Northwestern National Life, 40% of workers say their job is either very or extremely stressful. Even more, a survey conducted by the Families and Work Institute found 26% of workers are often burned out or stressed by their work. And with many companies doing more with less in this new economy, employee stress could be on the rise.

Fight or Flight

With most things in life, there are positive and negative attributes associated with an issue – and stress is no different. Biologically, stress is the body’s reaction to specific challenges or pressure presented by a threat or task at hand. In a difficult situation, the human body releases adrenaline to provide the person under stress with the sudden boost of energy and acute awareness needed to either combat the problem or run from it. This phenomenon is called the fight-or-flight response. When a threat to one’s life is imminent, this “stress” can be the difference between life and death. However, when high stress levels aren’t subdued through satisfying the problem, long-term results can soon take effect.

Characteristics or Conditions

Even though most people don’t face these types of threats during a normal workday, stress can have the same affect in a workplace setting. And according to the National Institute for Occupation Safety and Heath (NIOSH), there are two different categories of what influences stress in the workplace: worker characteristics and working conditions. For instance, some worker characteristics, like personality and coping behavior, can warrant a situation to be more stressful than others. However, some working conditions, like long hours and overly high expectations, can be considered a stress factor for many.

Work Conditions that May Lead to Stress

There are several causes of workplace stress. NIOSH outlined the following factors: design of tasks (heavy workload, infrequent breaks, long hours, etc.), management style (lack of participation, poor communication, lack of family-friendly policies, etc.), interpersonal relationships (poor social environment, lack of support from co-workers and supervisors, etc.), work roles (conflicting or uncertain expectations, too much responsibility, too many roles, etc.), career concerns (job insecurity, lack of growth opportunity, lack of preparation for quick job changes, etc.), and environmental conditions (dangerous work environment, unpleasant physical conditions, etc.). Though some of these factors can be minimized by a worker’s coping ability and personality, all of these work conditions are out of employees’ control – which may breed stress.

Effects of Stress

Although short-term, or acute, stress poses minimal risk, long-term, or chronic, stress can lead to major health problems. When the body is kept in a constant state of emotional agitation, the threat of heart, stomach, and long-term emotional problems exponentially increase. According to the American Psychological Associations and the American Institute of Stress, 77% of people regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress. Of those experiencing physical symptoms of stress, 51% cited stress-caused fatigue, 44% cited headaches, and 34% experience upset stomachs. Other effects cited were muscle tension, change in appetite, teeth grinding, and feeling dizzy. When the first signs of these symptoms go unchecked, cardiovascular problems can increase. In the workplace, these symptoms can translate into agitation, low patience levels, and lack of focus.

Prevention and Care

NIOSH suggests two steps to deal with stress in the workplace – organizational change and stress management. Unfortunately, stress is a personal issue that can only be fully understood by the individual. What may be highly stressful to one person may be a walk in the park to another. However, as a business leader, it is important to assess your employees’ work environment to better understand what working conditions your workforce deals with on a daily basis. Understanding certain stresses associated with your company, like heavy workloads or long hours, can be a starting point to build a plan to change your organization to better encourage a more positive environment and a better work/life balance. The second step is to put stress management programs in place to help deal with pre-existing stress-related issues, as well as prevention from future stress-related illnesses.

The Future

Stress is a very real issue many of the workers at your company may be dealing with, whether work or home related. Regardless of what causes stress among your team members, this issue can be one of the biggest threats to your organization’s productivity and innovation. Understanding stress, its effects, and the areas at your company that are most susceptible to its threat are the first steps in molding an environment that better handles this important issue. Stress is present. And since your employees are your biggest asset, acting now can be the difference between falling behind your competitors and maintaining a competitive edge in your market.

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