Workplace stress is a common experience for most people. In some cases, a small amount of stress can help to motivate a person and boost productivity. However, many are beginning to notice the negative outcomes of chronic stress in the workplace. Stress is a natural physiological and psychological response to some threatening event. In much, much earlier times, it was a way our bodies could alert us to something in the environment that could harm us (e.g., a snake or predator). Our bodies would respond in a way that would either help us fight or evade this threat, by increasing our adrenaline, shutting down immediately unnecessary functions like digestion, and increasing our heart rate. This response has somehow stuck through evolution and we experience this fight-or-flight response to events that no longer require such a significant whole-body mobilisation (e.g., an unmoving pile of paperwork and to-do list, bills and chores, public speaking, studying and student exams).
Workplace stress can involve overworking, a workload that you are physically unable to deal with, poor support in your role, and poor management or organisation. This stress then presents as a physical or mental response to unrealistic demands when the worker believes they cannot cope, and may lead to adverse effects on health if the problems are not resolved.
When we overwhelm ourselves with stressful things and don’t find helpful ways to look after ourselves or reduce this stress, this prolonged fight-or-flight response can be seriously damaging. With time, our bodies’ stress responses may no longer work effectively due to overstimulation, and we can experience pervasive health consequences. It can affect someone at a physical, mental, emotional and behavioural level.
Often, high levels of stress can lead to burnout and adrenal fatigue. Burnout can involve physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment from your work and goals, and feelings of failure or unfulfillment even when achieving and making progress. Burnout is insidious, and you may begin to notice red flags with time: chronic fatigue, insomnia, impaired memory or concentration, getting sick more often, symptoms of depression, digestive problems, headaches, chest pain, and many more.
Other outcomes of workplace stress include:
If you find yourself overwhelmed with work-related stress, you may wish to seek professional support to improve your coping skills or identify methods to effectively reduce stress and improve your situation. Try to find some activities outside of work that may help relieve stress as well and bring you joy or pleasure. Talk to a loved one about your stress, but also seek social encounters to talk about other aspects of everyday life – being around others and having time to focus on things other than work can be very helpful.
If you are able, you may benefit from taking time off work and focusing on self-care and stress relief. Reducing your work hours or finding ways to share the burden of your workload (e.g., delegating to others) may also help ease the demands of your work. You may also wish to speak to your boss or management regarding the working conditions. Whilst they have no role in controlling personal stressors, employers are required to do what is within reason to minimise workplace stress.
Practicing mindfulness with daily meditations can also help you to clear your mind and reduce anxiety. By using your breathing as an anchor, mindfulness meditation can teach you how to dismiss thoughts and enjoy a moment of clarity of mind.
Putting in slightly less effort in times of high stress doesn’t mean you don’t care about your job. It means you care about yourself more. – Kelly O’Laughlin