May 10, 2019
Stress is an unavoidable part of everyday life and our bodies are hard-wired to respond to it. It’s often wrongly labelled as a sign of being unable to cope, but in reality, manageable stress can give us the boost to perform better at work. When we view the demands placed upon us as close to/exceeding the resources we have to cope, a sense of stress occurs. The situation is seen as threatening. When we experience stress, our brains release chemicals and hormones that prepare us for danger. They elevate our heart rate, sharpen our senses and get us ready to act. In the short term, it can boost our ability to perform, giving us more energy and increased concentration.
Manageable stress is known as ‘eustress’ and can be beneficial in small doses at work. The pressure of impending deadlines and mounting workloads helps us focus on the task at hand and complete tasks on time. However, chronic stress – staying in this heightened state of stress for too long – is unhealthy and takes its toll on our mental and physical wellbeing.
Long-term exposure to stress hormones has negative side-effects like fatigue, headaches, obesity and a weakened immune system. It can also disrupt sleep and wear away at our mental health. In turn, this can also cause problems in personal relationships and negatively affect our social lives and the ability to complete normal daily tasks outside the workplace. These symptoms can be hard to manage at the best of times, let alone when you’re battling this constant state of stress.
So, how can you tell when stress is under control and when it’s starting to negatively impact your life?
Recognising chronic stress
It can be difficult for people to recognise signs of chronic stress in themselves. Symptoms like tiredness and disorganised thoughts can blur your sense of perception, making it hard to notice if you’re struggling to cope.
Employees who over-work to try to eliminate stress will only end up exhausted and quickly burn-out
This is why employers have such an important role to play, as they may be able to spot the early signs of chronic stress in employees and help them take steps towards the right help before symptoms escalate and become more serious. Signs to look out for are behaviours that suggest an employee is not their usual self. It could be small changes like becoming more irritated or short-tempered with colleagues, or bigger issues like their work standards slipping.
They may also be turning up early and staying late most nights, as employees suffering from stress often think the solution is to throw themselves into work. In reality, this behaviour is only likely to make things worse and employees who over-work to try to eliminate stress will only end up exhausted and quickly burn-out.
If you begin noticing symptoms in an employee, find an opportunity to speak to them informally. You may even find just by mentioning you’ve noticed a change in them, that it helps them realise the difference in themselves.
If they seem responsive, make sure they know about all the help you can make available to them. Let them know who your office’s designated mental health champions are, so they know there’s someone they can chat to whenever they feel they need it.
Consider introducing the option of Mental Health First Aid and emotional literacy training for employees. The courses teach people the skills needed to look after their own mental health and the mental wellbeing of those around them.
Everyone experiences stress at some point, so it’s important to equip employees with emotional resilience – the ability to quickly return to their personal normality after a bout of stress – to help them when they do. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with stress as everyone reacts differently to stressors. So, make your workplace offerings as flexible as possible and provide different types of support to cater to everyone.
Begin creating a culture that celebrates talking about stress and other mental health-related symptoms. Small steps like having weekly chats about employees’ feelings, workloads and other current topics can begin to break down the stigma.
Consider offering an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), including different types of support. EAPs give employees access to someone to talk to over the phone and online whenever they need it, to chat through anything on their mind, from workplace stresses to personal issues. They also often include counselling services, helping employees address more severe problems face-to-face with a professional.
Everyone deals with stress differently, at different times and to varying degrees. For those who aren’t currently struggling or just need pointers to living life better, consider bringing a health and nutrition expert into the office to offer helpful tips on living healthier day-to-day.
Make sure to regularly communicate all offerings though throughout the year, as those who may be coping well right now may need support in the future. Create a consistent culture where a conversation about stress is both welcomed and expected.
Brendan Street is Professional Head, Emotional Wellbeing at Nuffield Health