Work-Related Stress Management

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Samar Hafeez

Clinical Psychologist and Counsellor

Bangalore, India

Anyone who has ever had a job has felt some of the pressures of work-related demands. Even if it’s a job you love, there are still stressful elements of it.  Stress is often described as a feeling of being overwhelmed, worried or run-down.

Hans Selye in 1936 proposed the first definition of stress as, “Stress is the non-specific response to any demand for change.” These changes can be physical, emotional or psychological in nature.

So, let us take our first step in understanding what work-related stress is?

Work-related stress is the harmful physical and emotional response an employee may have when there is a conflict between job-demands and the person’s capability to tackle and cater to these demands. Some jobs produce more stress than others, and some employees have lower stress thresholds than others. 

Jobs that involve rotational shift work, machine paced work, repetitive tasks and hazardous environments aggravate stress. Workers who spend many hours daily in front of computer screens also experience high stress responses. 

Work pressures and frustrations often result in people reporting to work with migraine attacks, body and neck aches, mental fatigue and emotional exhaustion. Stress can be a costly business, affecting the employee’s health; if the health of the worker does not allow them to function efficiently, it will lead to an increased absenteeism and demotivation, which will directly affect the organisation’s growth and profit. As we all know, employees are the main source of profit generation for any establishment.

Acute stress involves symptoms that last from three days to a month following exposure to work-related stressors (stress causing triggers). Some of the cognitive symptoms include poor concentration, problems in retaining information, poor judgement, negative thinking, racing thoughts and constant worrying.

Emotional symptoms include sadness, hopelessness, loneliness, irritability, bursts of anger and mood swings.

Physical symptoms include body aches and pains, constipation, hyperacidity, nausea, dizziness, loss of stamina throughout the day, muscle agitation, restlessness and exaggerated startle response.

Lastly, behavioral symptoms include extreme hunger or no hunger at all, procrastination, too much or too little sleep, difficulty falling and staying asleep, abusing drugs, alcohol or smoking and nervous habits like nail biting, pacing, restlessness in sleep etc.

People with acute stress may also experience a great deal of guilt about not being able to cope with the work demands.

In the long run, work related stress can and will take a major toll on the health and well-being of an individual. The consistent and ongoing increase in heart rate, elevated levels of the stress hormone “cortisol” and high blood pressure can cause irreversible damages if not comprehended and treated.

Chronic stress can result in anxiety, insomnia, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular problems, gastrointestinal problems, weakened immune system and even some organic diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

People who experience chronic work-related stress often try to cope with it in unhealthy ways such as over eating, consumption of junk foods and aerated drinks and smoking or drug abuse. This leads to a decrease in job performance, which then results in further aggravating symptoms of stress.

It’s no fun experiencing these stress related issues, and I wouldn’t leave you with all the bad news.

In attempting to manage stress let us work on three categories for effective results. The first one being the identification of stressors, secondly prevention or being proactive and lastly, coping or adapting to it.

Identification of stressors

Keeping a track of stress causing elements will set your course towards effective work stress management.

For a week or two, keep a journal or diary and record situations, events and people who cause you to have a negative physical, emotional or mental response. Include a brief description of your thoughts, feelings and information about the environment. 

Also record how you reacted to the situation. Did you raise your voice? Did you become physically or verbally abusive? Did you go for a walk? Did you distract yourself in anyway? Did you meditate? 

Taking notes will help you find patterns and persistent causes of stress that are subtle thereby giving you a crystal-clear picture as to which method of prevention or coping can be used.

Prevention by being proactive

Resist long working hours or accepting overtime – this will take the joy out of work and life. Try other alternative work schedules, for example write down a to-do list which does not exceed more than 3 tasks that need completion by the end of the next day. This helps in managing time and doing better-quality work in the given time. Make sure you get a few days off a month to unwind and mentally relax yourself.

Develop healthy choices like maintaining a healthy balanced diet as a well-nourished body; this is better able to withstand stress and avoid skipping any meal of the day including healthy snacks and drinks. 

Eat a lot of green vegetables, fresh whole fruits and whole grains. Keep yourself well hydrated throughout the day to avoid dehydration and headaches. Eat rich sources of vitamin b-complexes, concentrate on calcium rich foods and keep in check your vitamin D levels. Go lean with protein and add healthy MUFA and PUFA fats like coconut oil and avocados. These are also known to increase your stamina and keep your weight in check.

Obtain regular exercise and get enough deep sleep. Physical activity increases your body’s production of feel-good endorphins. Exercise also decreases the body’s stress response and practice healthy sleep hygiene habits. My experience with many clients shows that physical exercise produces more restful deep sleep.

Avoid procrastination – delaying work will lead you into a lot of unwelcome stress. Develop a simple method of organising things or events and stick to it. Clear the clutter on your desk, except those things that are related to the immediate problem at hand.

Find and create opportunities to laugh. Laughter decreases stress hormones and increases production of immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies, according to research. 

Laughter and sharing laughs reduces pain, increases job performance, connects people emotionally and, believe it or not, makes you more beautiful and charismatic. Laughter stimulates an increase in blood flow and oxygenation in the body which gives good exercise to 15 facial muscles and the result is less stress and improved looks. 

The Holy Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, encouraged us to always be cheerful and taught us to be happy and to spread happiness to others. Hazrat Abdullahra bin Harith reported, “I have never seen a man who was as cheerful as the Prophetsa of God.” (Sunan al-Tirmidhi)

Most importantly, a prayer makes busy life easier and sweeter. When you feel part of a greater purpose, it’s easy to understand that you aren’t responsible for everything that happens in and around your and others’ lives. When positive feelings rise high and the conscious effort to let go of things you can’t change occurs, your ability to handle stress too improves.

Take part in employee wellness programmes in workplaces. These include programmes like disease screening, mental health education or psycho-education, yoga classes at work and fitness centres of preventive nature for personal wellness. Employers may also develop a sensitive and responsive management systems.

Relaxation techniques to better cope with work-stress

In today’s fast-paced world, relaxation means zoning out in front of the television at the end of a tiring day. However, this does very little to reduce the damaging effects of stress. 

To effectively cope, we need to activate our body’s natural relaxation response. Try practicing the following techniques:

1. Diaphragmatic breathing with positive visualisation or guided imagery: The key to deep breathing is to breathe deeply from the abdomen, getting as much fresh air as possible into your system. From taking deep breaths from the abdomen rather than shallow breaths from the upper chest, you inhale more oxygen, and the more oxygen you get, the less tense, short of breath and anxious you feel. 

To this you can also add a cognitive component, for example visualising peaceful, pleasant mental images such as a beautiful holiday destination or all the wonderful things you have achieved in life until now. This gives a strong feeling of relaxation and keeps you away from all the negative and distracting thoughts.

Note: Other relaxing elements like aromatherapy or music can also be added into this technique.

2. Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR): This is a two-step process in which you systematically tense and relax different muscle groups in the body, starting from your feet and moving towards your head. With regular feet to head relaxation you will get familiar with what tension and complete relaxation feels like in different parts of your body. This can help you to react to the first signs of muscular tension that accompanies stress, and as your body relaxes in this procedure, so will your mind.

Note: PMR can be combined with deep belly breathing with positive visualisation for additional stress relief. 

3. Basic mindfulness meditation: Rather than worrying about the future or dwelling on the past, mindfulness meditation switches our focus to what’s happening right now, enabling us to be fully engaged in the present ongoing moment. 

The method is to sit quietly in a correct posture and focus on your breathing, on one word or mantra which you have to repeat silently. Allow your thoughts and emotions to come and go without judgement and return your focus on the word or mantra each time after the thought and emotion has crossed your mind. One can also try to focus on breathing, observe how you inhale and exhale each time, this can help catch your attention.

4. Tai Chi: Originally developed for self-defence, Tai Chi has evolved into a graceful body movement exercise. By focusing on present movements and breathing, the mind gets cleared and leads to a relaxed state. Tai Chi is safe as a low impact option for people of all ages and fitness levels, including older adults and those recovering from injuries.

5. Cue-controlled relaxation: This technique reduces the time you need to relax and in this technique, you will focus on your breathing and condition yourself to relax exactly when you tell yourself to relax.

Method: Make yourself comfortable in a chair. Take a deep breath and hold it for a moment. Concentrate on blowing the worries of the day. As you exhale, your stomach should move in and out with slow, even breaths. With each breath, the feeling of relaxation deepens. Continue to breathe deeply and regularly, saying “breathe in” to yourself as you inhale and “relax” as you exhale. Focus all your attention to words, feel your muscles and relax more deeply with each affirmation. Let the word “relax” crowd every other thought from your mind. Continue to breathe in the same manner for 5-7 minutes. Practice cue control twice a day for the best results. 

6. Self-massage: Try taking a few minutes to massage your neck and head when at your desk between tasks, in bed or at the end of a hectic day. This will help you unwind. To enhance relaxation, you can use aromatic lavender essential oils or any scented lotions you like.

Note: Essential oils should be mixed with a carrier oil like almond or coconut oil before applying on skin. Avoid its use if pregnant. You can also use a diffuser in the office.

7. Social support: Some people experience stress owing to their detachment from the world around them due to the lack of warm interpersonal relationships at work, and this can be debilitating. 

Studies have demonstrated that low levels of social support leads to higher rates of many mental health problems and there is a positive relationship between the social support at work and job satisfaction. Hence, a powerful antidote to this problem lies in the increased positive and beneficial social interactions like interesting educational programmes, counselling sessions and games etc. Between co-workers and organisations, these can be included in between work schedules or on the weekends in the offices.

8. Sabbatical leave: Relaxation will help you cope with stress. Sometimes it’s the wisest to temporarily remove yourself from it.  Such a leave is given by the institutions to encourage stress relief, personal education and growth in workers. Most employees return refreshed, renewed and valued by their employers. Most of them bring back new perspectives gained from readings, travel and workshops.

Stress can be inordinate. Stress can be isolating. But you are not alone! You shouldn’t be ashamed of stress and you should always believe that you can overcome it. 

The above techniques are simple. Find the relaxation technique that best suits you. Everyone’s stressors and reactions to stress are different. It may take a little experimentation and a little dedicated practice, but you will find something which works best for you. Keep trying – and try not to stress about it!

(Do see a psychologist or a counsellor if stress is unmanageable. Please always consult a doctor or specialist to diagnose health conditions and follow the advised plan of a qualified doctor.)

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