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Byline: Amanda Gordon, Director of Armchair Psychology

Work stress is inevitable, right?  We need some stress or we’d find a way to play solitaire all day when no-one is looking. 

When the stress comes from internal sources (the things we say to ourselves to ensure we stay on track) e.g. “I like what I am doing and want to achieve”; “I am paid to do this work so that’s what I am doing”; “My work is contributing to the world”; “I have to do well so I feel good enough about myself”; “I need to keep this job to put food on the table”; “It’s good to achieve”;– then that is good stress in the main.  It is about what makes us motivated to do a day’s work and helps us feel satisfied when the day is done.

Sometimes, however, the stress comes from external sources (the things we are told or believe about other peoples’ requirements) e.g. “I need this job on my desk, completed, before you leave tonight”; “your performance is not good enough”; “there is someone else I am considering for your job”; “we need to increase productivity or you are at risk”; “you are not the right person for the job”.

Just reading those sentences makes my heart beat faster – hearing them in your normal day, will inevitably lead to a stress response.

Sometimes we do generate bad stress just by ourselves, with self-statements like: “I have something to prove about my skills and doing this job well and fast makes me feel better”; “everyone else is getting in early and staying late, so I’d better be like them”; “I am not really good enough to do this, and someone is going to find out one of these days”.  These sorts of thoughts can lead to as much stress as being in a workplace where other people are heaping the stress on us and saying the things that upset us.

Further, strategies such as competition between members of the sales team, with targets and achievements written on boards, bells ringing when a sale is made, awards given at the end of the week, may lead to higher performance, but that performance may come at a cost for those who are continually being evaluated and held up as doing a good enough job or not.

So, stress at work can be good stress or bad stress, and can be generated either from ourselves or by others – and the problem is, stress is still stress and it can accumulate and cause us to become unwell.

Symptoms of too much stress can range from tiredness and reduced motivation, to increased physical problems including susceptibility to colds and flu, to depression, avoidance of the workplace, reduced social interaction and irritability, relationship problems and drug and alcohol overuse.  There is no doubt that people turn to so-called recreational drugs to escape the stress of work, and drink excessively after a long week.  People who are excessively stressed have less resistance to suggestion and are even more likely to go along with the crowd than they would if there were on top of their game.

We all need to manage the stress in our lives.  Even a relatively stress-free work environment, characterised by the good stress that helps us achieve and feel good about our day, has to be seen in the context of your total life and the stresses you feel within it. For stress accumulates, and over time, if we don’t actively manage our stress that comes from all sources in our environment, it will make us sick.

Here are the top tips for managing work stress:

  1. Make a decision that you are choosing to be at work and remind yourself that you are there to achieve certain lifestyle goals
  2. Notice your self-statements and challenge them if they are unhelpful eg “I have to be here” can be changed to “Being here puts food on the table and that is good”.
  3. Limit your work hours to create reasonable balance in your life. Don’t make decisions based on what others do, but on what works for your job and your life.  If demands are being placed on you that create stress, talk to your manager about delegating tasks that you cannot reasonably do in a working day.
  4. If you are being bullied – by your manager, the top dog or a junior person – speak up.  Find a support person in your company and insist that bullying is called and ended.
  5. Create space in your day to do something stress-reducing – a walk at lunchtime; breathing quietly at your desk with your eyes closed and your cup of tea with you, at 11am; or having a laugh break mid-afternoon with your colleague.
  6. Ensure exercise is part of your routine.  Walk to and from work, or cycle.  Go to a gym class, run or swim, regularly. Exercise is an immense protector of mental health
  7. Eat a proper breakfast and ensure you eat protein at every meal during the day.  Insist on moving away from your desk and eating lunch. Don’t get “hangry” – have a snack mid-morning and mid-afternoon
  8. Never have a drink when you need it – only when you want one for enjoyment.
  9. Talk to your partner or best friend.  Recognise that stresses are much easier to manage when you have someone to support you.
  10. At the end of your work day, write a to-do list for tomorrow, close your workstation down, and leave your work at the office.  Do some mindful breathing before you enter your home, and leave it all at work until tomorrow.

Combatting work stress

Amanda Gordon, Director of Armchair Psychology, is experienced in helping people deal with the full range of life crises, including managing relationships, coping with grief and loss, dealing with stress from a particular crisis, and managing change. She works with individuals, couples and families, helping them enrich their lifestyle and their effectiveness in the world.  She is an endorsed specialist Health and Clinical Psychologist, and a member of each of those specialist Colleges of the Australian Psychological Society.

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Loren Webb

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