We spend on average of 90,000 hours in our lifetime at work, often with people we wouldn’t normally socialise with, performing jobs we don’t enjoy, and feeling underappreciated and underpaid. Is it any wonder our jobs can be a significant cause of stress in our lives?

In fact, a recent survey by the Korn Ferry Institute found that 76% of respondents said work stress had a negative impact on their personal relationships. This makes complete sense because if you are stressed and run down from work, it’s hard to be happy and upbeat when you get home. Not being able to leave work at the door can cause us to bite our loved ones heads off over small insignificant things, we can feel frustrated at the external world around us and we can feel angry when things don’t go our way. 

In the first two blogs in our workplace wellness series, I shared how you have control over your reactions and how to work on reducing stress in the moment. In this blog, we are going to dig a bit deeper on the impact stress has on your health, and what you can do to change it.

The Effect of Work Stress on Sleep

The Korn Ferry survey also found that 66% of people lost sleep due to workplace stress. It isn’t easy for our body and mind to relax after being under the pump all day and sleep is the last thing you would want to do if you were under threat and your survival instincts kicked in. The threats you could be facing are probably not to your survival, but threats come in all shapes and sizes: deadlines, big presentations or workplace bullying. Finding ways to reduce the impact of stress at work can help improve sleep and therefore performance, and long term resilience.

An estimated 20% of all night shift workers resign because of stress disorders, and night shift workers also have a disruption in their circadian rhythms, as well as poor sleep and eating habits. 

 

Depending on their past experiences, characteristics and habits, those night shift workers who can sustain a night shift routine long term, will still experience the impacts of stress on their physiology and psychology as determined by their tolerance and adaptability. 

Toxic Workplaces 

Another major consequence of stress was that 16% of people surveyed had to leave their job due to workplace stress. Cryer, McCraty and Childre (2003) claim that one study showed an increase in workplace stress by 10% from 2001-2002. Toxic workplaces were described by Macklem(2005) as having “relentless demands, extreme pressure, and brutal ruthlessness”. 

Top 5 Causes of Stress at Work

The five top causes of workplace stress have been described by Murphy(1995)

  • The first cause relates to factors unique to the job i.e work hours, the pace of the job, isolation, the physical tasks, and how meaningful it is. 
  • The second is the role of the individual within the organisation and their level of responsibility. Ambiguity or performing multiple roles at the same time can also lead to an overload of stress. 
  • The third category is around career development, job security, and promotion potential. Stress occurs when there is a restructuring, the possibility of losing a job or a lack of challenge or creativity in a role. 
  • The fourth category is a biggy and is all about interpersonal relationships. This is one of the most common triggers I see in workplaces. As human beings, we care about how other people perceive us. Our survival response can be activated by the way people behave, their body language, tone of voice and language can all cause a threat reaction.
  • The final category relates to people’s ability to exert control in their workplace, organisational structure and culture. Sometimes the impact of stress can be controlled and reduced by individuals, but more often than not it needs to be a collaboration between employer and employee to find a solution that removes the trigger. 

The Impact of Workplace Stress

Businesses need to be proactive about workplace stress. Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to look after your staff and help reduce the physical and emotional impact on the business. But if we took a step back and looked at the impact stress can have on the success and operation of a business, maybe more companies might open up to changing their culture around stress. 

Research by Dyck (2001) estimated that stress disorders claimed 10% of the annual earnings of a business. That loss of income can come from absenteeism, staff turnover and loss of productivity. If that doesn’t make managers and owners sit up and start making some changes, then I don’t know what will. 

Depression and Workplace Stress

Mental health disorders can be triggered or exacerbated by high loads of stress at work. Mental health can often seem like a silent, hidden illness which can be just as dangerous as a physical condition. Anxiety, clinical depression, panic attacks have been shown to be developed from chronic work stress. Social stigma around mental health can block people from reaching out for help when they are struggling. 

More businesses are running mental health workshops, stress reduction workshops and mental health first aid courses, making it safer for staff to come forward and share how they are coping. This is crucial in making changes to workplace culture and supporting staff that are struggling.  

Why Does Stress at Work Impact Everyone Differently?

Long term, having our nervous system hijacked into the flight/fight/freeze mode (your sympathetic nervous system) causes the blood to be flooded with stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. While these guys can be our “friends” when we need to muster energy fast to get out of danger, we are not designed to have the foot to the floor all the time. This constant barrage of hormones and depletion on the nervous system impacts multiple systems in the body.

It’s why when under a lot of stress you may notice a whole range of symptoms appear. Multiple factors such as genetics, nutrition deficiencies, previous experiences and traits can be why one person will experience the impact of stress differently to another.

Our individual breathing patterns is one of the factors that will dictate the symptoms you may experience. That may be because you use your neck and throat muscles to do the majority of the work, instead of your main breathing muscle, the diaphragm. This can cause neck and jaw pain, headaches and fatigue to name a few symptoms.

The good news is you have the power to change your breathing habit which is one of the best ways to reset your stress reaction.

Workplace Expectations

One of the biggest stressors at work is both the expectations we, and others place on ourselves. The pressure to get tasks done, make sure projects are perfect or the feeling of having to do it all and not to burden others. 

The more I work with businesses to educate them about workplace stress and empower them to change how they understand stress (the good and the bad sides), I am blown away by how unaware we are of our habits. We get so deep in our heads that we don’t realise our body is reacting to a stressful situation, or we miss the signals that it’s hungry, tired, thirsty, sad etc.

Taking time when you first start a job to clarify work expectations can make a difference to managing stress as work loads fluctuate, and regular communication between employee and employer is key.

Symptoms of Stress in the Workplace

By the end of the day and working week we can be exhausted and symptoms can range from physical to psychological to behavioural

Physical symptoms include:

  • Headaches
  • Muscular tension
  • Neck and Back pain
  • Fatigue
  • Sleeping difficulties
  • Gut issues
  • Dermatological disorders
  • Heart palpitations

Psychological symptoms include:

  • Feeling depressed
  • Panic attacks
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Feelings of overwhelm
  • Cognitive difficulties

Behavioural symptoms include:

  • An increase in absenteeism
  • Anger
  • A drop in work performance
  • Diminished creativity and initiative
  • Lower tolerance of frustration and impatience
  • Isolation.
  • Problems with relationships
  • Mood swings

Stress-Related Illnesses

Awareness of the warning signs and symptoms is a critical step in avoiding the progression to stress-related illnesses. Some of the illnesses triggered by stress are:

  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Asthma
  • Heart disease
  • Alzheimer’s
  • Gastrointestinal conditions
  • Headaches
  • Anxiety 

Stress Management Programs in the Workplace

2020 looks to be the year for a workplace wellness revolution with breathing training being predicted as one of the key tools to help reduce stress at work. Why you may ask? Because these days, it isn’t enough to have your computer ergonomically set up or take your 10-minute break twice a day. How you feel at the end of your workday and workweek is impacted by the culture in our workplace, our habits while at work and at home, our mindset and how we control our emotions. A revolution is set to continue to grow because the incidence of workplace stress is hitting epidemic proportions.

Yes, that does sound slightly dramatic, but with $133 million being paid out because of workplace stress, and accounting for the longest stretches of absenteeism, we need to take control over our daily habits and rethink our workplace cultures. The simple things we do every day add up, even the way we breathe impacts how we feel, sleep and function.

How to Increase Stress Tolerance for Work

There are multiple ways of increasing your stress tolerance at work and what helps you will be unique to your situation.

One of the best-known ways we can manage stress is to stop and look at how we are reacting to a situation. Our own reaction to an upcoming presentation, meeting, conversation could be causing more stress than is needed.

Identifying triggers and stressors at work is another major one. This may mean that businesses need to create and facilitate space for conversations around stress, what’s working and what is not. Research has shown that when you define the stressful triggers in your life, you reduce their impact.

Top Tips for Reducing Stress at Work

The more businesses are proactive at reducing stress in the workplace, the more the culture will shift, the employees will benefit, absenteeism will decrease and the financial impacts on both the business and the individual will lessen.

Speak Up

Managers are not mind readers. Several years ago, I was involved in the start-up phase of a tourism business. One of the fellow managers was a bully to many of the staff, including myself. When I took this to the owners to highlight the toxicity, I was told that it’s all part of it and just to deal with it. It was several years until that manager was removed, and as I look back on this now and realise that many people during this managers reign were experiencing sleepless nights, became quiet or were off ill due to the stress.  

What’s not ok is the excuse that because a business is in its start-up phase, we can’t treat each other with kindness and listen to each other. Bullying should never be tolerated. 

If you’re not happy at work then you need to speak up. Finding the right time and person to talk to and learning other’s communication styles can help create a safe environment where people feel heard and listened to. It’s the responsibility of the owners/employers to create a safe environment for everyone.

Listen to your Gut 

Often we block out unhappiness in a situation but our body and mind will tell us otherwise until we start paying attention. Sometimes we can’t change the triggers or work environment and we may need to physically remove ourselves, which when we have financial and family responsibilities that rely on a regular paycheck, isn’t easy. You can make small steps towards changing your work and life circumstances if you choose to change it, and if you do have to ride the stress wave at your current work, use the tools from the how to reduce your stress blog. 

Your Daily Habits

This isn’t where I tell you off for eating too much, drinking too much coffee or for not taking breaks. All I want to do is place a magnifying glass over the things that can trigger more stress in your life. Then, I invite you to pause and think if those habits are serving you at work or are they adding to more stress. Daily habits that can add more stress to your body are:

  • High amounts of refined sugar
  • Energy drinks
  • Caffeine
  • Not taking breaks
  • Poor posture
  • Faster shallow breathing – check out our online breathing quiz to see if how you breathe is impacting you. 

Take a Break

I know simple right? Sometimes we need a reminder and our brain needs it. Our muscles need it and most of all our nervous system needs to put on the brake pedal. A break could be anything from a one-minute breathing pause at your desk, to a walk to the printer, a walk in nature in your lunch break, eating your lunch away from your desk or even taking a nap (if you are lucky enough to have the flexibility with your work!). Refilling your energy tank is crucial to restore your adrenal function after being under long term chronic stress. 

Get Help

This is one of the things that has catapulted my career and businesses. Have a mentor, workmate or councillor that you can talk to about stresses, triggers or career blocks can make all the difference. Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of mentoring others and it’s so rewarding seeing the change in mindset and growth in a person after heartfelt conversations. 

Breathe

If you know me, then you probably saw this tip coming. But the reason why this is so important is breathing is the best way to switch your body out of stress mode. When we are under stress, our breathing habits get hijacked. My mission is to reduce the impact of suffering, pain, trauma in our lives. Learning to breathe yourself back to calm is a life skill that we should all know. You can find out more about how breathing helps with workplace stress here

What is your workplace doing in 2020 to deal with workplace stress?

Emma Ferris is as a breathing coach, workplace wellness educator and physiotherapist working to create change in how businesses and individuals manage stress. Drawing on a 15-year career in physiotherapy, workplace education and stress management, she is teaching the world to find their calm and stress less at The Breath Effect. Emma runs workplace wellness workshops around New Zealand and is the creator of Breathe Right & Reduce Your Stress  30-day online breathing course.

Workplace Wellness & Stress Reduction Workshops

If your business is ready to join the wellness revolution then contact Emma at The Breath Effect to tailor a specific workplace wellness programme for your business needs. For more information about Workplace Wellness Workshops contact Emma