Release the pressure

New research shows that feelings of injustice are enough to cause stress and heart attacks. Huw J Williams reveals the tell-tale signs and recommends ways to keep your cool.

 You are on your way to work but you really don’t want to go. Exhausted, you’d give anything to be able to crawl back into bed. It took hours to nod off last night: negative thoughts running through your mind on an endless loop. It’s been like that for a while now. You can’t remember the last time you actually slept well, even at the weekends.

Tired all the time and irritable too, but you’re not normally such a grump. The constant headaches really don’t help. You used to enjoy your job but not any more; just the thought of being at work pushes your pulse rate up and leaves you feeling agitated.

If any of these symptoms sound familiar then you are probably suffering from work stress. But you are not alone. According to the Health and Safety Executive, five million employees describe themselves as “extremely stressed”. And research published this week by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development revealing that workers with stress take, on average, 21 days a year off work has prompted the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health to call for urgent government action.

Stress can be positive; it can spur us to action, stimulate and challenge. However, long-term negative stress causes significant wear and tear, not just to our minds but our bodies too. Related health problems include high blood pressure, obesity and cardiovascular disease. Some doctors suggest that an increase in people experiencing strokes at a younger age may be related to work stress. Professor Lois Tetrick, director of industrial and organisational psychology at George Mason University in the US, says the problem is severe.

“There is a growing medical literature that indicates stress is a major health problem. Its cost is not just to business in terms of days lost or reduced productivity – there’s also a financial cost to society of coping with the health effects of work stress.”

Our bodies are remarkably responsive to what is happening to us externally. The advantage of this sensitivity is that if your job is causing you stress, you will be given signals long before the impact becomes medically acute. The tell-tale signs include disturbed sleep, irritability, headaches and ruminating over negative thoughts. You might also have difficulty concentrating, make unusually poor decisions or suffer depression. Changes in your eating habits or weight and persistent stomach complaints are also signs to watch out for.

There is a common assumption that the main cause of work stress is an excessive workload. Feeling swamped by the daily demands of your job can cause stress, but it is not the only culprit. Psychologists have developed a comprehensive understanding of what causes work stress and now realise that the essential element is the work environment, not the job itself.

Most of the factors causing a person to be stressed are not in their control to change; they are down to the way their workplace is structured. Professor Julian Barling, associate dean at the school of business at Queens University in Canada, has advised large organisations on how to improve their working environments. He says, although there are a number of factors, one of the key elements is a feeling of futility – that a person is a slave to their work and not the master of it.

“It is vital for people to feel that they have some control over their working lives. When we feel we are even a little bit out of control we feel stressed and our health and productivity suffers. Even a huge workload is not necessarily stressful as long as the employee feels that they have at least a little control over how the job gets done.”

Even when it’s unfeasible for an employee to have control over a situation, it needn’t be stressful. Having some sense of what’s coming down the pipe – what is likely to happen next and why – is important. Having at least a general perception of any likely developments and why they are necessary can go a long way to reducing stress.

This cuts to the core of the way many organisations operate. There is a widely held, if outmoded, belief that keeping employees just a little bit unsure about their job security motivates them and improves their performance. But occupational psychologists say this doesn’t work. When a job is stressful, workers’ concentration diminishes, their health deteriorates and productivity falls.

Poor relationships are another significant stressor. When relationships go wrong, you are more likely to suffer from work stress. And as Prof Barling points out, this is especially bad if those poor relationships are based on a feeling of injustice.

“Something that has gained tremendous importance recently is a sense of fairness. It could be a colleague or a superior that you feel is treating you unfairly, that procedures are against you or that your pay is unfair. Feeling that you are being treated unfairly is a major stressor and the effects are significant.” The latest Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health reports how an eleven year study of UK civil servants shows that a heightened sense of injustice in the workplace corresponds directly to the risk of heart attack or angina.

If you are stressed at work it is probably not your fault but down to poor organisation and bad management. Yet, the structure of the organisation where we work, or the efficiency of the managers we work under, is something we have little control over.

Prevention trumps cure. By giving employees more control, providing them with better channels of communication for grievances and constructive input and by giving them a sense of self-worth, many instances of work-related stress could be avoided. But Professor Wilmar Schaufeli of the University of Utrecht says getting the message across isn’t easy. “There are bookshelves of academic theories on stress. The real challenge is how to get organisations to implement them.”

Simple stress-busting techniques

Acknowledge you are stressed. Too many workers don’t know the signs or are in denial. Joe O’Mahoney, a consultant occupational psychologist, says: “It’s not a sign of weakness to say, ‘I am stressed’. If you deny it you facilitate the problem. Once we know it can happen we become more aware of the need to look after ourselves.”

Write a “stress diary”. Whenever you feel stressed, take a few minutes to write down what happened. Similarly, when you feel the stress has gone, note down how you now feel and what made things better. This helps reduce your sense of hopelessness and replacing it with control.

Get some rest. Without recovery time, the physical impact of stress is made much worse. Proper sleep is very important and there are things you can do to get it. Eating heavily or drinking alcohol before going to bed is bad; doing something calming for an hour or so instead is good. If you can, sleep during the day. A 15- to 30-minute nap during the working day increases IQ, motivation and concentration.

Get fitter. Research has shown that people who do regular, moderate exercise recover best from stress. But balance is the key and leisure time needs to be complementary. If you have a physically demanding job, don’t push your body too hard in down-time. Exercise is positive, but so is lounging about.

Stretch your mind. Professor Sabine Sonnentag, occupational psychologist at the University of Konstanz says: “Learning something new or developing a skill can be particularly good at helping people switch off.”


The Guardian, Saturday 9 June 2007

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