Workplace stress and coping mechanisms
18 October 2023 at 09:34 · 6 min read
One in every three employees in Europe suffers from the consequences of long-term exposure to stress.
We have all face stress at one time or another. Typically, it occurs when the pressures and demands placed in front of us are so intense that we feel we cannot cope with them. It's often the result of a mismatch between the requirements of the work environment and the abilities of employees.
Long-term exposure to stress can result in burnout - defined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger as a state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by an individual’s professional life. Burnout can occur when an employee and their employer’s ambitions, ideals, and goals are not sufficiently aligned. Overwork, as well as poor interpersonal relationships, can also contribute to an employee being exposed to chronic stress. So what are some of the signs that we should look out for, and how can we manage stress at work?
How to recognize the symptoms of stress
Generally, we can break down symptoms into three categories, emotional, physical or behavioural:
- Physical symptoms: fatigue, muscle tension, headaches, sleep problems, indigestion, increased blood pressure
- Psychological symptoms: irritability, pessimism, difficulty concentrating, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety
- Behavioural symptoms: absence from work, lateness, increased aggression, conflict with colleagues, decreased creativity, lack of interest in work
We should remember that each person differs in how they perceive, understand, and react to different events. For some, stress can cause a lack of motivation or a decrease in productivity. On the other hand for some, it can have the opposite effect, encouraging motivation to overcome challenging situations. Given that stress at work is an individual human reaction, it is clear that the same working conditions can be completely unimportant for one person whilst being stressful for someone else.
How to manage stress
Managing stress at work is important not only for each employee but for the entire organization.
Recognize warning signs and monitor the source of stress
When you are overwhelmed at work you can easily lose confidence and become irritable which affects your productivity. The earliest symptoms are manifested in difficulty concentrating, stomach problems, social withdrawal, apathy, lack of interest in work. If you notice emotional, behavioural or physical changes in yourself, the next step is to examine what might be the sources of your stress.
Over two weeks, try to determine which situations were the most stressful for you and how you responded to them. Write down your thoughts, feelings, and information about the work environment, the colleagues present, and how you reacted. Taking these kinds of notes can help you find patterns among the stressors and how you react to them.
Prioritizing and Improving organisation
Whilst some stress is going to be simply unavoidable, there’s much we can do to head off problems before they start. Good time management and organisation is key to this. This comes more naturally to some people than others, and is a skill that needs to be cultivated. If you often find it difficult to keep organised and ahead of deadlines, here are a few pointers that might help:
- Make a schedule - analyze all your responsibilities and daily tasks.
- Set priorities - don't try to fit everything in one day. Sometimes we can overestimate our performance. Do the most important tasks that must be completed first, and leave the easier ones for the end of the day.
- Divide projects into small steps - a large project can cause a lot of stress, so make a step-by-step plan. Focus on one manageable step at a time, rather than taking on everything all at once.
- Take breaks - Short breaks during the day can help you clear your mind. A walk or lunch break outside the office can be very effective in keeping you relaxed and it can help increase concentration throughout the rest of the day.
When you set unrealistic goals for yourself, be it at work or elsewhere, it can only become a source of frustration. There is no project or situation that is perfect. Therefore, try to properly assess how much you can realistically do and do that well. That’s not to say you shouldn’t stretch yourself occasionally, but once again, proper goal setting and planning can be a good way to counter the stress that we might otherwise create for ourselves.
Don’t try to control the uncontrollable
Many things at work are beyond our control - particularly the behaviour and actions of other people. What other colleagues do, how they think and how they behave is not under your control, so focus on what you can do and change in yourself, how you will react to challenges, how you will use your time.
Talk to your supervisor
It can be daunting to talk to superiors when we have a problem at work - especially if it relates to our mental health. But a healthy work environment ought to include some measure of support for you and colleagues in difficult situations.
If you are struggling with tasks at work or you’re feeling stressed, try to think about what you can do to manage the situation and what support you might need from them. Remember that your superiors are human too, and they’ll likely appreciate it if you can come to them with suggestions and potential solutions rather than merely a list of problems. Regardless, good management should be receptive, or at least sympathetic to your concerns as employee health and well-being are intimately connected to our productivity at work.
An ability to maintain composure in stressful situations is incredibly valuable, but it can be a tough skill to learn. Don’t be afraid to seek help from family, close friends, or colleagues who can help you to improve your stress management. You may also have stress management resources available in the company, such as online information, courses or access to therapy which can help you better manage stress in the long term.