Post No.: 0723
Stress is often defined as what we experience when the demands in front of us outweigh, or threaten to outweigh, the resources or reserves we have to meet them. Some stress is inevitable and fine, even beneficial. It invigorates or spurs us into action. Without some level of stress, we might not care about meeting our responsibilities, doing the right thing, doing our work, being on time or doing the many things we do that have consequences. Yet under too much pressure, we typically miss the finer details that might not be crucial when evading a sabre-toothed tiger but are usually paramount for getting things right when doing our job at work.
We can thank our stress response for helping us dodge out of the way of incoming cars even though most of us aren’t hiding or running away from pythons or other predators in our daily lives. This ‘fight or flight’ response comes on briskly and then subsides soon after we know we’re safe. Well whereas oxytocin takes about 5 minutes to clear from the bloodstream, cortisol takes about 1 or even 2 hours. But we will eventually calm down once the source of stress disappears.
The problem however is that so many other non-life-threatening threats in our modern lives constantly trigger this response too. What stress is like for the vast majority of fluffy beasts on this planet is a few minutes of screaming terror – after which it’s either over with or you’re over with! The sources of most modern day stresses, meanwhile, don’t come from immediate physical threats but from about things that have already happened in the past, things that may or may not happen in the future, and things that have implications for our social reputation – which aren’t (without hyperbole) truly about life or death.
People can feel enormous anxiety about making business pitches, where the worst that can happen is going home with what you went in with i.e. it’s all upside. Okay, you could make a fool of yourself but you won’t die, and good folk will empathise and sympathise with you if you tried your best and weren’t rude (and if they don’t then that’d speak about them, at least at the time). A broken mobile phone would only leave you like how people successfully lived merely 50 years ago! Even more overblown is being so concerned about something like a hair out of place or a spot/pimple on your face.
Some ‘threats’ that are far from life-threatening don’t have any basis in reality at all, like superstitions if one breaks a mirror, doesn’t touch wood or doesn’t throw salt over one’s left shoulder. Conspiracy theories could be included here too. So they can be over nothing, like things being ‘too quiet’ or ‘things are going so well that something bad must surely be due’! Obsessing over harmless things causes us self-inflicted distress – even though we’ll have a tendency to blame others or external forces!
These sources moreover can endure over the course of days, weeks or even years, thus can lead to chronic stress. The body still reacts to 25-year mortgages with a similar stress response, but now it’s persistent. This is where we begin to get the wear and tear on our physical and mental health. Sympathetic overdrive is when the sympathetic nervous system stays steadily activated, pulsing stress hormones into the bloodstream, which increases our blood pressure and the risk of atherosclerotic diseases like strokes and heart attacks. Over time, chronic stress weakens the immune response, leaving us more vulnerable to infections and disease. It may even cause any cancers to spread faster. Chronic stress is also linked with insomnia, diabetes, obesity, ulcers and premature cell ageing. Our mood is usually negatively affected too, which can strain social relationships – we become biased in being overly suspicious of and less trusting in others or we might simply not feel like connecting with others, even though social relationships can buffer against stress itself (hence a vicious circle). Scepticism is vital but not too much.
Others will also want to avoid us because we’ll appear nervous, tetchy and less trustworthy. Our job productivity will deteriorate – chronic stress impairs our memory, concentration, engagement, commitment and creativity. It can make us tunnel-visioned and unable to see the broader picture. Our tendency to blame others will be amplified. We’ll be more likely to overestimate how much conflict there is and less likely to smooth over the rough edges in relationships. All this is socially contagious. We’re more likely to take days off work from the burnout, staff turnover will be high, more mistakes will be made, and customer service will be impaired. Last but not least, chronic pressure is subjectively unpleasant, which interferes with our happiness and puts us at risk of mental health disorders. How to enhance mental health in the workplace was discussed in more detail in Post No.: 0653.
Stress in our job can come from the workload itself, oppressive deadlines, colleagues and office politics, tyrannical supervisors, thoughtless company policies and practices, being told to do things that are against your values, last-minute requests from clients, a lack of autonomy, a lack of support, low pay or recognition, the commute, temperamental equipment or inadequate resources, distracting noises in the workplace or poor working conditions, job insecurity, performance reviews, discrimination, work-family imbalances, your own mental habits (like perfectionism, workaholism, impostor syndrome, catastrophising or rumination), and you can probably think of more.
‘Workaholism’, or relating to work much like one might to another type of addiction (e.g. doing it at all costs and sacrificing other important aspects of one’s life yet feeling bad when one isn’t doing it) is often worn as a proud badge of honour – even though numerous studies conclude that it isn’t associated with greater levels of productivity and it can be damaging. ‘Busy’ isn’t the same as ‘productive’.
Freelancing offers workers flexibility. But when freelancing isn’t really down to one’s non-coerced choice or the level of work security isn’t as hoped for – it’s more stressful because when one isn’t working, one won’t be making any money. Independent artists and online streamers feel they need to put content out there 24/7. You don’t get paid during sick days or holidays, or even lunch breaks. This can lead to workaholism. No one is there to force you to take a break or to switch off from the work at the end of each day but yourself, and you might not have anyone else to help you but yourself, too.
We’re constantly bombarded with daily noise and distractions that are far from natural. Instant messaging services are highly distracting when we wish to knuckle down on some work. (In fact, giant tech corporations are capitalising from our wandering attentions e.g. from our clicks, the autoplays, ‘watch next’ recommendations and from all those adverts on their platforms.)
In care settings – when carers face too much pressure in their jobs without adequate breaks or support i.e. burnout – ‘compassion fatigue’ is when we feel an emotional and physical exhaustion that leads to a numbness or diminished ability to empathise or feel compassion for others. Other symptoms include feelings of helplessness, irritability, lower concentration, withdrawal, somatic aches and pains and absenteeism. It is often described as a consequence of ‘secondary traumatic stress’ (STS), which is the emotional duress that one experiences when hearing about the firsthand trauma experiences of another individual. Family members of, and those who work closely and directly with, victims of disasters, trauma or illness, or work in other helping professions, therefore need care for their own mental welfare too. Some argue that 24-hour news that saturates the media with de-contextualised images and stories of tragedy and suffering has also caused society to overall become more desensitised or indifferent to helping those who are suffering.
Our perception of stress or the meaning we attach to it (e.g. the futility of our efforts versus understanding that the stressful time studying in school today invests in our prospects tomorrow), how chronic or long-term the stress is, our resilience to cope with uncertainty and ambiguity, and the degree of control we have over the circumstances that produce the stress – all affect how negative the stress we experience is. Regarding our perception, there’s some truth in that it’s not so much the stress that’s the problem but whether we view it as harmful or energising. So try to interpret that pounding heart and whirlwind breathing rate as you being ‘adrenalised’ for action and as beneficial for your performance and ambitions. Try to relish meeting high-pressure challenges as investments in the future even if they hurt now. It’ll be better for your health too. Meow!
Start the day knowing what it is that you aim to accomplish, stick to that agenda and limit or avoid distractions as much as possible. Imagine starting and ending meetings on time, acing those job presentations, not being drawn into emotional battles with yourself or others but being in control, and not getting too excited about the highs or too dejected by the lows during the day. Old habits need to be unlearnt, like ‘listening’ for most people means ‘interrupting others and taking over conversations to lead them where I want to, and showcasing how smart I am without waiting for anyone else to show how smart they are’. (When we interrupt someone who’s explaining something because we want to show that we know it too, we also miss a learning opportunity because we’ve assumed that they were about to say exactly what we’ve just interrupted them to say.)
So be a better listener and avoid interrupting others with advice or self-focused anecdotes i.e. don’t try to turn the conversation onto you when someone else is talking. Active listening helps us to better understand the points of view of our colleagues so that they’ll feel better understood. This in turn builds skills that strengthen job or work relationships, fosters trust and ultimately makes one’s job and workplace a more positive, engaging, productive and less stressful time and place to be. Deliberately consider other people’s points of view – immerse yourself in stories about other people’s experiences and circumstances. Celebrating with others, and responding with compassion when they are suffering, will have a positive well-being impact on the overall culture of our place of work and job. Understanding our own emotions (perhaps through practising mindfulness) will also help us to relate to other people’s emotions i.e. it’ll improve our cognitive empathy.
At the first instance of job stress if and when it does start to get too much – stop, take a deep breath, observe the situation, and be fully present (STOP). When things happen, it’s all too easy for us to take the bait and be led by our emotions; but if you stop, take a deep breath, notice what’s happening, reflect on whether something even relates to you or will not ultimately matter down the line, and then respond or choose not to (i.e. engage your thinking brain where you choose your response rather than impulsive brain where you’re a victim of your automatic reactions) – then life becomes less stressful. We cannot always control what happens in life but we can control and choose our responses to events. (This is a precept in the philosophical school of stoicism.)
To minimise bouts of job stress – take regular breaks (some experts recommend a 5-minute break every hour to get up and walk or do something different that gives your brain a moment to recover). Don’t skip or delay meals. Make the workspace more ergonomically comfortable. Take time outside amongst nature and catch some sunlight. Play with a cat or another pet. Have creative outlets or hobbies. And practise mindfulness meditation. Ultimately do things that will activate your parasympathetic nervous system (i.e. induce calm) to counteract the feelings of ‘fight or flight’. Regular physical exercise is, as usual, beneficial too.