By Kyle Pennell, Senior Occupational Therapist
Most of us experience some form of stress in our daily lives, whether it’s at work or in our personal lives, and people have differing abilities to handle different levels of stress.
One of the keys to understanding and coping with stress is determining how much of it is positive stress and how much is negative.
Too much negative stress can be harmful, and can in turn lead to distress and possible illness.
Hence we need to control those stresses which can be harmful to our mind and body.
Here at Advance Wellness our practitioners work together to help prevent and reduce stress for our clients as part of improving their lives and ultimately improving the health of our community.
We also work with organizations to help reduce stress in their workplace. The good news is that we are seeing many organizations now recognizing occupational stress and taking action to reduce the risk of it among their employees.
So what is Occupational and Job Stress?
Occupational stress is commonly defined as “the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the demands of the job exceed the capabilities, needs or resources of the worker”, and it appears to have grown at an alarming rate over the last 50 years.
In part, this can be attributed to increasing globalization and financial pressures affecting all professionals and all categories of work.
Job stress can be defined as “harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of our job do not match the capabilities, resources or needs of the worker” which lead to poor health or even injury.
In the pursuit of organizational excellence, some employees can work under very demanding circumstances, and as a result have been found to be experiencing high levels of stress.
There may be many challenges in different work environments including competition, continuous technological development, lack of space, lack of time, increased uncontrollable factors, conflicting demands from organisational stakeholders (Hall and Savery 1986), increased use of participatory management and computerisation, plus uncertainty around job security, which all can result in higher occupational stress.
Stress in the Workplace
Many organizations want to reduce employee stress because they see it as a major drain on productivity. Some strategies adopted include Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), stress management seminars, smoking cessation, nutrition programs and other health related activities.
These strategies should help employees develop coping skills and positive lifestyles, and ideally should focus on the characteristics of the workplace situation. But they are not always effective or long-lasting.
The Effects of Workplace Stress
High rates of occupational stress or distress may result in the following:
- Muscle or joint pain, stiffness and tension anywhere in the body
- Heart and cardiovascular problems
- Anxiety, depression and demoralization
- Alcohol, drug and prescribed medication use/abuse
- Susceptibility to a wide range of infectious diseases.
From an employer’s perspective, high levels of workplace stress can result in the following:
- Lower morale and productivity
- Business loss through lost working days due to work-related illness or accidents
- Increase in staff absenteeism
- Staff turnover, lowered performance, and the associated, often hidden, costs of training replacement staff
- Added burden placed on the colleagues of absent or under-performing staff
- Increased risk of accidents and injuries due to poor attention and fatigue
Positive versus Negative Stress
Many professionals would argue there is no difference between what we perceive as positive stress and distress as negative stress, however the two are very different.
Positive stress has the following characteristics:
- motivates and focuses energy
- is short-term
- is perceived as within our coping abilities
- feels exciting
- improves performance
On the other hand, negative stress has the following characteristics:
- can be short or long-term
- causes anxiety or concern
- is perceived as outside of our coping abilities
- feels unpleasant
- decreases performance
- can lead to mental and physical problems
The emotional and physical disorders that have been linked to negative stress including depression, anxiety, heart attacks, stroke, hypertension, immune system disturbances that increase susceptibility to infections, a host of viral linked disorders ranging from the common cold to herpes to certain cancers, as well as autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis (Stress and Stress Management 2010).
That’s why it’s so important to adopt strategies to reduce those stresses that are harmful to our mind and body.
15 tips for stress management:
- Spend time planning and organising: Using time wisely to think and plan is time well-spent. In fact, if you fail to take time for planning, you are, in effect, planning to fail. Organise in a way that makes sense to you. If you need colour and pictures, use a lot on your calendar or planning book. Some people need to have papers filed away; others get their creative energy from their piles. So forget the “shoulds” and organise in “your” way.
- Set Goals: Goals provide direction to your life and determine how you spend your time. Bt first you’ve got to decide what you want. Set goals that are specific, measurable, realistic and achievable. Your optimum goals are those that cause you to “stretch” but not “break” as you strive for achievement.
- Prioritise: Use the “80-20 Rule” introduced by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto that states, “80 percent of the reward comes from 20 percent of the effort.” The trick to prioritising is to isolate and to identify that valuable 20 percent. Once identified, prioritise your time to work on those items with the greatest reward. Prioritise by colour, number or letter, whichever method makes the most sense to you. Flagging items with a deadline is another idea to help you stick to your priorities.
- Use a “To Do” List: Some people thrive by using a daily to-do list created the day before or the first thing in the morning. Such people may combine a to-do list with a calendar or schedule, or use a “running” list that is continuously updated. The key is to use the method that works best for you. Don’t be afraid to try a new system. You just might find one that works even better than your present one!
- Be Flexible: Allow time for interruptions and distractions. Time management experts suggest planning for just 50 percent or less of one’s time to allow flexibility to handle interruptions or unplanned emergencies. Schedule routine tasks when you expect to be interrupted. Save or make larger blocks of time for your priorities. When interrupted ask yourself; “What is the most important thing I can be doing with my time right now?” to help you get back on track fast.
- Consider Your Biological Prime Time: That’s the time of day when you are at your best. Are you a “morning person,” a “night owl,” or a late afternoon “whiz”? Knowing your most productive time will help you use that time of day to tackle your priorities.
- Do the Right Thing Right: Doing the right thing is more important than doing things right. Doing the right thing is effectiveness but doing things right is efficiency. Focus first on effectiveness, then concentrate on efficiency.
- Eliminate the Urgent: Urgent tasks have short-term consequences, while important tasks are those with long-term, goal-related implications. Work toward reducing the urgent things you must do so you’ll have time for important tasks. Flagging or highlighting items on your to-do list or attaching a deadline to each item may help keep important items from becoming emergencies.
- Practice the Art of Intelligent Neglect: Eliminate trivial tasks or those tasks that do not have long-term consequences from your life. Can you delegate or eliminate any task on your to-do list? Work on those tasks that you alone can do.
- Avoid Being a Perfectionist: In the Malaysian culture, only the gods are considered capable of producing anything perfect. Whenever something is made, a flaw is left on purpose so the gods will not be offended. Yes, some things need to be closer to perfect than others; but perfectionism or paying unnecessary attention to detail can be a form of procrastination.
- Conquer Procrastination: One technique to try is the “Swiss cheese” method described by Alan Lakein. When you are avoiding something, break it into smaller tasks and do just one of the smaller tasks or set a timer and work on the big task for just 15 minutes. By doing a little at a time, eventually, you’ll reach a point where you’ll want to finish.
- Learn to Say “NO”: Such a small word and yet, so hard to say. Focusing on your goals may help. Blocking time for important, unscheduled priorities such as family and friends can also help. But first you must be convinced that you and your priorities are important. That is the difficulty in learning how to say “no”. Once convinced of their importance, saying “no” to the unimportant things in life gets easier
- Reward Yourself: Even for small successes, celebrate the achievement of goals. Promise yourself a reward for completing each task or job. Then keep your promise to yourself and indulge in your reward. Doing so will help you maintain the necessary balance in life between work and play. If we learn to balance excellence in work with excellence in play, fun, and relaxation, our lives become happier, healthier, and a great deal more creative.
- Learn Not to Have to Work in a Crisis, Anticipate Some Common Actions or Activities: Through proper planning and by working systematically, you can perform tasks quickly, efficiently and in a timely fashion. Try to develop shortcuts to cut down on time when performing routine tasks or activities. Developing a contingency plan will also help you to avoid any pitfalls. Be sure to ask “what if?” when making decisions or developing a course of action. Try to think of at least three ways to handle a crisis, and then put those solutions into practice when appropriate. Don’t forget to revise your contingency plan as needed.
- Reduce your Expectations: To help reduce your stress, work on reducing your expectations plus you could work on steadily increasing your results and reality.
Need help with your Stress?
If you feel that stress in your workplace or personal life is affecting your quality of life, you may benefit from a guided session with our Occupational Therapist who can work with you and/or your employer to reduce job and occupational stress using simple and easy-to-employ techniques.
Please email us or call us on to book an appointment today!
Hall, K. and Savery, L.K. (1986), Tight Rein, More Stress, Harvard Business Review, 23(10): 1162-1164.
Stress and Stress Management (2010), Klinic Community Health Centre, Canada