Healthy Workstyles: When Work Stress Gets Too Much

In the current economic climate, stress has become an increasingly common topic of discussion in workplace wellness circles. And for good reason.
The New Zealand Mental Health Foundation says there has been noticeable rise in people reporting stress and anxiety over the past months. The recession is not just hurting people in the pocket, but is taking mental and emotional toll too.
We’ve all experienced stress at some point.
Stress describes person’s physical or emotional response to demands or pressures, comes in different forms and impacts different areas of our lives – family, relationships, finances, health and work.
In world where there is more pressure on people to earn more and be seen to succeed, stress is considered an everyday part of life. It can be positive thing – helping an individual to grow, develop, be stimulated and take action. However, if stress exceeds person’s ability to cope it can impact on their mental and physical health in range of ways.
Our bodies are designed to automatically respond to danger or stress – fight or flight. Experiencing stress over long periods of time essentially keeps this system switched on. Blood pressure increases, heartbeat and breathing speed up and stomach acid levels increase. This can lead to anxiety, muscle tension, fatigue, headaches, stomach problems, depression and other health problems.
Long term stress can weaken the immune system, making people vulnerable to illnesses and increasing the risk of heart disease. It can also significantly reduce brain functions such as memory, concentration and learning, all of which are central to effective work performance.
A UK-based study using field research from the University of Otago looked at how work stress can lead to depression and anxiety in young, working women and men. They assessed 972 32-year-old New Zealand men and women and found that work stress such as excessive workload and extreme time pressures appears to precipitate diagnosable depression and anxiety in previously healthy young workers.
This study highlights the importance of effectively managing stress in the workplace – and with employers and employees faced with additional pressures caused by the recession, seldom before has this been more important.
Our message to many businesses focusing on the health and productivity of their people is to consider the prevalence of stress in their workplace, and consider ways to address it alongside other potential health initiatives like weight management, smoking cessation and exercise.
So what can employers do to make their workplace as stress-free as possible?
According to the Mental Health Foundation’s chief executive, Judi Clements, employers first and foremost need to recognise stress can affect people and understand it is not sign of inadequacy or weakness.
There is stigma around admitting to being stressed, for fear of being seen as not coping. But if employers do not know there is problem, they can’t be expected to help fix it. They need to be alert to signs of stress in their employees, but employees also need to be up front about the pressure they are under. Employers and managers need to put support structures in place to give employees the confidence about reporting their situation to their employer.
Employers can address stress in many ways.
• Treat all employees fairly and with respect
• Be aware of the signs and symptoms that an employee is not coping with stress
• Ensure workloads are in line with employee’s capabilities
• Involve employees in decision-making
• Encourage managers to have an understanding attitude and be proactive in looking for signs of stress among employees
• Provide workplace health and wellness programmes that target the true source of the stress
• Make sure employees have the training, skills and resources they need
• Establish work schedules that are compatible with demands and responsibilities outside of the job
• Allow employees to have control over the tasks they do as much as possible
• Keep job demands reasonable by providing manageable deadlines, hours of work and clearly defining roles and responsibilities
• Providing employees with opportunities for social interaction
• Don’t tolerate bullying or harassment in any form
Workplace stress is reality that needs to be addressed by both employers and employees. Working together to make the work environment as stress-free as possible will benefit employees’ health, as well as productivity and profitability of business. With the right systems and checks in place, and an awareness of the signs and symptoms to watch out for, workplace stress can be easily managed.


What causes stress?
•Excessive workloads
•Bullying or harassment
•Personality clashes
•Pressure to meet tight deadlines
•Limited support system
•Uncertainty around job security and redundancies
•Long hours
•Lack of clear direction
•Management style
•Poor working conditions such as excess heat, noise and cold
•Non-work related factors such as poor health, family or relationship stress


How does stress show up?
•Anxiety, irritability and depression
•Muscle tension or headaches
•Apathy, loss of interest in work
•Problems sleeping/insomnia
•Fatigue
•Trouble concentrating
•Stomach problems
•Frequent illness
•Social withdrawal
•Heart palpitations and problems
•Breathing difficulties
•Changes in appetite
•Nervous behaviours


How to reduce stress
•Prioritising and organising your day – make to-do lists
•Break projects down into smaller steps
•Organise your work space
•Don’t over-commit yourself
•Delegate where possible
•Take breaks – go for quick walk or make cup of tea
•Communication – talk about the issues/problems
•Relax – take deep breaths, stretch, meditate
•Get active – exercise creates endorphins and is great stress relief
•Eat balanced diet – avoid high sugar foods and too much caffeine
•Get enough sleep
•Drink alcohol in moderation
•Laughing – see humour in the situation or tell jokes
•Listen to music
•Take real vacation
•Counselling
•Attending stress management courses to improve ability to cope with difficult work situations
•Alternative therapies – acupuncture, homeopathy, aromatherapy

Peter Tynan is chief executive Health Insurance, Southern Cross Medical Care Society

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