Work: just the word alone can lead to stress.

Stress itself is actually a normal part of our lives, as we are all human and such emotions are unavoidable.

The thing many of us aren’t aware of is that there is healthy and unhealthy stress. If unhealthy stress isn’t recognized and managed, unwanted emotions will rise, resulting in an emotional and physical burnout. So, the question is: could it be possible to have a job without stress? Is all stress in the workplace unhealthy, and does it have to be that way? If you don’t work, does that mean you don’t have unhealthy stress in your life? Stress in the workplace is on the rise – so why work?

These questions have your mind wandering and creating more questions. Let’s break them down.

Identify your stress

Stress is a reaction and depends on the situation we find ourselves in. In fact, our situation determines many different aspects of this emotion. Stressors can be found at work, but also in our home lives, and they intertwine and affect one another. At worst, they can create a storm of unwanted emotions.

In life, we have choices. However, most of us don’t have a lot of choice over work: unless we’re wealthy, we have to do it to accomplish our goals, improve our lives, and even survive. Working essentially means you are rewarded with money for the tasks you do. But what makes it so stressful?

Healthy work stress happens when you achieve your goals, follow through with your tasks, or earn a promotion. The good stressors should help you build yourself up instead of burning yourself out.  Now, unhealthy stress comes from bad stressors like long hours, lack of communication leading to poor relationships, uncertain job security, lack of resources, zero or few promotional opportunities, changes in your duties—and any change out of your control—exposure to unpleasant conditions or concerns in the workplace, and more. Unfortunately, the list of bad stressors list seems much longer than the list of good stressors. Is there any way to prevent all the ongoing stress in our workplaces?

The good news is, if you can watch for the warning signs and avoid overworking, then you can manage stress in the workplace, which will also help with other life stressors.

A list helps

Obviously, depending on your job title and responsibilities, not all of the warning signs of stress or ways to manage it that we’ll discuss will fit into your lifestyle. To find what is best for you personally, step one is to prioritize your work, life, and feelings. You could begin by making a list and using it to guide your plan of action.

​The list should cover everything you’re doing in work and life, the feelings associated with these activities, and if what you listed is a healthy or unhealthy stressor. Your list can be as detailed or vague as you want.

To get started, put down an upcoming task and branch out. Say you have a meeting at the end of the week where you’re presenting your company’s new product.  How does this make you feel? Where is this upcoming task on your stress radar? Use your answers to those questions to prioritize your activities. If it’s a bad stressor and it’s already Wednesday, while you present first thing in the morning on Friday, this should be a more “urgent” task than checking emails for the day.

Another way to address this bad stressor is to see if other options are available. Can another employee take the product presentation? Is it even part of your job responsibilities? If you’re taking on more work than expected, see if a raise or promotion are in the works.  Or, if you are too overwhelmed, maybe it’s time to be honest with your boss that this task is just too much for you to take on right now.

This list will lay out the big stressors that need to be attended to and help you make your way through them.

Know your limits and defend your boundaries

Another good place to start is by setting boundaries. These will be personal and be based on your limits, feelings, and awareness.

For example, if you’re stressed by long hours and overworking yourself, you need to be honest with yourself and boss.

Stand your ground. Spending months on end working forty fours a week plus overtime, with no recognition that you’ve reached your limit, will cause you stress not only mentally but physically.

Know the signs that stress is taking its toll

What are the signs to identify unhealthy stress before it gets to be too much? Stress takes its toll on us emotionally, physically, and mentally, so just like the questions and the stressors themselves, the signs are also endless. However, our bodies are programmed to deal with stress in certain ways. Some common ones are headaches, muscle pains, irregular blood pressure, feeling “sick” due to a weak immune system, digestive issues, and fatigue. Once the stressors start to affect your body, they can also have an effect on your moods. You may become nervous, grow irritable, or experience mood swings between happiness and anger. As your mood changes, it may decrease your ability or desire to focus on your tasks. While this occurs, you will likely withdraw and isolate from others, make errors that could be prevented, or simply react in a negative way. These behaviors can be the roots of bigger problems: poor sleeping and eating habits, improperly medication yourself, becoming anxious or depressed, and being reckless.

Now, I know these are a lot of signs and behaviors to take in, but if ignored they can hurt you. Unmanaged stress causes health concerns such as heart disease, insomnia, a weakened immune system, mental health challenges, and obesity. It’s scary. And, believe it or not, all this can be caused just from stress in the workplace! But the bright side is that  there are ways to manage your stress before it reaches this point.

Manage the madness

First, if you identify with the above description of stress in the workplace, start by taking the next week to identify what is creating the stress. Once you have narrowed down the stressors, consider how you’ve been responding to them.

Are your responses positive or negative?

A step towards managing stress is to developing positive responses to it. I mentioned boundaries earlier; establishing these is one means to manage stressors. Boundaries are basically rules you abide by to reduce possible conflict between life and work.

Another step you can take is talking things out with your supervisor. Bringing your stress to their attention promotes healthy communication and makes them aware of issues in the workplace they may not have noticed themselves. When you talk to your boss, be effective and clear about your stressors; you don’t want to come across as complaining, but rather as identifying challenges and looking for solutions as a team. Your boss might be able to tell you about available resources you weren’t aware of.

Along with speaking to your supervisor, a big step to help yourself and others around you is to talk with family and friends. Getting support will help manage your stress and ease feelings of being overwhelmed. Support also helps you feel less alone in managing stress. Depending on how long you’ve allowed the stressors to be a part of you, you may have entered an unhealthy and dangerous area. Trying to manage your stress alone can quite possibly add to it!

Lastly, taking time to recharge is an important step to avoid a burnout. Recharging allows you to recover and take time to do non-work activities, so go ahead and disconnect. Learning how to relax can be a task in itself if you aren’t used to it. Be present, be mindful, and let all the negativity melt away. Each day, focus on one thing like breathing, taking a walk, or enjoying something simple that you hadn’t before. As you focus on a single activity, you’re practicing focus and rest—in time, your ability to do both will go stronger and flow into other aspects of your life.

Once you’ve found a helpful way to manage your stressors, you can take just a little bit more time and find the simple things in life to embrace. Remember to laugh, eat a banana, read a book, slow down, sleep, (try) to worry less, watch the sunrise, engage in a physical activity like yoga or a walk, visit your favorite coffee shop, volunteer—or anything else that is calming to you. You have worked so hard to identify your stressors, find where they come from, and then manage them so you deserve a reward!

You’ll receive other rewards as well. Benefits to preventing stress include improved physical and mental health, better focus and functioning, fewer injuries and illnesses (which eliminates unnecessary absences), and improved community well-being.

A word on mental health

This is another topic that corresponds with stress, both in the workplace and in the rest of our lives. I would like to share my personal experience involving work while struggling with a mental illness. Mental health encompasses many different illnesses, emotions, and behaviors. Facing challenges with them can make working seem almost impossible. It will affect how you perform, your actions, and your overall mentality.

Before my mental health impacted my life and work, I had always been the worker who tried her best at everything that was asked, showed up on time, completed tasks and asked for more, wanted to learn new skills, etc. I worked two jobs with long hours and loved the responsibility. When my mental illness was brought to my attention, I was blindsided. I hadn’t seen it coming, nor did I fully understand what mental health was. This lack of knowledge had led me down a dangerous spiral which I didn’t even see because I took my stress and masked it with fake happiness. Eventually the unhealthy spiral affected my life, relationships, work, and who I was as a person.

I had ignored all the stress and unhappiness that came with my job. The place where I worked didn’t give proper recognition to the employees who deserved it, but it did give low pay and long hours. I hit rock bottom and stopped working there. A few years later, I attempted to work again. Now, knowing a bit more about my mental illness and how it could affect me, I took precautions. Yet time passed, and I started working two jobs, with too many hours. Basically my life became work because that’s all I had. Eventually my mental illness kicked in more than I was prepared for and led me to put myself into an overdrive, aiming for perfection.

Attempting to be on top of everything was so exhausting. I didn’t want to accept the unhealthy stressors that I had accumulated. So, I started being unable to finish tasks. I got in my head, where anxiety and depression lingered. Some days I couldn’t leave the house because I had so much self-doubt and would call in sick. Which I was, just not physically. When I did go, I would cry at work, ask to go home, gave away shifts, and isolate myself. Eventually I just wasn’t going in anymore.
Looking back, I feel awful. I accept that a lot of this had to do with my mental illness, but that aside, I also allowed stress to become a ruling factor in my life again. I fooled myself and others into thinking I was fine when I clearly wasn’t. The work stressors spread into my home, causing life stressors. I then hit bottom again and stopped working. Once I stopped working, I didn’t have work stressors, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have stress anymore. Life stressors include problems within relationships, living situation, financial strain from loss of a job, chronic illness or injury, a traumatic event, and so on. Like work stressors, these will affect you mentally, which slides into your emotions and physical health.

We all handle our own and others’ mental health in different ways. Not everyone is educated about the different disorders or affects they have on people on a day-to-day basis.

A final question

Lastly, a question that leaves us deep in thought is, do we work so we can live, or do we live to work? All humans want to connect with others and to have a purpose or meaning. These things are accomplished in different ways. But, stress or not, work is a factor in many people’s lives. Everyone works for different reasons and has their own story.

One worker may have a cashier job because it’s a means to an end, paying his bills and allowing him to survive – they work to live. They need the paycheck in order to survive and because of that need, they are willing to work at a job that might not be fulfilling. They work to support themselves and their families. They still work hard and complete tasks but tend to cut corners or watch the clock because they can’t wait to get home.

However, certain people live to work. Their lives are centered around their job, which gives them meaning. They feel satisfaction from accomplishing things at work, impacting others, and joy of a hard works day completed.  Sometimes people who live to work, all they have is work, so they are consumed with it, engrossed in being on top.  Alternatively, a positive way to live to work is doing so with purpose. Some vocations that do this are writers, educators, coaches because they often work to serve others or create a legacy through their work.

So, do you work to live, or do you live to work? There is no right or wrong answer. You can argue either side to line up with your personal opinion. Outsiders may tell you, “You work to live because you have no life,” while in reality you’re living your life and enjoying what satisfies you. Since there isn’t a final answer, it comes down to knowing ourselves and getting the balance right. Regardless of why you work, it is important to have a balance. Dedicate time to take care of yourself.

Stress is a factor in life and work, whether we want to accept it or not. Knowing how it works and knowing yourself helps open your mind to your life, how you’re living it, and whether you are happy. Stress can start out small but will lead into a domino effect that many of us can’t handle. Don’t let stress take control of your life. You are human: thrive, make mistakes, and most importantly, do what creates your happiness.

Want to learn more about the side effects of stress? Visit https://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/psychosocial/stress.html. For teachers that deal with high stressors in their work environment visit one of our past blogs to learn how to teach while consumed with anxiety.

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