Work stress busters

Work stress busters

While some workplace stress is normal, excessive stress can interfere with productivity and impact physical and mental health. CLAIRE RENCKEN explores ways to manage stress in the workplace.

As South Africans, we live in the world’s most stressful location. According to independent analysis from UK-based currency experts HiFX, and psychologists, it is hurdles such as the high unemployment rate and the high crime levels that catapult South Africa to the top of the stress barometer. Sadly our beloved country scores particularly high on civil instability issues, too. So, naturally, there is already a tendency towards high stress levels among employees, which are then compounded by work stress.

Yet, corporate South Africa doesn’t treat work-related stress with the seriousness it deserves, says Zurayda Shaik, an independent industrial psychologist. While local figures on the prevalence of burnout are not available, Shaik says there has been a notable increase in work-related stress – as South African corporations try to catch up with the rest of the world as a result of the political and economic changes the country has undergone in recent years. Most big local corporations have employee wellness programmes, but they lag behind their overseas counterparts in dealing with work-related stress and burnout. Overseas companies offer well-structured programmes to deal with stress in the form of workshops, stress management courses and allocating life coaches and mentors to employees. So what can we do to better manage stress in the workplace?

As Chanelle Albertyn, of the SA Federation for Mental Health, points out, finding ways to manage workplace stress isn’t about making huge changes or rethinking career ambition, but rather focusing on the one thing that’s always within your control: you. The following may seem like logical steps we should all be taking every day, but, when one is stressed out, sometimes you forget the basics.

Three ways to dispel stress:

1. Take time away. When stress is mounting at work, try to take a quick break and move away from the stressful situation. Take a stroll outside the workplace, if possible, or spend a few minutes meditating in the break room. Physical movement, or finding a quiet place to regain your balance, can quickly reduce stress.

2. Talk it over with someone. In some situations, simply sharing your thoughts and feelings with someone you trust can help reduce stress. Talking over a problem with someone, who is both supportive and empathetic, can be a great way to let off steam and relieve stress.

3. Connect with others at work. Developing friendships with some of your co-workers can help reduce the negative effects of stress.

Furthermore, you can lessen job stress by prioritising and organising. Make a list of tasks you have to do, and tackle them in order of importance. Break projects into smaller steps: if a large project seems overwhelming, draw up a step-by-step plan.

Perhaps most important, don’t forget to take care of yourself. Regular exercise is a powerful stress reliever. Healthy eating can help you get through stressful work days. Low blood sugar can make you feel anxious and irritable, while eating too much can make you lethargic. By eating small, but frequent, meals, you can help your body maintain an even level of blood sugar, keep your energy up, stay focused and avoid mood swings.

Employers can also make an effort to support employees who suffer from depression and mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder.

Australian Graeme Cowan experienced a five-year mental breakdown as a result of stress. A former joint managing director with the management consultancy AT Kearney, Cowan now works with leadership teams to help them create “thriving tribes” that focus on both performance and collective mood.

Cowan has also written a book called Back from the Brink: True Stories and Practical Help for Overcoming Depression and Bipolar.

According to Cowan, “About 34 percent of lost productivity is caused by depression and stress disorders, yet 86 percent of employees with stress or depression prefer to suffer in silence and businesses pay the price. Harmful levels of stress lead to a decline in physical and mental health, low job satisfaction and a poor financial return for businesses.”

Cowan was part of a team that undertook a survey asking people, most of whom were from North America, what would make the biggest difference from a work policy perspective. The top five responses were:

• Treat mental health disorders with the same care and compassion as physical illnesses.

• Prohibit health and income protection insurance from discriminating against mental illness.

• Have a mental health policy in place which lists all employees’ rights and prohibits an organisation from discrimination.

• Have workplaces provide an integrated mental health and physical wellness programme.

• Have more information available on the organisation’s intranet about treatments for mental illness.

“What’s interesting here is that nobody wants special treatment. Employees suffering from mental health disorders simply want the discrimination, ignorance and stigma corrected. In most cases, the changes don’t involve significant cost, compared to the potential expense involved in workers’ compensation claims or recruitment and retraining costs if an employee leaves,” says Cowan.

Based on their direct research and reviewing other evidence, these are Cowan’s recommendations for what helps most in prevention and recovery:

• Teach managers and team members how to ask “are you OK?” About
51 percent of employees believe that the most effective way to address harmful stress is by speaking to someone at work. This creates a compelling case to increase the will and skill of managers and team members to ask: “Are you OK?” and encourage the stressed employee to take action. In contrast, the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), a resource which many employers rely on to provide assistance to workers with stress, was judged effective by only eight percent of respondents.

• Provide practical and anonymous resources: With 86 percent of respondents being unwilling to discuss their condition with workmates, there is clear need for anonymous, or private, access to practical information and resources. Whether available via an organisation’s intranet, or downloadable in the form of a smartphone app, these resources must be both practical and based on evidence. A multimedia delivery would be optimal to accommodate different learning styles.

• Form a panel of primary-care physicians who are knowledgeable about mental health: The acknowledged benefit of an early and professional diagnosis presents a strong case for organisations to help employees to access appropriate doctors quickly and easily. A panel of mental health professionals could provide expert assistance to employees when required.

Work stress busters• Offer a physical and mental well-being programme: Employees with a positive mood are 31 percent more productive, sell 37 percent more, and are 300 percent more creative. The productivity benefit that could flow from an integrated programme, that builds physical and mental well-being among employees, is almost self evident, especially in light of exercise being considered so important for recovery.

• Understand employee work strengths: Work is an essential element of well-being. In his book Strengths Based Leadership, Tom Rath (Gallup, Inc) finds that employees who use their top five strengths on a daily basis are 600 percent more likely to be engaged at work, and 300 percent more likely to be satisfied with their lives. Martin Seligman, in his book Flourish, provides numerous case studies highlighting how recovery from mental illness can be enhanced by coaching people using their strengths.

• Addressing discrimination in insurance: Those with a history of mental illness may experience difficulties in obtaining various forms of insurance. Discriminatory practices may include either refusal of insurance at the point of entry or denial of claims on the grounds of non-disclosure of a previous mental illness. Although there have been some efforts to address these discriminatory practices and reduce the stigma associated with mental illness, there still seems to be a long way to go.

Warning signs of excessive stress at work

• Feeling anxious, irritable or depressed;

• Apathy, loss of interest at work;

• Problems sleeping;

• Fatigue;

• Trouble concentrating;

• Muscle tension or headaches;

• Social withdrawal; and

• Stomach problems.

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