Work-Related Stress

Work-related stress refers to a negative experience people get when presented with work demands and pressures not matched to their knowledge and abilities. They feel the challenges stretch their ability to cope and master things (World Health Organisation - WHO) 

At times, when pressures from work are managed well by an individual, it can result in peak performance and be stimulating and motivating. In this instance, an individual may find they are more alert, engaged, and their ability to both work and learn is enhanced.

So, not all challenge is stressful; only some is. Why is that?

There is usually a bell curve involved. We experience challenge so that a certain amount of pressure, over a certain time-frame, is a positive thing. We meet the demands placed on us, perhaps with added training or supports, or on our own.  But, after a certain level and a certain period of time, this positive experience diminishes and the pressure, if added to, becomes negative.

If this negative experience is short term, we can often handle it, with supports, training or some extra resources. However, if it continues over an extended time frame, this becomes experienced as stress- a negative fallout from unwelcome pressure. We feel this when we are over challenged and unable to keep up with and master the challenges we face.

(See below for a visual representation of what is known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law).

 Stress-image-1

When pressure becomes distress or stress

This tipping point, which can be due to an amount (build-up) of challenge, the timing of the challenge or another issue outside of the challenge area, which is separately reducing our capacity (bereavement/separation/financial worries) can hit us hard.  

Other challenges can come from social isolation, sudden change, uncertainty, fear, illness or family conflict. Many of these may have been triggered during Covid, and these can increase our sensitivity to exposure to stress and reduce our resilience generally. When the challenge or pressure point comes from our work – tasks, climate, culture or function….it is called work-related stress. It can also be caused by other factors but made worse by work. Work-related Stress is abbreviated to WRS.

We know that when pressure becomes excessive or unmanageable it can lead to negative effects for the individual and thus for those around him or her.  Mental and physical illness can develop if help and supports are not put in place. The main ways to treat stress when it first arises are to seek/offer supports, to have a reliable way to process the distress through talking and problem solving and by reducing or removing the source or cause of the stress.

For more information on Work-related Stress see https://www.hsa.ie/eng/workplace_health/workplace_stress/ 

Potential causes of Work-Related Stress

  • Excessive workloads (workloads in excessive of the role capacity).
  • Conflicting demands and lack of role clarity.
  • Lack of involvement in making decisions that affect the worker and lack of influence over the way the job is done.
  • Poorly managed organisational change, job insecurity.
  • Ineffective communication, lack of support from management or colleagues.
  • Psychological and sexual harassment, third party violence.

How stress may present itself 

Stress can manifest itself in a number of ways.   

Physical Effects

  • Tiredness, fatigue sense of exhaustion even upon wakening and apathy.
  • Indigestion and nausea – general lack of comfort physically after eating.
  • Headaches – these can be frequent or rare, mild to severe but are often present in some form throughout the day.
  • Aching muscles and joint pains, back-pain, strain.

Mental Health Effects

  • Indecisiveness.
  • Finding it hard to concentrate.
  • Poor memory.
  • Feelings of inadequacy.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Irritable or angry.
  • Anxious.
  • Feeling numb/disconnected.
  • Hypersensitivity (easily hurt, worried or offended).
  • Feeling drained and listless.

Behavioural Responses

  • Sleeplessness.
  • Change in eating habits (consuming more or less than “normal”).
  • Smoking or drinking more.
  • Avoiding friends/family/co-workers.

If you are struggling with workplace stress you should speak to your employer and/or to your local GP or medical practitioner. 

Further supports are available at:

HSE’s www.YourMentalHealth.ie  

Pieta House – www.pieta.ie / Freephone 1800 247 247 every day 24 hours a day / Text HELP to 51444 - standard message rates apply.

Samaritans - www.samaritans.org / Contact jo@samaritans.ie  / Freephone 116 123 every day 24 hours a day

  • Carry out a risk assessment to help identify potential issues and implement controls and supports.
  • Work Positive is a free tool developed by the HSA to assist in this (leading indicators)
  • Look at sick leave and absence rates (lagging indicators) this can give the employer an idea if there is an overall workplace issue.
  • Check the uptake of the Employee Assistance Programme EAP for lagging indicators - high uptake could indicate overall issues.
  • Offer training in any area which is new to employees, including new technology.
  • Ensure support is in place where necessary, for instance, new recruits, and new managers.

(Please see IBEC- KeepWell Mark™)

  • Self-Awareness

Be aware of how stress may present itself. Identifying the issue(s) will allow you to address them or prevent things from escalating to an overwhelming degree.

Remember to gain insight earlier in the stress cycle lets you self-manage and avoid further distress.

When we are experiencing stress, our interpretation of events may be negatively skewed, which in turn often leads to negative feelings, thoughts and behaviours.

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We can learn how to challenge our negative thinking by becoming aware of distorted styles of thinking.

  • 1) All-or-Nothing Thinking

Seeing things in black-or-white. No shades of grey. If things are not perfect, you see them as a failure.

  • 2) Overgeneralization

One thing happens, and you believe that it “always” happens to you. Alternatively, you want something to happen, and when it does not, you believe it “never” happens to you. These thoughts are upsetting and set up a cycle of defeat.

  • 3) Mental Filter

Of all the things going well, you pick one negative detail out and focus all your attention on it.

  • 4) Discounting the Positive

You may have begun to feel inadequate or unappreciated because you ignore positive experiences and positive feedback.

  • 5) Jumping to Conclusions

Jumping to a conclusion based on a feeling or thought without any evidence to support it? E.g. Mind reading- imaging we know what others are thinking.  Fortune-telling- predicting the future.  

  • 6) Magnification/minimization

Blowing things out of proportion or minimizing something to make it seem less important.

  • 7) Emotional Reasoning

This cognitive distortion allows you to believe that whatever you are feeling, it must be so.

  • 8) “Should” statements

You may have a clear ‘idea’ or ‘image’ of how things “should” or “shouldn’t” be. When they do not turn out that way, you may seek a reason – often the quickest way is to blame others or ourselves. Neither is productive or solution oriented.

  • 9) Labelling

Assigning labels to others or ourselves. “I am a loser”. “They are a fool”, “this won’t work”.  

  • 10) Personalization and blame

You may start to hold yourself responsible for events or things you do not have 100% control over. This distortion involves the harshest judgement of yourself. Instead, look at all the things you did correctly and focus on making good on the things needing attention, for the net such task.

How we can challenge these distorted thinking styles

  • Identify the thinking style you are using most of the time: is it making you feel worse, or better?
  • Challenge this thought cycle, “Is this truly how events are unfolding or am I projecting an idea onto events?”
  • Compassionate self-talk. Be mindful of how we speak to ourselves. We can be our own worse critics so develop some soothing ways to talk to yourself: if you have not had much exposure to supports, imagine how a supportive person you know would talk to you.
  • Seek Support- Get help to challenge your thoughts. Talking things through can help shift your thought process to a more positive one: this may be a GP or a mental health professional or an in-house support such as EAP service of Occupational Health service.
  • Look at the Outcomes – Assess the positives and negative outcomes of a perspective and see if it is worth keeping or changing that perspective. If often helps to note things down, take time to consider solutions, note them down and implement a behaviour change next day towards accomplishing that.

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 https://www.hse.ie/eng/staff/staff-engagement/resources/challenging-your-negative-thinking.pdf  

Things that can help

  • Work-life balance.

There are times when we may need to work extra hours as this can be a feature of normal working life. However, if you are constantly working extra hours to get daily work done, this can be an indicator of excessive workload and may need to be addressed by you and your employer. COVID has also had an impact on work-life balance, where most employees adapted and worked from home. It is important to separate work time from the personal time when working from home and then again to re assess this when returning to the workplace.

  • Seek Support

Support could be speaking to your manager/HR/employer, and highlighting issues you are facing relating to work-related stress. They may be able to provide support and adapt the work if necessary.  Access professional supports if you feel stress levels are out of control. Be aware of workplace supports that may be on offer. Your GP can also assist if you are experiencing work-related stress.

  • Planning and organising

Being organised can help you feel in control and may alleviate stress. Creating schedules for yourself, making ‘to do’ lists, dividing the work into more manageable chunks can help keep you in control of the workload and help reduce stress and feeling overwhelmed by the workload. The use of management tools like SMART goals can help organise and prioritize work and goals you want to achieve.

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  • Sleep Hygiene

Getting enough sleep is important for our mental and physical wellbeing, but not being able to get to sleep can be incredibly frustrating. If you are feeling stressed or anxious, you may be unable to sleep because of over thinking and re-living scenes or projecting ahead to what might be. Prepare your sleeping space, ensure quiet, close blinds or curtains and remove noise. Stay lying down and rest even if you cannot fall asleep quickly or easily. Restful background sounds, if you find them helpful, might be tried after a few nights. 

Sleep hygiene tips

  • o Go to bed at the same time and aim to get up at the same time. Set the alarm for the same time every morning for seven days a week, at least until your sleep pattern settles down.
  • o Avoid daytime naps. When we take naps, it decreases the amount of sleep that we need the next night – which may cause sleep fragmentation and difficulty initiating sleep, and may lead to insomnia.
  • o Allow for “wind down time” in the evening. Avoid anything mentally demanding within 90 minutes of bedtime.
  • o Avoid heavy exercise late in the evening.
  • o Avoid caffeinated substances or stimulants before bed.
  • o Do not drink alcohol before bed.
  • o Create a comfortable quiet environment. Turn off the lights, comfortable bed and the room is not too hot or too cold.
  • o Avoid using smart phones or other devices, which emit ‘blue light’ late in the evening/night as this can disrupt normal sleep schedules.
  • o Do not try to fall asleep. Enjoy relaxing even if you do not fall asleep at first. Your body will go to sleep naturally.

Healthy Diet

Stress can affect our diet. We may be inclined to snack more, eat more unhealthy foods or have a reduced appetite. It is important to be aware of how we respond to times of stress and to avoid stress-induced changes to our diet. What and how we eat can have an effect on our physical and mental health, energy levels and sleep.

Avoid Sugary Foods

Eating foods with a high sugar content can lead to “sugar crash”, where your blood sugar drops making you feel anxious, irritable or confused. A poor diet can worsen symptoms of depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions.

Healthy Diet and Improved Energy

A balanced diet helps the body convert food into energy and maintains stable energy levels and mood throughout the day.

Healthy Diet and Better Sleep

High sugar or hard to digest foods can make it difficult for your body to rest. Our diet is the best source of important nutrients that help your body renew and repair itself overnight. Eating a healthy diet is key to getting a good night’s sleep, as well as setting yourself up to feel your best when you wake up.